Problogger Gina Blitstein offers methods she’s developed that can help you teach your children to embrace a wider variety of foods, and consequently eat more healthily.
By Gina Blitstein
Adults are well aware of the food pyramid. Most of us try to eat with its guidelines in mind so as to stay healthy and at an appropriate weight. While the food pyramid is a helpful guide toward nutritious eating, children know nothing about its principles - unless we adults make certain to teach them, that is. Children start early making judgments on what they like and don’t like to eat. No child is going to eat something just because we tell them that it is “good for you.” When children’s options are limited, their preferences are equally limited. That’s why it is vital that we as adults provide every opportunity for youngsters to experience a variety of foods in a variety of ways.
What can we do as the ones responsible for children’s health and physical development to broaden their food horizons? Having fed hundreds of children at all stages of development as a childcare provider for over 20 years, I’ve accumulated some knowledge and techniques pertaining to children’s nutrition and eating habits. With the right attitude, I know we can make a difference.
Children’s taste buds grow and mature along with the rest of their bodies. Just because a child shuns a particular food today doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it tomorrow - or next year. Don’t let one dismissal of a food banish it from the child’s realm of existence. Broccoli exists, whether a child wants to eat it or not. Making broccoli disappear only makes the child feel she has more power over food choices than she rightfully should.
Of course you can’t make a child eat broccoli (or any food she chooses to boycott) but it should still be regularly offered in a variety of ways. I’ve found it effective to sometimes ‘camouflage’ a food and other times offer it outright. That way, even if the child chooses not to eat something this time, he is still receiving adequate nutrition.
Here are some methods I’ve developed over the years that have helped me teach children to embrace a wider variety of foods, and consequently eat more healthily:
- Your food processor is your friend. Whether you are a “from scratch” cook or you are opening a jar of spaghetti sauce or a can of soup, add some pureed vegetables to bump up the nutritional content. Adding pureed veggies to homemade meatloaf or meatballs is a great way not only to increase nutrition but flavor and moisture. Puree some peppers, onion and mushrooms and stir them into tomato sauce when making homemade pizza…kids will learn what tastes good on a pizza and not pick off the veggies. Pureed veggies can be mixed into lots of things…sloppy joe filling, taco meat, casseroles…Be sure to match appropriate vegetables with the food…I’m not proposing pureed broccoli in the tacos!
- Sauces and dips are also your friend. Let a child choose what she would like to dip her celery or fish stick in…ketchup on a carrot stick?! - while it may seem revolting to you, your kid is eating a carrot, right?
- Seasoning is your friend, too. A little touch of salt, chicken bouillon, even sugar on cooked veggies will make them much more palatable to children.
Of course it’s not just vegetables children don’t eat enough of. Meatloaf or meatballs is a good place to add some wheat germ or oatmeal for additional whole grains. Try this compromise to get a child to eat whole grain bread…use one slice of whole wheat and one slice of white in a sandwich. If you serve it white side up, he may not even notice, especially if it’s toasted. Cinnamon, peanut butter or jelly also make good camouflage for whole grain bread. If the kids aren’t fans of brown rice, try mixing it half and half with white rice.
As for encouraging children to eat more protein, pair it with something they already like. Try stirring extra cheese, ground beef, chicken, hot dogs or ham into macaroni and cheese.
Children must learn that the word chicken is not automatically followed by the word nugget. I not only cook a variety of foods but familiar foods in different ways. The best way to teach food’s many different incarnations is to allow children to observe the preparation. Giving them “face time” with food de-mystifies it, taking away the mystery of what ends up on their plate and ultimately in their mouth.
Finally, I offer these suggestions for encouraging a pleasant dining experience and a healthy relationship with food for all:
- Cook one meal for everyone. You are not a short order cook! Provide at least one representative from all the food groups, and you have accomplished your mission as the cook. Special orders encourage pickyness for pickyness’ sake.
- For anyone under the age of 5, prepare a plate with a little of everything. Once everything has been at least tasted, more of something may be taken. We don’t want to teach a child to “gorge” on one particular food to the exclusion of everything else.
- Even babies eat what the family eats…in most cases there is no reason for buying expensive jars of baby food! With very few exceptions, a baby can have a pureed version of what the rest of the family is eating. Before a baby begins eating proteins (around 8 months) you can reserve some vegetables from the family meal and puree or mash them to an appropriate texture. After starting proteins, a baby can eat a pureed version of the same meal. This is a fantastic way to gradually teach their taste buds to get used to flavors and textures.
Hopefully these suggestions will help the children you cook for learn to enjoy eating lots of healthy foods, and enjoy the lovely experience of eating!
What changes can you make toward teaching your children to eat nutritiously?