I get a lot of comments (complimentary ones) about what good eaters my kids are. Specifically, people tell me how lucky I am to have kids who like veggies. Here’s the thing. Luck has nothing to do with it. If Sweet Pea had her way, we would have Kraft Mac N’ Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Will is in his vegetarian stage. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just don’t cook for a vegetarian. So if he’s skipping all the protein on his plate he’s not getting a very balanced diet right now.)
The thing is, my kids don’t get to choose what they eat. Because they are kids, and I understand as an adult that they aren’t going to make great choices. Do they know that? Uh…NO. Of course not. They think they run the show around here.
They have no idea that they are products of a lot of hard work and persistence on my part. I honestly believe that it all started when they were very young and I ate all kinds of garlic and chili and curry while they were nursing. Then I learned that you have to offer a child some new foods 12-14 times before they will ever try a taste. Sometimes they finally get it to their lips only to instantly reject it. But that doesn’t even make me blink. I just keep putting it in front of them in new and interesting ways.
They may never eat squash voluntarily. But then again, they might! And if I gave up the first time a little nose wrinkled up at me we’d be living on pb&j. I am lucky in that I have a lot of mom friends who feel the same way – I’m sure all of you reading fall into this category. But you know how fun it is to preach to the choir. My smart friends have taught me a lot about how to get healthy into my kids diet. Again, this is probably not news to anyone here. But I’m feeling so bummed out about how unhealthy American kids are becoming, so I’m going to type out some of my best strategies and hope that someone reads them and makes a change that makes their kids healthier.
• Don’t do battle with your kids over food. They have control over 2 things in their little lives. What goes in, and what comes out. If you start this power struggle you will lose. They know they aren’t going to starve, so they aren’t emotionally invested like you are. YOU WILL LOSE. Don’t do it.
• Feed them when they are hungry. Will eats more for breakfast than I do. Sweet Pea licks toast crumbs from her fingertips and declares that she is stuffed. At lunch it’s the opposite. At 4:00 they are both starving so I load them up on veggies and dip. If they ruin their dinner appetite because they ate a pound of vegetables, so be it. They might be complicated. But they are usually predictable. Your kids won’t eat veggies and dip you say? Try it. Put out a veggie tray and see what happens. Kids love to graze. They also love to be in charge of serving themselves. And they LOVE dipping. Win. Win. Win. You might want to make their tray separate from yours though. Their dipping manners aren’t fully formed yet.
• Make them think they have choices. The trick is doing this without becoming a short order cook. But letting them choose makes them feel like they have control. For example, this morning my kids chose between toaster waffles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt. They also got to choose which kind of fruit was on their plate. (SP chose yogurt and orange slices. Will chose all of it.) Sweet Pea also helps with our meal planning for the week. We sit down with a calendar and talk about what we would like to have that week. She used to only pick noodles, but now she usually requests broccoli at least once. And she’s a big fan of my Shepherd’s Pie, which is full of veggies. She begged for that this week. Will is too little to help with meal planning, but he is my grocery shopping partner. He knows that we love Pink Lady apples, and counts them as they go into the bag. He gets to choose what other snacks we buy– he usually picks pears, kiwi, sweet peppers and cucumbers. And he helps me pick lunch meats at the deli. By the time the food makes it to his plate, he’s convinced it was all his idea.
• Inform them that they are good eaters. I tell people all the time, in front of my kids, what great eaters they are. I talk about how they will try anything. I tell them what the food they are eating is doing for their bodies – “Wow, I can tell your bones just got stronger when you drank that glass of milk!” I tell bedtime stories about pint sized superheroes who save the world with tummies full of leafy greens. At the end of each well eaten meal I tell them what a great job they did putting healthy food into their bodies. It’s totally cheesy, but it’s working.
• Require a “Thank You” bite. At our house, we call this a “no thank you” bite. Meaning, that before you can say “no thank you” you have to have a bite of it. But I like my friend Jennifer’s approach better. The bite says, “thanks mom/dad for all the work you put into making this meal.” If they choose not to eat it after that, don’t make a big deal out of it. They can’t make a big deal out of it either.
• That doesn’t mean that as long as they take one bite of their dinner they have met all the requirements. At our house when my kids ask to be excused from the table they get a plate assessment by moi. Often times, this is what they hear, “You may be excused from the table. However, you didn’t eat enough healthy foods to have dessert tonight. So if you’re done, then you may go. But maybe you would like to stay and have some more bites of ____.” Then it’s over. It doesn’t come up again until dessert.
I’ve learned with Will to keep his plate in the fridge. Because often, as his sister is chowing down on her treat he will decide he really did want to eat a couple more bites of chicken. But if he doesn’t, then I just calmly repeat, “I’m so sorry. Do you remember when I told you that you didn’t eat enough dinner to have a treat tonight? You chose to be done.” He isn’t calm about this, of course. But you have to be. And you can’t give in.
If they skip dinner and dessert, and then complain about being hungry at bedtime bring out that veggie tray again. Or slice up an apple and serve it with peanut butter for dipping.
• Have at least one thing you know they will eat on the menu. At our house that usually means some kind of carb. Noodles for Sweet Pea, potatoes for her brother. They can have seconds of the favorite item when they have sufficient bites of the other things on their plates.
• Have realistic expectations. It’s pretty likely that kids aren’t going to love things like fish and Brussels sprouts until they are older. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cook them. But on fish night you may need a backup plan. When I make fish I usually let the kids have some chicken too. (They still have to have a thank you bite!) I think that just seeing us eat a lot of different things is going to be beneficial in the long run. And little by little we are having success with those foods on the Yuck List. Sweet Pea liked the potato battered cod, and both kids love eel rolls at our fave sushi place.
• Sneak in vegetables whenever you can. Now, I don’t advise that you ONLY serve vegetables that are disguised as other things. That just makes vegetables seem more suspect. But it can’t hurt to grate carrots into your marinara sauce. Or chop spinach and mix it with meatloaf. I even use butternut squash puree in grilled cheese sandwiches, and Mr. G. swears that it is a vast improvement.
• And lastly, eat some junk on occasion. McDonalds isn’t standard at my house. But it isn’t mysterious either. We all know that you can make something seem a lot more exciting by making it taboo.
I hope this helps someone. At the very least it should confirm that a lot of us are like minded and working hard to turn our kids into the foodies of tomorrow!
Better Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
2 tablespoons butternut squash puree
1 cup shredded cheese
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread on your favorite whole grain bread and grill!