Americans are known for their limited palate when it comes to foods eaten. Adults as well as children are picky eaters and won’t touch something that seems foreign. Yet in other continents like Europe and Asia, children eat and have tried more foods by age 8 than a typical American will try in their whole life! Why are we so afraid of different foods and flavors?
Primarily, the issue is that many parents feed their children “kid food” consistently from the time they are infants on through adolescence. Children learn what they live. So not only are these teaching them poor eating habits, but it’s teaching them to like the stereotypical kid food: carb-loaded, bland, high-salt, high-sugar, and minimal nutrition. Once they are on this train, they won’t be getting off! Fat, sugar, and salt are the 3 things that humans crave because they are satisfying flavors. If all your children do is indulge in scrumptious food, it’s harder to reel them back in and go for some healthy choices.
Now healthy does not mean boring! I make salmon cakes (like crab cakes), quinoa salad, Rachael Ray’s “Lazy Baked Greek Chicken”, creamy ham and wild rice soup (only 1c half and half for 6-8 servings), homemade-formed burgers, George Foreman marinated and grilled meats, 2 bean soup with kale, wilted spinach salad, and much more! When most people think “healthy” they think of a salad with lettuce. But most things people put on a salad are not healthy (like fake bacon bits, HFCS-loaded dressings, croutons, and deli meats) not to mention that most salads are served over iceberg lettuce which has about as much nutrition in it as water. Better leaf-choices for salads would be romaine, arugula, “greens blend”, cabbage, or spinach (my fave!)
The trick to getting your kids to eat healthy is a 2-part process.
Part 1 is that you need to serve real food that tastes good and that you cooked yourself. Even if it means that you make homemade chicken nuggets from chicken breasts and decide to go breading-free, kids LOVE these! My mom would make these for us and would make a homemade honey mustard dipping sauce- it was such a huge success, she still makes them today! Just cut the chicken into strips, place on a baking sheet, drizzle a little olive oil on each piece and season with some Lowry’s Seasoned Salt and there ya go! Done when internal temp is 165F.
Part 2 is that you need to look at the items you’re buying from the grocery store and think of how close to being a whole food item each thing is. If you want your kids to eat healthier, don’t buy the junk! In general, the healthy/good food is on the perimeter of the store and the packaged, processed foods are on the inside aisles. Stick to the outside of the store and you’ll shop healthier. If you buy your kids juice, kool-aid, Capri Sun, or similar, those are some of the worst things your child can drink because it’s essentially all chemicals- even the juice isn’t good because it hits the bloodstream as if your child drank a soda and has no fiber (like an apple would).
Many parents don’t know this, but it can take up to 12 times trying a certain food before a child may like it. So don’t give up! It took our son a while to like peas! Don’t shy away from giving your child seasoned, mildly spicy food, meats, seafood, etc if it’s what you’re eating. That’s actually the best way to get your child used to the taste of the food your family eats.
Set boundaries from a young age about meals: no short-order cooking! Be sure to serve 1-2 things you know your child likes and maybe 1 or 2 new items to try. Encourage your child to try 1 bite of everything on their plate. It’s ok if they don’t like it, but they have to try it. Or to warm them up to the idea of veggies if they won’t touch them, put some melted cheese on top (especially broccoli). Yummm.
If the kids are ravenous and can’t wait until mealtime, put out a plate of cut-up fruits or veggies with some dipping sauces (ranch, hummus, yogurt dip, etc) and tell them they can snack on that while dinner is being cooked. This is how you can get them to eat more veggies- when a child is hungry, they’ll eat just about anything!
A month or so ago, we all went out to a local seafood eatery and when it was time to order something for the 11-month-old baby, we decided to order him some cod. When the food came, we broke up the fish into little pieces that he could grab, checked for bones, and let him finger-feed himself. He really liked the fish and it was the first time he’d had white fish (he previously had salmon). And he LOVED IT!
I also have expectations of my son to at least try the food, and a partial expectation of him to eat it. Most things that he eats are things that I would eat so it’s fairly easy to pick something that’s good! He always gets a few bites of each thing certain people order at the table (not everyone is ok with sharing… haha!) and so that way he can try many things! He’s had: baked sweet potato, baked beans, mac n cheese, yogurt, salmon, cod, bits of fries, 1 spoonful of chocolate pudding, a few pieces of Angelfood Cake, some bites of ice cream, fruits, cooked veggies (including asparagus!), pork, chicken, Mexican bean bowl, rice, cheese…. this kid likes everything! I’m very impressed with his repertoire of food likes and hopefully he’ll carry that open-mindedness into the toddler years!