Getting Kids Excited about Cooking and Eating Healthier

Whether you're raising vegan kids, or you're simply struggling with getting more vegetables and healthy foods into your children's diets, today I'm giving you some ideas to help ease that tug of war you might often be going through with your cutie pies.

Kids are adorable, they're tiny, but they're feisty! Any parent will tell you that most kids will put their foot down and downright refuse to do something if it just doesn't fly with them. If after reading that sentence you're thinking "well, that's the parent's fault, they need to be more disciplined", I want to tell you that although there are shades of gray, food and eating is one of those areas in which kids seem to grow into will-powered giants. Often the anxiety that arrises in parents when they see their child won't eat anything other than goldfish crackers can feel completely overwhelming. When parents are feeling scared that their children aren't getting the nutrition they require, they often cave because having them eat something is better than nothing. I have seen so many of my close mama friends have so much anxiety and frustration around their kid's eating, and when that tug of war starts, the issues only seem to get worse.

Let me start this off by giving you a little disclaimer. I am not a mother, but before you roll your eyes and move on to another article on the subject, let me say this. I am not a mom, but I have been teaching kids for years. Kids of all ages, from 3 year olds up to rebellious teens, and many moons ago I worked as a volunteer in a center for abandoned and foster children, and I was in charge of two things: taking the kids to the playground (20 kids at a time! Yup!), and yes, meal time. I fed these kids day in and day out, some of which were severely malnourished. I've had a first hand look into what kids eat, and the completely bizarre phases they go through, which are not only odd, but also completely normal in most cases.

Let me repeat that again: seeing eating phases in your kids is completely normal. You'll see phases in which your child refuses foods that are a certain color, or a certain texture. You'll see phases in which a particular food is the enemy, or times in which they develop strange rules around their plate (i.e. food not touching on the plate, or having the need to have it placed on the plate in a ver particular way). The most difficult phase for parents as I've seen, is the one in which the child is refusing practically everything. This is where alarms go off in our heads and we can transmit that anxiety on to our kids and make things even worse, for both parent and child. All of these stages are transitory and normal (unless your child has a more serious behavioral or psychological issue with food, especially as they come into their pre-teen and teenage years in which food starts getting associated with body image issues).

In my years of teaching, I've seen kids completely submerge cookies in a glass of milk until the whole thing becomes this mushy mess (then they ate it with a spoon), and then I've seen the same kid have a total meltdown if a drop of milk fell on top of another type of cookie. I've seen kids eat fruits when they're chopped in a certain way, and not in another. I've seen kids refuse to eat their favorite sandwich simply because a tiny millimeter of crust still remained on the bread even though mom or dad carefully trimmed the crust off before packing it. I bet if you look back, you'll even find your own little food pet peeves. Mine are those little strings in bananas, I have to carefully remove each one or I just can't eat it! It's the weirdest thing but as usual I try to be brutally honest here.

This post is not meant to be a manual of advice, nor will it give you the nutritional or serving requirements for your child. This post is meant to give you tons of tips that come straight from my hands on experience with working with kids and seeing what behavioral tricks really work magic on stubbornness, but only you will know what is right for your child. There is no one way to parent and whoever tells you you're doing something wrong has not walked in your shoes. After my years of teaching I can tell you that kids are not all made equal, thank goodness for that! They are these amazing little people in the making with a complete universe inside of them that is totally different from the one inside the kid that's sitting next to them. Having said that, these tips come from my own experience with teaching, and of course with understanding flavors, cooking and why kids often turn their heads to certain foods.

Two things that will help you understand and change things around

The taste receptor issue

You all probably remember from science class that we have different kinds of taste receptors in our tongue. We have different receptors for sweet, acidic, bitter, salty and the recently added umami taste. What scientists have recently discovered is that some children (and their parents) have a specific genetic characteristic that makes them much more susceptible to the bitter taste (you can check out all the specific details of this study here). What are some of the common foods that carry a bitter taste that can actually seem overpowering to children? You got it! Vegetables! That's why so many kids turn their heads at veggies. This genetic marker which is not present in all children, fades as children age, which is why you might have been a veggie fearing child and are now a kale gobbling adult. I always love to share this information because so many parents think this is just about their child being willful, when in fact it might be a biological characteristic.

The number one lesson I've learned from teaching

Kids love feeling that they're involved and that your respect them as their own person. Granted, I only see my students for a few hours a week, so it's easier for me to make this conscious effort than it might be for an overworked and exhausted parent. Kids love feeling that their opinions are worth something, and that you value their thoughts and ideas. Nothing has been truer and more universal across the board in my experience. You can use this to your advantage when it comes to meal time, in the 3 tips I'm about to share with you. 

Tip #1: Involve them in the process

Kids are always more open to ideas when all or part of them came from their own little heads (kind of like husbands...wink!). The more you involve them in the process of cooking and eating, the more likely they will be to actually eat. 

