You’ve Got the Power…

I was raised by parents of the “There Are People Starving in Europe” Generation, so if there was food on the table at dinnertime, you ate it (or sat at the table until it was gone). When I became a parent, I was determined not to put my kids through the same agony. I’ll admit that I was not always patient about getting them to try new foods when they were growing up; I often succumbed to feeding them “whatever” they would eat for a relatively healthy dinner. Being fussy about food is really a normal part of a child’s development, and kids are smart. They know if they wait long enough, their parents will cave and let them off the hook of trying something healthy. So, as a busy parent, how do you get your kids to try healthy foods?

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Start with the shopping. Get grocery ad flyers, magazine pages, recipes, or anything with pictures of healthy food options looking yummy. Talk about the tastes and flavors and what you like to eat. For younger children, look at colors and textures and ask them to point to what looks good to them. Then it’s time for a field trip to the store. This trip, stick to the produce department. Make sure you aren’t pressed for time, and walk around the aisles of fruits and vegetable and let your kids gravitate toward something that looks good to them. Once they have a few choices, ask if they can taste the food right there in the store. Most small markets, and even local chains, have knowledgeable people who are usually more than willing to let you try an item. Then it’s kid’s choice. “Which one should we buy? Which one do you want for dinner? Does it taste okay raw? Let’s try a different one,” until you have it narrowed down to one or two veggies and fruits for the trip. It’s like letting them pick a toy. Now you need to let them play with it!

Let them help with the cooking. Once you get home with the food, don’t send the kids out of the kitchen. Between the hot stoves, sharp knives, and other dangers, it’s understandable that parents don’t want children in the kitchen when they’re making dinner, but studies suggest that involving children in meal preparation is an important first step in getting them to try new foods. Researchers found that children who had cooked their own foods were more likely to eat those foods. When kids are involved in the preparation of a meal, they’re more likely to at least try the food. Let younger kids stand at the sink and wash produce in a colander. They can swish and rinse and feel ownership over the foods they picked out at the store. If your kids are old enough to cut with a knife, let them slice pieces of veggies and fruit. They can toss the cut veggies in a salad bowl with dressing, or shake up veggies to roast with herbs and olive oil. Take their suggestions of flavors to mix in, like orange juice in the salad dressing, or apple slices in the salad.

The taste test. Of course, this is the real determinant, but demanding that your child try a food will only backfire. Calorie-counting parents often serve the kids plain steamed vegetables, so it’s no wonder children are reluctant to eat them. Instead, offer options. If the raw carrot or cauliflower doesn’t sit well with your child, try dips. They can be low fat and flavorful, and the few extra calories you’re adding are a worthwhile tradeoff for the nutritional boost and the chance to introduce a new food. Adding a little butter, light ranch dressing, cheese, or hummus to a vegetable dish can significantly improve its kid appeal. And adding a little fat to vegetables helps unlock their fat-soluble nutrients. Try serving a vegetable in different stages: raw, roasted, with or without dips/sauces, and let your child choose his or her favorite. Once a food is accepted, parents can use what are known as “food bridges”--similarly-colored or flavored foods that expand the variety of foods a child will eat. If a child likes pumpkin pie, for instance, try mashed sweet potatoes and then mashed carrots. If a child loves corn, try mixing in a few peas or carrots. Even if a child picks them out, the exposure to the new food is what counts.

Happily, my children did graduate from chicken fingers and pizza to a love of healthy foods and a curiosity about new foods. Once it became their choice vs. my demands about eating, they were much more open to new flavors. Watching my son order pork belly and roasted cauliflower and my daughter order tuna sashimi, I know we’ve come a long way from the fish sticks and bacon of their early years!