Food preference may feel instinctual, but like everything our kids learn, it all begins with education, and participation is an integral part of the learning process. I started a tradition with my children to help spur their curiosity around healthy foods. Every Wednesday after school, we make a trip to the produce section of our local market. They each get to choose one fruit or vegetable that they have never eaten before, which we take home and prepare together in the kitchen. I ask them to take at least one bite of what we have prepared. If they are not interested in trying more than one bite, I don’t get angry, but I applaud them for their engagement and openness. My objective is to encourage their curiosity about food and their willingness to try new things. Through this exercise, my children have discovered a love for beets and kiwis!
In our home, we are trying to integrate plant-forward foods into our weekly menus. This can be complex with most children, including our own, who may have aversions to many vegetables. When it comes to kids and food, remember the key to success is getting them involved. Ask them for their opinions and congratulate them on even the smallest achievements. If they cannot stand to bite into a vegetable, encourage them to explore it in another way: lick it, touch it to their teeth, or smell it, and start with tiny portions that won’t overwhelm as soon as they sit down to the table. When they do decide to take a bite, this is a cause for celebration! And, of course, it is important to remember that even as adults, we all have preferences, and it is okay for your child to simply dislike certain foods.
Plant-forward doesn’t necessarily mean vegetarian, and so I talk to my kids about meat and fish and how to enjoy it responsibly. My children are animal lovers, and living on a farm with horses, alpacas, goats, chickens, dogs, and cats has given them a bond to our four-legged friends. They are angry when we drive down the highway in Texas, and they see trucks filled with cows. They exclaim angrily, “They are going to make them into hamburgers!” and I often need to remind them that now and then, they have been known to enjoy a hamburger, too. The first time we had this conversation, they were horrified and began making connections between their pet chickens and the chicken we prepared for dinner from the market. My 7-year-old exclaimed, “I want to be a vegetarian!” This was a great segue into how if we do choose to eat animal products, the meat we purchase should be from reputable farmers who provide the animals with a good life in the open air, eating nutrient-filled foods.
I have also tried to introduce them to dishes where the vegetables take center stage. One dish they love is vegetable-based pasta with some of the noodles substituted with zucchini “noodles.” Black beans are a favorite, so naturally, black bean burgers topped with avocados and a side of sweet potato fries have become a weekly staple. We have also tried some meat-substitutes with success, but we limit their use. Our goal is to teach them to enjoy vegetables, not just tolerate them, so when we say, “What would you like for dinner?” the automatic answer isn’t always meat focused.
Of course, a huge part of teaching children to enjoy vegetables comes from the way that they are prepared. If a dish is not prepared in a manner that accentuates the flavors and textures, or if it changes them so that they are unpalatable, you cannot expect anyone—adult or child—to enjoy it. It is our role as parents to take the steps to educate ourselves so we can prepare delicious and nutritious food that our kids will enjoy. This culinary exploration can be something that you engage your children in, as well.
For example, my kids love broccoli, so we experimented with roasting it versus boiling, blanching, or sautéing. We played with oil and butter and even added fresh herbs that we grew together in a pot on our front porch. They, of course, had to cut the herbs themselves. This experience was fun for my kids. They loved the fact that I was asking them for their opinions and perspectives, and we learned our family’s favorite ways to enjoy a healthy ingredient.
My kids love to play, but it seems like one of their favorite pastimes is snacking! They burn a lot of energy throughout the day and need to be fueled with healthy treats. Like all parents, my schedule is hectic, and it is easy to reach for an individually packaged snack from the grocery store aisle. Luckily, there are some great convenient prepared items available these days. Many companies are doing away with artificial colors and preservatives, and we can watch out for highly processed snacks laden with sodium and ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Items like no-sugar-added applesauce or yogurt can be frozen and served as a nutrient-rich frozen treat, perfect for a hot day. With a bit of creativity, your kids can look forward to snack time.
We also love to provide them with snacks rich in protein, like a hard-boiled egg with a hint of salt and a side of cheese cubes. Rainbow carrots are beautiful in all their varied hues and are tasty served with a side of hummus. Apples and peanut butter are other classic pairings. Try drizzling it with a bit of local honey to help children that suffer from allergies. My son receives shots for his allergies each month, and I make sure that we give him a little honey from our local bees to help combat his symptoms.
As a chef, I’m keenly aware of the global issue of food waste, and picky eaters can contribute lots of it in a household. When I ask my boys to clear their plates from the table, we do not automatically scrape the remains into the trash. I have a quick conversation with them about what we might be able to do with the leftovers. For example, if they only ate the broccoli crowns, they could feed the stems to our free-range hens. We also evaluate what can be wrapped and reheated later, added to another dish later in the week, or frozen to use in stock or soups. I want them to be thoughtful when they approach food and to respect the hard work that went into every ingredient. I remember very clearly as a child my parents saying, “Clear your plate, some child is starving.” I never truly understood this approach. If a child is full, they should not be forced to eat, because this can create unhealthy eating habits later. In my opinion, a preferable alternative is to decrease portion sizes, offering a second serving if the child is still hungry. Kids need to be a part of the process of determining what happens with their leftovers.
To raise well-rounded children with healthy eating habits and a commitment to responsible food, they should be helping in all stages of meal preparation, from the market to the kitchen (maybe with a stop in the garden along the way!). This engagement will make them more likely to try new things, open to the wide world of food options ahead of them. Most importantly, be patient with them and with yourself. If you cannot always feed them the way you’d like after a busy day, it’s okay!
Melissa Fritz is an Associate Professor of Baking and Pastry Arts at The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, TX.