You want the little darlings to eat what’s good for them — and like it. You know power plays, bribes, and other control efforts don’t lead to healthful eating habits in the long run. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some great sure-fire options.
Shrink it. Kids tend to appreciate things on a scale that makes them feel larger. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set; you probably have the right sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a custard cup or ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for milk or juice. Baby forks and spoons are perfect miniature utensils.
Smaller dish size automatically scales down portion size, meaning kids will actually have room for second helpings. Encourage them to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.
Focus on companionship. When eating is about companionship, it builds positive associations between healthy food and togetherness. We also de-emphasize who eats how much of what. Kids who eat family meals regularly tend to have better dietary behavior as teens. And family discussions also boost brainpower.
Offer fruits and veggies for the first course. This is one way to take advantage of hunger to develop lean eating habits. Fruits and veggies are brimming with nutrients but low in calories, so a first course of produce makes sense. Plus, studies show that this method spurs kids to eat more veggies during the meal as well. Try offering different fruits and veggies while you’re cooking, or whenever appetite hits. Liven it up on occasion with a variety of dips and spreads.
Make faces. Paint distinctive “face” plates at one of those decorate-your-own pottery places. Put nothing more on each plate than a simple outline of eyes, nose, and mouth. That way, when the plate is fired and ready for use, each meal’s food arrangement will create a different face: spaghetti hair with a green-bean mouth at dinner tonight, or a tortilla beard sporting black-bean lips and salsa eyebrows at lunch tomorrow.
Accept help in the kitchen, garden, and market. Better yet, expect help. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, hands-on involvement boosts skills, maturity, and related learning. Let your mutual interest in great taste (and a speedy dinner) translate into enjoyable time together.
Eat like a monster. There’s nothing really wrong with pretzel-stick fences and broccoli trees sprouting from mashed-potato landscapes, as long as the kids themselves are the ones who create and then cheerfully devour the scenery. It’s also fun to chow down adorable meals like those shown in such great new books as Funky Lunch or Cute Yummy Time. Remember, kids are more likely to do the eating if they’ve had a hand in the making. Use books like these as a starting point for inspiration. And don’t forget to make monster noises as you bite the nose off an elephant-shaped sandwich.
Try muffin-tin meals. This worked wonders for my four kids when they were small. Each child got a six-cup muffin tin. I filled the six openings with different offerings in small amounts. The compartments kept each food item from the sin of touching another food, and the concept was novel enough that my kids were more willing to try something new.
Back then, I thought I’d made up the muffin-tin meal concept, but it turns out lots of moms do the same thing. Well, not quite the same; they’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays.
Grow it in the first place. If you have the space for a bit of edible garden, put your child in charge of at least one planting. A child is much more likely to eat a homegrown crop, especially after tucking peas in the ground and watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and flower. And peas, like many freshly harvested plants, are particularly tasty eaten right as they’re plucked from the vine, still warm from the sun.
If you don’t have room for a garden, start a jar of sprouts on the counter. Try container gardening, such as a pot of peppers on the balcony or a window planter of basil. You might even try an upside-down planter, or geek out by creating a vertical window garden on your own or from a kit. For more ideas, check out books like Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots and Kids' Container Gardening.
Find other ways to get closer to your food origins. Try making cheese, butter, bread, and other staples from scratch. Explore your own ethnicity through food by reconnecting with the recipes, stories, and heritage that are part of the tastes your ancestors knew. Go to pick-your-own farms. Your kids will be eager to dig into baskets of blueberries and bags of apples for a taste, but they’re just as likely to be eager to try radishes, endive, broccoli, pecans, and other treats they pick themselves. Join a CSA that encourages members to donate time on the farm. Your enthusiasm can spark the same in your child.
Make eating new, unusual, or typically kid-scorned foods a privilege. Rather than family policies such as “Try just three bites” or “Clean your plate,” avoid the pressure of overt encouragement. You might say, “Would you like to try it?” rather than automatically giving a serving. You might wait until your child asks for a bite of what the adults are eating. You might even imply that the dish is something the child is more likely to enjoy when older. That puts the emphasis on the pleasure found in unfamiliar foods. You can’t enforce taste.
Look forward to cooking. Watch food shows together. Develop an archive of cooking videos that inspire you, and consider filming your own cooking videos. Page through food magazines to find recipes you’d both like to try. Regularly use cookbooks aimed at young cooks, such as the Mom and Me Cookbook, the Southern Living: Kids Cookbook, and Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.
Ramp up the entertainment value with friends. If your kids are small, offer a simple cooking class for your children and their friends in your own kitchen. If your kids are older, let them sign up together for a class at a cooking school to learn pastry techniques or the secrets of French cuisine.
Encourage kids of any age to start a regular cooking club. It’s a great way for them to socialize while learning useful skills, creating menus and shopping lists, and then cooking the dishes they’ve chosen. Let them build on their interests. They may want to devote one session to making foods mentioned in a favorite movie and the next session to making bento-box lunches. Or set up a cooking competition like “Top Chef” for kids or families, except with less pressure and a lot more fun.
When your kids regard cooking, baking, and food experimentation as great ways to spent time, they’ll be well on their way to understanding the allure of good food.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite