Got toddlers? Or maybe your 4- or 5-year-old has taken out stock on the NASDAQ in chicken nugget futures. Perhaps, like my cousin’s daughter Haley, your 6-year-old is going through a “white” stage, where she will only consume foods like mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, vanilla ice cream, and bagels (her mom has filed a missing proteins report). And with many kids, textures — for example chunky peanut butter as opposed to smooth, or cream soup vs. clear broth — can be just as repugnant as the taste of something they don’t like.
But you’d be surprised how easy it is to tempt your junior gastronomes with healthier food choices, involve them in the selection and preparation so they feel more invested in trying those choices, and turn your avowed avoiders into eager eaters! These 10 ideas can help.
1. First, follow the French and start early. Actually my family did, and I grew up in small town New England — not Paris. In the far reaches of my memory, I recall an evening out with my parents and little sister, another married couple, and their son. By the ripe young age of 5, I’d been exposed to the smooth joys of escargots (possibly two or three years earlier), and when I asked the waitress for it, the other couple nearly fell off their chairs — even admonishing my parents for allowing “babies” to order such things. But my parents believed that the earlier we were introduced to a broad range of foods and tastes, the more expansive our palates would become and we may even avoid the “picky eater” phase. They were right.
2. Next, if your child refuses to try something (sometimes called fear of new experiences, or neophobia), encourage him to familiarize it by sprinkling with cheese, sunflower seeds, chopped peanuts, raisins or whatever will get him to take that first bite.
3. According to nutritionists, often when a child says she doesn’t like a certain food, it means she doesn’t know what it is. Allow her to smell it, cut it open, prepare it with you, and even involve a friend or sibling in the process as kids will look to one another for a little courage and reassurance.
4. As kids’ palates do tend to desire what is sweet, caramelizing vegetables (the simple cooking of sugar in them) can ease little ones into accepting these foods. Just sauté veggies in a little olive oil, butter, and salt (even a touch of balsamic vinegar) — and don’t rush them as the process can take 30 minutes to an hour. Their natural sugars make them very appealing to kids. This works very well with red onions, but also with broccoli, green beans, zucchini, and other vegetables. As palates evolve, you might want to add a little chopped garlic.
5. If you want your kids to value and choose healthy fruits and vegetables from the get-go, resist giving them sugary snacks like cookies, candy, cake, ice cream, and yogurt with sugary fruit on the bottom. As a former nanny, I observed the mother of my two little charges rewarding them for good behavior with fresh peach slices, raw cashews, roasted edamame, raisins, baby carrots, string cheese, etc. While experts say it’s not a good always idea to use food as a bribe or reward, planting the seed that these healthier choices are available for good behavior will help wire their neural pathways to desire and them. In fact sweets will be more of a curiosity.
6. Some say a little psychology goes a long way. If your child is reluctant to eat something, sometimes telling him, “You’ll like that when you’re a big boy,” can be just the challenge that he needs.
7. While the goal is to get your child to desire and request a variety of healthy foods, if she is stuck in a tortellini time warp, sometimes we need to get better choices into them in anyway. Blending kale or carrots into smoothies is an excellent way to ensure they get proper nutrition. In time you can even reveal that the yummy smoothie they just gulped down actually contains healthy vegetables.
8. Gear foods to your child’s interests. Shape food like something they love, or connect the food to the same. My neighbor’s 3 1/2 -year-old became a tiny blur whenever fish was served (running from the kitchen so fast you couldn’t see him), but when she used a cookie cutter to shape the fish like his favorite lion or tiger (cookie cutters like this can usually be obtained from specialty food stores, baking supply stores or online), sometimes embellishing with a raisin or tip of baby carrot for an eye, he ate every bite. With other foods he didn’t like, such as spinach and summer squash, she told him it was lion or tiger food from the jungle and he began to eat it.
9. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Most kids are overwhelmed by complicated foods. Too many tastes and textures blended together can confuse their developing palates, so keep foods as clean and simple as possible.
10. Finally, respect and relax. The French seem to know that too much coercing and cajoling will likely have negative repercussions. Power struggles will often ensue, really souring your child on what is best for him just because you want it. While it can be alarming when your child will settle for nothing but pizza rolls and chicken nuggets (hint: don’t introduce them in the first place, and if you have, just phase them out), and repeatedly turns her nose up at cucumbers and tomatoes, backing off and setting a good example should produce the desired result in time. Also, experts say not to offer substitutes. It’s either the food you have set out or nothing (and odds are for a while it will be nothing). But over time, if you keep serving that particular food, your child should be ready to accept it.
With a little patience and practice, kids generally cross the great gastronomic divide from avowed avoiders to affirmed appreciators of healthier choices!