I want to take some time to talk about feeding children. B. and I have been pretty lucky in that our daughter appears to love anything she puts in her mouth (she’s even sneaked a lick of lanolin off her fingers and said “Yummmmm,” maybe something we should worry about for the future? Haha!). That’s not to say that she’s never rejected anything she’s been offered; she certainly has. However, her rejections are more to do with not wanting to eat something at that moment rather than not liking it, which I know because she always gobbles it up eventually without any prodding.
Last week, though, we had a lot of difficulty getting G. to eat much of anything. She’d gotten sick with a little stomach bug (my poor little moo!), so I’m certain that’s the culprit, but she’s since back to her normal, healthy self, and is still continuing to reject some of her favorite foods. For any parent, this is a frustrating situation. You want your kids to be healthy, so you try to give them nutritious foods, but when they refuse to eat them, your new stressor is the idea that they might starve, so you turn to feeding them anything they’re willing to eat, which is better than nothing, right? There’s just an automatic frustration and near-panic you feel thinking about your child starving, as if they’re going to die if they miss a single meal because they didn’t want to eat beef and carrots, but you were unwilling to give into grilled cheese and cookies.
But what can we do to help our children eat better, to get the right nutrients in their bodies without a fight, without a tantrum? I know that not everybody has been as lucky as we have and that, eventually, we’ll probably have more serious run-ins with these issues, so I’ve been trying to come up with solutions, preventative measures for the future, if you will and I thought what better place to work them out than right here in my mommy food blog? 🙂
Before I get into the solutions to the problem, I do want to preface this by saying that we can all be at least as near-lucky as B. and I have been if we start on the right track from the very beginning. If your child has never eaten McNuggets with french fries and Coke, he’s never going to refuse to eat anything but that. And I realize that we can’t shield our children from these things forever, there are going to be school meals, the influence of friends, any number of outside situations that expose our children to less-than-ideal meal choices. But the point is that if you wait for those situations to introduce your children to those foods, then they’re going to be less likely to care about them because you’ll have already helped their taste buds develop toward a preference for wholesome, home cooked food. Beyond that, just because they can get it while apart from us doesn’t mean we have to allow it in our home. Your teenager may very well go to a party and get drunk, but that doesn’t mean you allow him to get drunk in your house (or anywhere), right? It will be easier on you, in the long run, if you start your infant on wholesome, homemade purees, which graduate to wholesome family meals that are only sprinkled with little “treats” here and there of fast food or sugary desserts.
Now, onto the problem solving! To me, this is simply a matter of thinking outside the box. What can we do to get nutritious foods into our children’s bodies? Trick them. I’m a huge advocate for boundaries, for a framework of rules that establish you as the leader and teach your children that they must respect you and must follow those rules and this includes eating habits. I’m also a fan of teaching proper habits rather than tricking kids into them, such as using fun games or letting your children pick out the food or grow it and help prepare it to encourage the desire to eat it. However, we have to take everything one step at a time and while you’re trying to teach your children to follow the rules and to learn to enjoy trying new foods, you probably still want them eating healthy in the meantime, in which case we resort to trickery. So, teach your children that they must taste everything at the table, that they don’t have to like it, but that they do have to try to eat it, that everyone in the family eats the same meal, that they aren’t allowed to complain; teach them to love and take pride in their food by allowing them to help out with a small garden, to look for the coolest or most tasty looking produce at the market and pick it out themselves, to help prepare it for a meal and feel proud and excited when it’s time to not only eat it themselves, but to serve it to you. While you’re busy working on these lessons, though, sneak the good stuff into what looks like only the tasty stuff and be happy that your children are healthy.
So, how do we do this? To start, let’s get to the root of the problem. It’s not that children actually dislike all these healthy foods; they’re perfectly tasty and we know it. The biggest issue is that many children, especially as they get older, aren’t apt to try new things and always appear suspect. They want to decide what they’re going to eat, not have you make a suggestion and they don’t have to know whether it tastes bad, they’re simply not going to put it in their mouths to try, in which case we need to figure out how to do that without them realizing it.
