In the wake of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show (which I have not watched on television, but have viewed clips and snips of on the web), I have been part of so many discussions with other parents about feeding kids healthy foods. My daughter turned seven recently and her little brother turned four earlier this year. Like most parents, I struggle with helping my kids make healthy food choices. My daughter has aversions to potatoes and most cooked vegetables, while my son has a sweet tooth and is currently in a phase of not eating much of anything. Overall, though, they eat a fairly balanced diet, understand some cooking basics, and have a taste for real food. Here are some of my tricks and tips.
- Try serving vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, and peas raw or blanched in boiling water just long enough to brighten the color (30-60 seconds) and then immediately chilled in ice water. Sulfur compounds in green vegetables can cause bitter flavors during cooking and children have an instinctive aversion to bitterness (most poisons are bitter, so this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint).
- Encourage vegetable eating with dips, especially the tasty ones you can make at home, like mayonnaise, ketchup, or yogurt. Mix cream cheese and mayo with herbs and finely chopped, blanched spinach or kale. Ranch dressing is another quick dressing kids love. Nut butter, thinned with water and seasoned with honey, salt or tamari, miso, and a touch of pepper sauce (optional, of course!) is another favorite. Jar up salsa in the summer and invite your children to help. My son loves our tomatillo salsa, which he fondly recalls helping to make last year (he ran the food processor…he’s not actually canning, yet).
- Get kids involved with the food that they eat at home by inviting them to help you in the kitchen. Give yourself time and start with easy tasks, like retrieving items from cupboards and the fridge. My kids love cracking eggs and peeling garlic (I slightly crush the garlic first for them, to crack the peel a bit). Practice counting and fractions while measuring out ingredients. Explain both kitchen safety and how to avoid messes, to make your time together safe and fun.
- Talk about nutrition matter-of-factly, without judgment about good foods vs. bad. With my kids, I talk about the effects different foods have on the body, like how fats and eggs help our brains, protein-rich meat, nuts, and legumes grow and rebuild our our muscles and organs, grains give us energy, and fruits and vegetables give us vitamins and minerals that help all over our bodies and protect us from disease. Taking a cue from the Cookie Monster, we talk about “sometimes” foods, like chips, cookies, and cake, without turning them into ever-more-tempting forbidden foods.
- Get them involved in their food choices when they’re away from home, too, and pack a meal or snack that includes their choices.
- Children, and many adults, naturally avoid foods that are unfamiliar. This is instinctual–as omnivores, we have to be careful about new foods lest they prove poisonous–so you may have to work at helping your children become familiar with new foods. Some say a food might be introduced as many as 20 times before a child can enjoy it. Encourage children to try one bite of a new food each time you prepare it. Be persistent, but don’t make an issue of it.
- Eliminate or reduce soda, juice, and processed “milk” (soy milk, almond milk, etc.) consumption and switch to drinking water, especially with meals. The health consequences of sweetened drinks are well known, but they effect the palate, too, by making us need more sugar in a food to sense its sweetness. Save fresh-squeezed juice or homemade nut milks for special occasions. Make your own kombucha or water kefir if you need a transitional drink or try soda water with a splash of pure juice or squeeze of lemon.
- Grow something to eat with your child, be it a cherry tomato plant in a container on your apartment balcony or a whole “pizza garden” with plum tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs in your back yard. Fast-growing lettuce can be very gratifying for a child–and eating it right in the garden a delight. My kids love garden peas. Growing food in a garden helps children develop a sense of competence as well as knowledge about where food really comes from.
- Take children to farms–many welcome visitors and some even hold open farm days, with activities for families. Get a basketful of berries at a u-pick. Go fishing. Find out if your local Fish & Wildlife department stocks a fishing area just for kids. Locally, the ODFW hosts free fishing weekends, youth angling events, and stocks ponds for kids.
- Want to beat the processed food manufacturers at their own game? Do what they do: use salt, fats, and sweeteners, but choose mineral-rich unrefined sea salt, healthy fats like coconut oil, butter, lard, and tallow from pastured animals, and minimally processed sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, or Rapadura. One of my kids favorite vegetable dishes is onions, garlic, and green beans or peas sauteed bacon fat (cook any nitrite-cured meats over medium heat to reduce the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines). By controlling the quantity and quality of these enticements and combining them with real food, you are helping your children develop a palate for healthy choices that will last a lifetime.
I respect that there is more to our children’s food choices than what parents offer and that food manufacturers, fast food restaurants, media, schools, and other government institutions aren’t making our job any easier, but our kids can’t wait while the grownups debate about how to improve school lunches and change agriculture subsidies. They need us to act now.
This is my Real Food Wednesday post.