Parents of picky eaters know that persuading persnickety progeny to try something beyond a few favorites can be an exercise in futility.
No amount of bargaining, negotiating or pleading will entice some choosy kids to put healthy foods into their mouths. However, including that child in the meal planning and preparation might cause an attitude adjustment about what's tasty and what's not.
"My son Alex is the quintessential picky eater," says Elena Marre, owner of The Kids' Table in Wicker Park and mother to 10-year-old Alex and 13-year-old Jacob. "He's actually recovering in a lot of ways. He hated cherries until we went cherry picking and he saw them dangling from the tree. He asked if he could cut raw onions for me and because he was cutting them, he wanted to try them and discovered he loved them."
Marre, who teaches kids' cooking classes at her establishment, says that no matter their age, children can make contributions to the meal.
Kids as young as 2 and 3 can use their hands to wash vegetables, tear lettuce, pinch ingredients and roll dough. They can cut leafy greens by using safety scissors. Small hands can wield whisks deftly. Plastic, serrated knives easily can cut softer produce. Older kids can measure ingredients, grate vegetables, crack eggs and mash ingredients. Teenagers, with guidance and lessons in safety, are capable of doing just about anything adults can do.
"The great thing about cooking together is it becomes about participation and they get a sense of pride because they helped create it," Marre says. "And foods can seem less scary because if they can see the parts come together it becomes less of an unknown."
Incorporating healthy alternatives into your child's diet is even more important with the start of the school year, when little minds and bodies need to stay fully fueled for hours away from home.
"When you eat refined carbohydrates, like sugary cereals, they digest pretty quickly and when people talk about sugar crashes, sugar spikes and low blood sugar-there is science behind it," says Lara Field, a certified specialist in pediatric nutrition. "When kids eat a low-protein breakfast and feel crummy, they're not interested in learning."
In addition to preparing their food, helping grow and harvest food or choosing items from the market will motivate kids to eat new things, says Field, mother to 4-year-old and 1-year-old boys.
"Going to the farmers market, the blueberry patch or apple orchard where they've grown the food, or growing it at their own house, that translates into more understanding of where the food comes from," Field says. "Kids get very satisfied when they've grown their own food-they want to taste the end product when they've grown the food."
Kate Bradley, an Evergreen Park chef who teaches cooking classes throughout the near south suburbs, says demonstrating how alternate, healthier ingredients combine to make delicious foods encourages children to try things they otherwise might avoid.
During a seminar in Chicago Ridge for a school district, she converted a cookie recipe to make it healthy.
"...Once the kids tried it and saw that it tasted good they were more apt to ask for a second one or the recipe," says Bradley, a mother of two.
During the school year, it might not always be feasible to include smaller children into making every meal, especially during the morning rush. But with a little planning, a week's worth of high-protein breakfast foods can be jointly prepared on the weekends.
For example, young children can help mix up a large batch of granola-comprised of oats, honey, nuts, and dried fruit, or peel a supply of hard-boiled eggs.
Likewise, preparing wholesome snack foods in advance will ensure they get eaten, Field says. "When you buy vegetables or fruit, cut them up as soon as you get home and have them in visible areas in the fridge so they're going to be the first thing people gravitate to and grab."
Good planning is half the battle when it comes to eating well, according to Bradley, mother of 8-year-old Maureen and 14-year-old Deliah. Which is why, once a week, the entire family discusses what they'd like for dinner during the week.
"Usually the Sunday night dinner conversation is what the menu is going to be for the week, so if they have a taste for something, they can tell me," says Bradley. "And if they don't want something that was planned for, say, Thursday, I tell them they should've spoken up earlier."
Not only does the weekly menu save time by laying out what will be served, but it's given Bradley relief from the age-old question, "What's for dinner?"
"They used to ask me that 10 times a day, now I tell them to go look at the menu-it's posted. It's the best thing I've ever done."
Robin Huiras is a mom and freelance writer living in Evergreen Park.
Robin Huiras is a freelance writer.
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