The place to begin, to me, is with your children’s favorite foods, the things they’re likely never to reject, never to frown at or be willing to go without! The examples I have for my daughter aren’t too helpful for those whose children prefer less healthy foods. She lights up for plain Greek yogurt and smoothies (one of the easiest things to hide other foods in) and has even traded a cookie in return for either of those or a chunk of Gouda cheese, a bowl of sweet fruit. My husband, on the other hand, is about as picky as they come, in a bad way 🙂 So my work to sneak nutritious foods into him may be a little more helpful 😉
So, let’s start out by taking a look at vegetables, the cryptonite to many a child (and my husband)! If your kids are going to be able to spot a vegetable a mile away, to slowly and painstakingly eat around each little bit of carrot or simply to push their plate aside, then we need a solution that makes it look as if there isn’t a single vegetable in sight. For the more mildly colored veggies, this is fairly simple. Take parsnips, for example; they look like cream-colored carrots and when you chop them up, they can very easily be mistaken for russet potatoes. I get my husband to eat them by also cubing potatoes and then serving the two together, in which case he can’t differentiate and doesn’t actually realize I put anything on the plate besides potatoes. Also, parsnips are sweet, so they should be appealing to a child’s palate! Combining them with potatoes is actually quite common too, such as mashing them together or grating them into hash browns.
For less easily hidden vegetables, like carrots and corn, we have to make a little more effort; it seems like no matter how finely you chop a carrot and now matter how dark and thick a sauce or gravy is with no matter how many other ingredients, they’re going to stare your kid right in the face like a bright light. My answer to this is simply to puree them instead, a little trick I learned from my experience making Bolognese, a delicious red wine meat sauce for pasta. The foundation of this sauce is pureed raw carrot, celery, and onion, which are browned in a pot before adding the remaining ingredients. Of course, the proportion of vegetables to meat is very low, so it wouldn’t exactly be a significant dose of nutrition for your child, but that doesn’t mean you can’t alter the ratio to suit your needs. The flavor might change, but I bet it would still be delicious and a child very likely wouldn’t know the difference as long as they can’t see it. Other foods you can easily mix finely chopped/minced or pureed veggies in are anything that includes ground meat (chili, hamburgers, meatballs, meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, lasagna and other casseroles). Just keep in mind that you’re going to want your child eating, let’s say, half a carrot, not one bite of carrot, so pay attention to the ratio of veggies to other ingredients to ensure nutrients are actually making it to your kid.
Other ideas to hide vegetables are cooking soups, pureeing them so they’re creamy, and serving them over pasta. Almost any soup will probably taste delicious alongside pasta and, honestly, what’s the difference between that and a pasta sauce? Maybe chicken stock? Your child will never know the difference! And because a lot of vegetables taste great with tomatoes, you can even hide them in your tomato sauce because, seriously, what kid doesn’t like spaghetti with meatballs and marinara? Just imagine…minced veggies in your meatballs, pureed veggies browned in your marinara sauce…your little one won’t be able to escape them!
Also, think about how to make a vegetable appear more appealing, for instance, turning sweet potatoes into roasted sweet potato fries. You can cover them in grated Parmesan cheese for a more child-friendly appeal and maybe even start out with half sweet potatoes, half russet, so they’re more apt to try them since they’d be mixed up among something they’re used to. If you add unhealthy ingredients, such as loads of cheese, to make an otherwise healthy food more appealing, though, remember to slowly reduce the unhealthy ingredient so that, eventually, your child becomes accustomed to the natural flavor and no longer needs tons of cheese or ketchup to think it’s tasty because, while getting those nutrients in, no matter what, is great…you still don’t want to equally hinder your child’s health with fat, salt, and sugar. A good example is how I used to refuse to eat any pasta except buttered noodles; there could be nothing else on them, just butter! As I got older, though I still adored the dish, I realized how bad it was for me and that something needed to change. I wanted to replace the butter with olive oil (a very beneficial fat that I highly recommend for cooking and to flavor savory foods), but the problem was that I hated it; it was totally gross to me. What I did was start out with, let’s say, 3 parts butter and 1 part olive oil. Then I slowly reduced the butter, replacing it with olive oil, until I finally no longer needed even a drop of butter and actually found that olive oil tasted delicious. Flavor preference doesn’t rely on first impressions; as long as you continue to eat a food, you will very likely learn to love it and to crave it, which is why we can’t take stock in our children’s dislike of healthy foods and must toil on to get them to continue to try until they’ve learned to love!
