Tips for Parents: Getting your Kids to Try New Foods, Eat Diversely & Make Better Food Choices
Sometimes I am asked, "What does your son like to eat?" and I find my answer isn't very relevant to the question. More and more, I find myself thinking about not what my son doesn't eat, but how to improve the variety on his dinner plate and in his lunch box.
I get concerned when I see what other kids are eating and I see the same foods* offered to them over and over again, at dinner, snacktime and in the lunchbox. So, here are some of my thoughts on expanding the food repertoire, both at home and in the lunchbox. The goal is diversity.
*Plain pasta, hot dogs, hamburgers, quesadillas, PB&J, mac & cheese, goldfish crackers, corn dogs, nachos, chicken nuggets/fingers, soda, fries, Capri Sun (one million times), chain restaurant pizza, etc., etc.
Addressing Picky Eaters and introducing new foods: First off, don't force your kids to eat when they are really not wanting to*, and also don't force your kids to finish what's on their plate. Our son goes through phases of what he likes and dislikes. It can take 20 times to try something before you like it (and that's true for adults too!) - so go for the "one taste." Keep variety on your plate and your kids plates - if you try something new they might too. (Jack warns: If you don't serve a tasty edition of whatever it is, don't expect them to like it. Who wants to eat unripe melon or out-of-season tomatoes, for example?)
Don't second guess that your kids "won't eat that." I've seen our son eat things at parties or out at dinner that he would likely have never eaten if I served it to him first (like lentils, caviar and shrimp eyeballs).
How much should they eat? I’ve seen the Rule of Palm and so that is what I go by: If they’ve eaten a palm-sized amount (their palm, not yours) they should be good to go.
Also keep in mind that when kids are happy (in a good mood) they are more likely to try something new - catching them at the right time is the golden ticket. One more tip is to make sure that kids aren't starving when they sit down to dinner. In our experience, a starving child is often a cranky child.
*Note: Our son at 4 and 5 often declared that he was not hungry, despite a need to eat (as it had been hours between meals), especially if he was very involved with other children or other things. This situation overrules the first suggestion of trying to get kids to eat when they are not hungry. Usually we had to redirect and remove him from the stimulation (often just temporarily) to get him to focus on eating for a few minutes.
Don't make special kids meals
Kids should eat what everybody else eats at the table. It's fine to customize their plate with less sauce or on the side as "dipping sauce" or by cutting up bits, or changing the seasoning for sensitive palates. Never cook a completely different meal for picky kids. (...As they'll want that again and again, and then you're so doomed. – Jack)
In fact, having kids sit at the table is the first challenge and if you manage to have a family dinner with all members present, it’s much more important to focus on that moment than nit-pick what your kids aren’t eating. Make sure you include them in the conversation. If they didn't eat enough, try putting their plate of food in the refrigerator as a snack for later. Don't forget the "try everything" rule (where it's okay to spit it out into their napkin).
Kids won't starve If they are hungry they will eat. It's a parent’s job to be there with some sort of good food choice when hunger calls.
Serving food in courses is fun for kids Every meal doesn't have to be formal sit down affair. We often have a weekend lunch in courses outside. Maybe fruit, or a steamed artichoke. Some sliced ham. Peas from the garden or peas to shell. Cherry tomatoes. Alternately, go formal and make it a sit down affair and eat like the French and have 3-5 small courses for Dinner (or Lunch or Breakfast!).
Garden with your kids and make it a place for a snack If you have space, a small organic vegetable garden might also sway unexcited children to explore new foods. Strawberries, peas, beans, raspberries and tomatoes are fun to pick and eat outside. Our son would eat things like lettuce and asparagus in the garden that he wouldn't touch at the table. In fact 'Go Raw' and see if that changes little minds. I've had great success getting my son to eat raw carrots, for example, which he regularly refuses in any cooked form.
Fun Idea - Tasting Party Consider having a tasting party for your kids with a couple of their buddies. For apples, choose four varieties and compare favorites. For oranges, try a Navel, Valencia, Tangerine and Mandarin orange. In the summer try a couple of types of melons (esp. seedless vs. seeded) or compare apricots, peaches (white & yellow), nectarines (white & yellow) and plums. A visit to the Farmers' Market is likely to score you what you need for this party.
Cooking with kids really works Involve them in making a healthy snack, like zucchini muffins, fruit salad or carrot nut bread - even vegetable soup! Make our son's favorite Roasted Heirloom Tomato Soup. Cooking with children can result in kids who want to "taste their creations". Some kitchens have a policy (a good one) that if you make it you have to at least taste your finished product. If you make too many, share with a neighbor or friend - kids love to deliver presents (especially ones they've made).
Higher Quality Food Costs More Jack is continually amazed at how some parents serve their children low-quality food that the parents themselves wouldn't eat. Low quality, unhealthy food is subsidized by the US Government, making it artificially cheap. You have to spend more for good quality food; fortunately such food is more satisfying to your body, whereas High Fructose Corn Syrup sweetened beverages don't even satisfy thirst (and that's why they come in bigger and bigger sizes).
Why Buy Organic? I keep seeing lists of things which you don't need to buy organic (to save money) or conversely lists of essential things to buy "organic". Spend more on food, and less on other items - really. Organic food is proven to be higher in nutritive value and antioxidants. It's not just about pesticide or chemical residue - it's about quality and sustainability. Your kids are worth it. Really. Here's more on Why to Buy Organic.
Tips for Parents: Better Snacks
Back-to-School Packed Lunches and Healthy snacks: First, consider that parts of last night's dinner might just be the perfect lunch the next day. If they loved the green beans or peas at dinner last night, perhaps raw ones for lunch? Think about food groups and work the lunchbox. If your kids will only eat XYZ then try and work with that. Trying new things in a lunchbox is always going to be hit or miss. (Jack thinks it's good to not put the same things in a lunch box every day; you always want your kids to eat diverse foods.)
Things like cheese, yogurt, meat, fish and/or chicken from last night's dinner give a nice protein boost. Bread (whole grain) is often a good accompaniment to soup or a cold meat platter. Fresh, tasty fruit is always great.
Educate your children about which food choices are healthy. Follow up by asking them what they ate, and what reasons they had for eating or not-eating something.
Take your kids food shopping!
I know it's hard to take young or multiple children to the farmers' market or grocery store* but the extra effort can really pay off. Making a weekly event of it will hopefully make it fun for all. Involving children in filling their lunchbox is a good way of empowering them to make better choices. (*But not to a supermarket filled with unhealthy food or junk food. Whole Foods is a good choice, for example, whereas Safeway, Albertsons, Publix or Costco may provide challenges. — Jack)
Kids who choose what they want to eat are more likely to eat it. But you have to provide guidance and make good choices. Choosing seasonal fruits and vegetables is an important lesson. Reading boxes and signs can be fun and educational. On a budget? Share the knowledge of how much food costs and why, while you stroll the aisles.
Some kids like to know what’s in their lunch box, others thrive with surprises. If PB&J is the standard requirement, try using freshly ground peanut butter (or peanut butter with no sugar added) and a higher quality jam or jelly on good quality whole grain bread.
Our son's current favorite is sliced turkey on whole grain bread with cream cheese and thinly sliced apple (for which I use a hand mandolin). All organic ingredients, and local and sustainable, too, when possible!
Building a Better Lunch Box
We have been taking the concept of eating in multiple courses to the lunchbox. The "new, improved lunchbox" provides sectional storage and results in less garbage, making it a greener, more eco-friendly choice. Lately, we've been using Zojirushi Bento Box Lunch Jars. We pack a myriad of small tastes into lunch.
Today might be soup with a side of peas, pasta, tomatoes and chicken. Perhaps some bread or crackers and orange sections. Tomorrow a PB&J sandwich cut into tiny 2-bite pieces (or make a half-sandwich by using one slice of bread) and seasonal fruit and yogurt or custard. Cold udon noodles with steak, cut carrots and a pile of edamame. Make a rice bowl with brown rice, chicken, vegetables and small salad. Turkey finger sandwiches with a side of tomatoes and pickles. If your ideas expand beyond bowl capacity, try tucking in a waxed paper bag of cookies or bread.
Another eco-friendly green lunchbox is the Laptop lunchbox which we are now trying out. It's made of BPA-free, phalates free and lead free plastic. You can order it with a case and water bottle or on its own in a gift box and it comes with silverware and a little how-to suggestion book.
More Breakthrough Lunchbox ideas: Either a BPA-free one like the ones from Crocodile Creek. A new water bottle with a custom made label or design like one from Sigg might elicit a smile. I like the KidsKonserve and Oots lunch box ideas too! Add some Bamboo utensils or a set of chopsticks or a nice cloth napkin.
After-school or mid-day snacks?
• Smoothies don't have to be all fruit. (And watch the serving size - think small, as many smoothies are quite high in calories!)
• Cold soups are almost as easy as smoothies. They are a fun, quick afternoon snack, with lots of vegetable and/or fruit punch - such as, cucumber pineapple or tomato bell pepper.
• Warm mixed nuts on a nippy afternoon.
• We like raw vegetables, such as peas, green beans, cherry tomatoes and, of course, seasonal fruit: melon or slices of apple. (But I've learned not to slice or peel apples every time, as its a huge issue that school kids won't eat a whole apple, because they are used to having it peeled and sliced.)
• Homemade guacamole with tortilla chips - use organic avocados and organic blue corn tortilla chips (try ones with added flaxseed!). Also try hand made tortillas instead of fried chips and warm them in the oven before serving.
• If your kids will eat cheese then try out some new ones with the favorites with whole grain crackers or bread.
• Consider having them come home to an impromptu tea party with a cup of non-caffeinated tea (or pot - we like African/Rooibos tea with Madagascar vanilla - RedTea) and a fresh baked bread, scone, soda bread or muffin. Our latest favorite is popovers (which take about 30 minutes) for which we make a quick jam, or sauce while we are waiting, they are also wonderful with chutney or fruit relish. Don't like tea? Try warm apple cider with a cinnamon stick.
• Homemade bread,fresh butter and local honey. Use the Artisan Bread in Five minutes a Day method and your homemade warm bread is 20 minutes in the oven. Or use a bread machine.
A reminder: We serve kids Real Food and think you should, too. So...
• Choose Organic, Local or Sustainable
• Avoid Factory Farmed Meat
• Choose Wild, Line Caught or Sustainably Farmed Fish
• No products with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
• No foods with Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs - trans fat)
• Consume as few processed foods as possible
• No "dining" at chain or fast food restaurants
• Serve organic fruits and vegetables that are in-season because they taste so much better. Jack thinks serving bland, out-of-season produce turns more kids off from eating fruits and vegetables than anything else.
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