Kids, let's eat!

January 30, 2008

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Camouflaging healthy veggies in globs of cheesy sauces? Not in my house! After thousands of meals cooked for five children, I've been able to avoid doctoring food to make it appeal to finicky young eaters by following a few iron-clad rules.

  • Younger children will eat almost anything if there's a game involved, so a meal of tamari-marinated tofu, brown rice, and broccoli can be transformed into a landscape of boulders, pebbles, and trees. My two oldest daughters, now 14 and 12, still remember our family's vegetarian dinners when they were toddlers. My youngest daughter, 3, now expects every bowl of oatmeal to have a smiley face made of rasins.

  • Lead by example and make sure that you're eating the same things they are. You'll only need to do this for a few years while you're modeling good eating habits, unless, of course, you lean toward French fries and chicken nuggets.

  • Having a child help prepare food is a great way to generate interest in the meal, even if dinner is nuked leftovers. Let kids smell the differences in hot and cold foods, or taste food that's raw versus cooked. Raw carrots are great but so are ones that are cooked slowly, their natural sweetness enhanced with an easy ginger-maple glaze.

  • Children have more taste buds than adults and are more receptive to bold flavors, but can often turn away from over-spiced foods. Combinations of savory and sweet tend to do well, while complex foods with sour notes often overwhelm young palates.

  • What's on the table is what's for dinner. Don't undermine your own authority by making a special meal for a balky child, as she'll expect the same accommodation every time she sits down to eat. Once the "No!" phase has passed, you can avoid fighting by asking a child to choose between two potential meals. Having children take greater control over the process sometimes makes them more willing to eat.