Now, onto fruits! This can be fairly easy because a lot of children actually like fruit since it’s so sweet.
To start, let’s do take a look at G.’s favorite, albeit nutritious, favorites. Smoothies are something that I’m guessing most children would like, even those addicted to cookies and Little Debbie snack cakes. The thing is, they’re sweet and brightly colored! What can be more kid-friendly? They don’t have to know there’s healthy food inside. For one thing, you don’t have to call it a smoothie if that might be a deal breaker; call it a milkshake 🙂 Honestly, that’s pretty much what it is and when you buy them from fast food fronts or restaurants, that’s what they may as well be called because they’re likely just as terrible for you. The homemade ones can be packed with nutrients, though. Nutrient bombs, if you will. The key is to find nutritious ingredients that won’t alter the flavor or texture in an adverse way. For instance, I love to put cooked brown rice in our smoothies. It’s soft, so it purees very well, blending with the other ingredients easily. At the same time, the flavor is so mild, especially in comparison to the strong flavor of the sweet fruits, you’d never taste it. I had my husband take a taste of the first smoothie I made (with half a cup of brown rice in it) and not only did he have no clue I put something odd like that in there, he thought it tasted good!
Other ideas for smoothies would be mild-flavored leafy greens, such as raw spinach or kale, which don’t actually give off much flavor and, if blended long enough, liquify right into the other ingredients. The only problem is muddying the color, but if you invest in a black or opaque water bottle, this isn’t an issue because your child won’t even see it (I do this so my coworkers don’t get grossed out by my swampy-looking drink). Also, if your child is young enough, such as mine (she’s 19 months), they just won’t care! In addition to those, great additions are cooked sweet potato, nut butters or raw nuts, tomatoes (paired with something sweet and complimentary like strawberries, they’ll simply blend in!)…if you have a strong enough blender (like a Vitamix), you can add whole, tough vegetables such as raw carrots and, as I said before, as long as you blend long enough, it should liquify properly to blend with the other ingredients, many of which are pulpy all on their own. A great idea is to look at similar drinks on the shelf at the store, like V8’s line of fruit/vegetable combo drinks and instead of purchasing those (which will have much more nutrient-loss than your homemade smoothie because most nutrients are in the pulp, not the juice, and because shelf drinks are pasteurized, thus reducing vitamin strength through boiling), buy the whole fruit/vegetable ingredients and blend them up alongside plain yogurt (Wallaby Organic Plain Greek Yogurt doesn’t have the nasty sour taste of most plain yogurts, so is easily hidden in a smoothie) and whole milks (I recommend unsweetened almond milk, which will add more protein than dairy) to create a nutrient bomb of a delicious drink. You can even add some cocoa powder or melted dark chocolate to make a “chocolate milkshake” that’s hiding a load of health. Since the smoothie is likely filled with sweet fruits, a refined-sugar-filled syrup, such as Hershey’s, is unnecessary. It doesn’t contain the antioxidants of unsweetened or dark chocolate anyway, so you can’t rationalize it away 😉
Beyond these little hidden gems, put some thought into the regular castmembers. For instance, like I said, unsweetened almond milk is a great choice over dairy because it has added nutrients that dairy doesn’t possess. Plain yogurt is obviously far better than any flavored yogurt, even vanilla, because those are chock full of refined sugars. However, plain yogurt can jump out at you in a smoothie if you’re not used to that sour tang, which is why I keep a mass supply of plain Greek yogurt since it very nearly tastes just like sour cream! That may sound odd to put in your smoothie (something that tastes like sour cream), but I promise you don’t notice. When you’re considering fruit, think of the benefits each possesses. Berries are wonderful because they’re lower in sugar than other fruits and have antioxidants, as well as other benefits. Bananas are filled with potassium and, though higher in sugar, still wildly nutritious, not to mention their flavor is overpowering, so they’re great at masking additions you may not want at the forefront of flavor.
Doing a little research can go a long way in getting ahead in the game. So think about your child’s favorite foods and how you can alter them to be more nutritious. The more you work at this, the more you cook for yourself and your family, the more easily these things will come to you and, suddenly, you’ll feel like a pro!