For many parents, mealtime is battle time. Mom and dad enter the fray with healthy fare, lovingly made from scratch, only to face a united front of little faces whining We don’t want that! And the parents fire back with How can you dislike something you’ve never tasted? Then, after all the threatening, bribing, and begging to Please eat just one bite is met with even more tears and tantrums, mom and dad raise the white flag and pop chicken nuggets and French fries in the oven. The kids have to eat something.
But resorting to a steady diet of frozen meatballs and buttered noodles isn’t the only way to get food in your child’s belly. Sometimes all it takes to get kids to expand their palates and establish healthy eating habits is to give them a role in preparing their meals. “Kids love cooking,” says Deanna F. Cook, author of kids’ books like Cooking Class and Farmers Market Create-and-Play Activity Book. “They are experimenting with food when they snip fresh herbs or cut a tomato, which makes them much more likely to eat healthy food and make healthy choices. And they are more likely to be adventurous eaters or try something new if they made it.”
Cook wrote Cooking Class to teach kids basic but essential skills in the kitchen so they can learn how to prepare nutritious meals for themselves. “I always got my kids involved with cooking, even at an early age,” the Massachusetts-based writer says. “Preschoolers love to cook, and there is a lot they can do with a little picnic knife—cut bananas, strawberries. If they can use scissors, they can also cut up fresh herbs and tortillas.”
As they age, kids can take on even more responsibility in the kitchen. For instance, elementary school–aged children can crack eggs and measure ingredients (which can also reinforce what they’re learning at school). Advancing to chopping and cutting will depend on your child, Cook says. “Children vary in their abilities,” she adds. “My kids graduated from a picnic knife to a regular knife around 7, then started working at the stove, flipping pancakes. They can watch you and come right up to the stove as long as they pull their hair back and you are there to supervise. You can disappear when your children are older, and you’ve taught them the basic skills.”
As a registered dietician with Capital Health and mother of two boys ages 2 and 6, Jessica Tsiopelas understands the challenges parents face when trying to expand their children’s palate. “My 2-year-old is really picky,” she says. “I put out new foods on his plate and try to get him to take a bite. Some days are harder than others.”
Tsiopelas says she started talking with her boys about good-for-you foods at an early age. “My oldest son’s daycare was doing a weeklong lesson at age 3 about healthy eating,” she recalls. “His teacher found out I was a dietician and asked me to do a presentation for his class. Kids are sponges. They took in everything I said in that class. I brought in food models, and what makes up each food group and what’s important about each one. They loved it.” She adds that she never refers to treats as “bad food,” but instead as “sometimes food.”
Tsiopelas recommends engaging children in food prep from the very beginning, starting with recipe selection. The more kids are involved, the more motivation they have to eat new foods, “Kids grasp trying food if they are more hands-on with it,” she says. She and her son look at food recipes online together on Sundays so he can pick out something for them to make together. “It’s not necessarily chocolate chip cookies. But if it is, then I will tweak the recipe and incorporate oatmeal into it,” says Tsiopelas.
Another way to encourage healthy eating, Tsiopelas says, is to start a garden with your children. (After all, what child doesn’t like digging in the dirt?) “We have a decent-sized garden,” she says. “My son got into that at 3, too. The rule was, whatever we make with the garden food, he has to try. That worked a little bit. I’ve gotten him to try peppers, green beans, jalapeño (without the seeds).”
If a garden isn’t an option, then you can bring your child to a farmers’ market to interact with the people who grow their food. “Many farmers’ markets are experiential places with lots of fun activities,” says Melina Hammer, a food photographer and author of Kid Chef. “In this culture right now, everyone has a sense of removal from the growing process. Farmers’ markets can be a way for children to see where their food comes from.”
Hammer says that teaching kids to cook instills in them a sense of control over their diet. “anytime we have an active role in deciding what we are going to eat and in making it ourselves, we have a greater sense of ownership in the experience. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment—that beaming happiness,” she says.
GETTING PAST PICKY
Of course, even after children have picked out the recipes and the ingredients, chopped the veggies and stirred the sauce, there’s still a chance they won’t eat a single bite of the meal they’ve helped prepare.
Don’t give up. “Make the foreign more familiar,” Cook says. “So, if they’re really picky, see if they like raw veggies instead of cooked. Or if they prefer a simple steamed fish or sautéed chicken, serve it with a dip on the side instead of making a fancy sauce and mixing it together.” Often, she says, taste is acquired after trying something several times: “You need to give your kids the opportunity to experiment with flavor at their pace.”
Tsiopelas agrees that you shouldn’t force your children to eat something, but that doesn’t mean that you have to cater to their every whim. “I tell my son, ‘If you don’t want to eat, that’s fine, but don’t ask for something else.’ If he’s hungry later, we revisit the plate. Or he can have a big breakfast the next morning.”
She also recommends not putting too much in front of your child at one time. “I know with my 6-year-old, if he sees a lot on his plate he gets overwhelmed,” she says. “So, I start small and let him ask for more. He will either ask or he won’t. I don’t force him to eat.”
Sometimes, Cook says, parents can get in the way of how children experiment with food. Recently at a restaurant, her 16-year-old, an unadventurous eater, planned to order her standby, California rolls, when the waiter recommended something more exciting. “I almost jumped in to say that she only eats California rolls,” Cook admits. “I think as parents, we sometimes get in the way.”
Tsiopelas adds that many children will grow out of their picky, I-refuse-to-eat-new-foods phase. “There are foods that my older son wouldn’t eat and has grown to like. And then there are foods he used to love, and I can’t get him to try again,” she says. “They go through stages. Eventually, they grow out of a lot of it—as long as you stick to your guns and don’t give in.”