Good nutrition is important for everybody, but it is especially essential for children during their years of growth and development. Unfortunately, kids can be picky eaters and they aren’t always interested in eating vegetables or trying new foods. But sharing the kitchen may make a difference. In a 2008 research study at Columbia University, children involved in meal preparation were more likely to try new foods, enjoy the foods they cooked, and eat those foods again in the future. If they’re not in the kitchen yet, follow these simple steps to get your kids cooking.
Assign Appropriate Tasks
Adults should always perform or supervise steps involving stovetops and sharp edges, but there are plenty of tasks well suited to young cooks. After they wash their hands with warm, soapy water, children can wash produce and scrub vegetables with a brush. They can measure ingredients and help with stirring, mixing, whisking, mashing and tossing. Kids can use salad spinners and timers. They can peel citrus fruit and assemble fruit kebobs. Those too young to handle knives can use scissors to cut green leafy vegetables and herbs like lettuce, chard, kale, basil and sage. Older children can also help keep the kitchen clean by wiping counters, washing and drying dishes.
Children are more likely to try new foods they pick out themselves, so take your kids to the farmers’ market and the grocery store. Let them pick out fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains they are interested in eating or cooking. If you don’t know how to cook something your child selects, look it up and learn how to prepare it together. If you have a garden, involve your kids in the process, from planting seeds and tending plants to harvesting and cooking what you grow.
Engage the Senses
When planning meals with kids in mind, aim to engage their senses with a variety of aromas, colors, tastes and textures. Everyone should eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day – red, orange, yellow, green, purple – and kids can have fun keeping track. Use color and texture to introduce new tastes. For example, a child who likes pureed peas may also like pureed spinach or other green foods.
Add Healthy Fat
Fat is an important nutrient and we cannot live without it. It is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in foods, including vitamins A and E in fruits and vegetables. Additionally, fat carries flavor and can make foods that kids usually find unappealing more attractive. Toss steamed vegetables with a little bit of organic butter. Grate some aged Parmesan cheese over roasted vegetables. Drizzle salads with extra virgin olive oil or incorporate it into dressings and vinaigrettes. Spread almond butter on apple slices or use it as a dip for celery and carrot sticks. Or let kids dip pieces of fruit into organic whole milk plain yogurt mixed with a few drops of honey.
Appoint a Salad Maker
Making salads is a great job for kids. They can wash produce, tear lettuce leaves, use a scissors to cut chives and scallions, toss everything together and sprinkle raw nuts and seeds on top. Teach them to make their own vinaigrette by adding extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard, sea salt and pepper to a clean glass jar and shaking it up until all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Assigning salad duty to a willing child will not only ensure that a healthy serving of vegetables will be part of every meal, but it can also make young cooks more enthusiastic about eating greens and allow them to exercise their creativity.
Because food preferences in children are shaped by what their parents and caregivers make available, especially before the age of four, they should be exposed to a wide variety of whole foods. Unless kids have food allergies, their diet should include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, raw nuts and seeds, nontoxic fish and seafood, and pasture-raised meat and animal products like eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese. To find nontoxic fish and seafood, search by species or geographical location on the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx.
Unless children have a medical or religious reason to avoid certain foods, don’t offer to make extra dishes to satisfy picky eaters. Parents and caregivers should decide which foods children eat and children should decide how much they eat, given the choices they have. Only offer healthy foods, and if kids are hungry, they will eat.
Encourage your children to try new things, but don’t force them to eat what they don’t want. Even if a child doesn’t like or doesn’t want to try a food, continue to offer it. Be patient because it may require several attempts, a dozen or more, before children become interested in trying new foods. Forcing kids to eat things they don’t like can make matters worse, creating negative associations that cause them to continue avoiding the foods. Instead, help them learn to cook things that are unfamiliar or unappealing so they will be more willing to try them.
Set a Good Example
Kids can be curious creatures. If they see their parents and caregivers consistently cooking and eating a wide variety of healthy whole foods, chances are that eventually they will want to try those foods too. But if children see their parents eating processed foods and snacks, like cookies and potato chips, those are the foods they will ask for. So skip the junk food and be a good role model.