This process can go from very simple to very elaborate, with the latter working like magic, but since I know many parents are pressed for time, here are a few options:

- Pick & eat: 

When possible, if you have two options for your child to choose from (this is most typical in breakfasts or snacks since there is less time required to prepare these), play the pick and eat game. Say something like "guess what buddy! Today you can pick your breakfast! I'm going to ask you a few questions and you have to answer as fast as you can. Are you ready?" Then proceed to break down the options you have for their breakfast into a fun little game. "Savory or sweet?", "with your hand or a spoon?", "with fruit or with nuts?", "blue or purple?". This quick game makes kids laugh and it makes them relax around food and see that mom or dad haven't begun that forced food tug of war. Of course only break the options into these questions if you're sure you have all those ingredients in the house or you'll be in big trouble! If you want to take this up a notch, tell them that whatever they choose, you have to eat the same thing as them and that you both have to sit down and eat it together. This turns the tables and they love it, be warned, they pick some strange combinations when they hear you're in on it too!

- Pick your plate:

Sometimes something as simple as eating food off your favorite plate will make a total difference. Take your kids somewhere where they sell crazy fun plates and have them pick their own. They'll be more likely to eat. The people that make band-aids have been using this technique for years! Don't knock it ´til you try it!

- Little master chef:

Involving your kids in the cooking process takes more time than if you were cooking the meal yourself, but it does wonders for their food behaviors. They begin to understand the work that a meal requires, they get excited with all the anticipation, and they begin to understand flavors and get little tastes of the food throughout the process. Take this to the next level by taking them to the farmer's market and have them pick out something that jumps out at them. Go through Pinterest or a cookbook together and have your little one pick out the recipe, and then begin to cook together. Ask for their opinion. Treat them like a mini master chef. This is a great activity to do occasionally during a stress free weekend. Have them take a photo of the result and post it on your Instagram, or send it to grandma. Your heart will fill up with that proud look of total accomplishment they get.

- Give them something to aspire to:

 There are so many cooking channels and blogs made by kids these days, show your child how cool that is and help them feel inspired. Kids thrive off having role models they can relate to.

Tip #2: The sippy cup smoothie 

I learned this trick from the amazing plant dietitian Julieanna Hever. You've heard me mention her before, in fact she's one of our number one go to's along with Jack Norris and Virginia Messina when it comes to plant-based nutrition. When I heard her mention this tip, I had a complete flashback because we used to do a version of this in the dining hall of the organization for abandoned and foster children. Remember, as I mentioned above I was in charge of playground duty and mealtime. In this particular scenario, the essence of Julieanna's smoothie trick was applied for the purpose of increasing calories since some of the kids were severely under-nourished. Things like an extra tablespoon of olive oil or other fats were added to soups and porridges in disguise, just to provide extra calories.

The smoothie trick takes this even further, and it's designed for parents of kids who downright refuse to eat anything that isn't sweet. The sweetness receptors in children also seem to be heightened, which might be why sugary cereal companies are making a killing. 

Take your child to the store to pick out their favorite sippy cup or thermos (make sure it isn't see-through so that they can't see what's inside. Tell them they can pick any within those options. Back home, make a plant packed smoothie with as many greens and veggies as you can add, and balance out the flavor with some fruit so that the taste is sweet. My favorites for this are banana, a little piece of pear, and mango. Add a bit of peanut butter, or cacao if your child loves chocolate. Add some sort of protein source too (hemp hearts or a little hemp or pea protein are my favorites since they keep the smoothie really smooth in texture) and some plant-based milk. Pour it into a thermos for you, and their picked out thermos or cup and call it a milkshake. As long as your child doesn't see the contents (especially in the case of green smoothies), they will fall in love with the sweet taste and you'll get the peace of mind that even though this involved a bit of scheming, your child got some much needed nutrients in their body. We've got delicious smoothie recipes in our online program, and you can find many others online.

This same principle can be used in homemade baby food for when your baby is beginning to eat and hasn't developed his or her language skills yet and you can't use the other tips I recommend. 

Tip #3: It's not bribing it's negotiating!

There is so much debate when it comes to bribing your kids, aka, offering them something in return after eating a plate of food. I've never met a parent who doesn't do it, and so many experts are shaming moms and dads for going down this road. Although I do think that most of the time we need to teach children that they have to do certain things because it's their responsibility, or because it's just what's right, there is a time, a place and a way to offer something as a prize for behavior. We're not calling it bribing, I like to call it negotiation, something kids understand well and love to do.

This is how I learned how to be an amazing eater as a kid. I would gobble up broccoli raw from the stalk and I would eat anything my mom put in front of me. All because I followed her one little negotiation rule. It was kind of a house rule, meaning she didn't have to try to make me budge every single time.

It was a given, that every time I would try something new, not eat, just try it, whether it be a vegetable, a dish, a fruit, a soup, etc., I would get a little reward at the end of the meal. My favorite thing as a kid: a little piece of chocolate. Whenever I didn't want to eat something, my mom would simply say "ok, but remember our little reward system, if you just try it you can have your little prize. This worked on me like nothing else ever had, and soon I was eating anything my mom put in front of me. Why? Because they have now determined that it can take up to fifteen tastes of a food for a child's extra sensitive taste buds to find it enjoyable. That means tasting and trying is the key.

I hope these tips serve as a great jumping off point for your own ideas, and feel free to ask me any follow up questions or share what has worked for you in the comments below.

To all my dear mamas and papas, I saw day in and day out with the kids at the center, and with the parents of my students, how rough some kids can make it. Especially when it comes to eating more vegetables. Do the best you can and please be kind to yourselves when you hit a wall or have a misstep. Chances are, if you're reading this and doing your research, you are doing an amazing job with your little ones, and these phases will soon pass. 

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