Q: Hi Erika, A lot of your healthy eating and lifestyle tips have really changed the way my husband and I view food and the choices that we make. We’ve started to implement a lot of healthy changes that we are looking to continue for a long time. My question is how do you apply some of these things to the food that you feed kids. You’ve shared a lot about your daughter. I wonder how do you get kids to eat and desire healthy foods when they are surrounded by so much pressure not to eat right. What are some examples of what you give your daughter for a healthy snack and what you pack her for lunch. I think back to the things that I used to take for lunch and there’s no way that I’d send my future kids to school with all that processed food but I also don’t see packing a salad for a preschooler to take to school. I’d really love your insight. Thanks!
A: While Mini-me isn’t quite old enough to be school-aged just yet, I do deal with this when we hit the playground and she buddies up with other kids.
It never fails. There’s always some parent there with some godawful “fruit snacks” – that have not a single iota’s worth of fruit in them – and if you should happen to, I don’t know… blink for a nanosecond too long, some parent is handing your kid a handful of high fructose corn syrup-filled junk. And you just know that parent is armed with the defense from the high fructose corn syrup commercial when you ask them if they know how bad that stuff is for kids. You just know it.
And no matter how much you want to thump your kid – am I the only one that does that? – and tell them to stop taking these strange people’s food, there will always be times when you aren’t looking. There will always be times when you aren’t there, aren’t watching and aren’t able to hover over your kid’s shoulder to make sure they don’t eat this stuff. Even if you find a few parents who share your zest for healthy living and share your definition of it, you’ll still have to pack a lunch that competes with the school lunch system’s crap. That’s just… that’s just how it is.
That being said, you pretty much have to compete. You have to bring better snacks to the playground than everyone else – and you have to bring a lot of ’em – and you have to pack a better lunch than what’s normally found at the school. It’s a lot of damn work, I’ll tell you that much, but if you’re committed to the cause you’ll do what you can and work on the rest.
When I was on NPR, we briefly talked about this – convincing your kid to actually like veggies. Strangely enough, Mini-me doesn’t even approach vegetables in an “I don’t like it, I won’t eat it” fashion. If anything, she may not like it by itself, but she’ll love it when it’s paired with something else or cooked into a dish. She doesn’t like onions, but she loves ’em in her nachos. She hates the taste of salt – yes, I’ll get to this in a minute – but she doesn’t flinch if she sees me put a pinch of it on a pan of stir fry. She doesn’t love olives, but paired in Mommy’s greek salad? She cries if she can’t get any.
With Mini-me, she is always welcome in my kitchen. This has also taught her when it is appropriate for her to walk into my kitchen, so she doesn’t come in when I’m visibly on the stove. If I’m preparing something? She’s more than welcome to stand beside me, because she gets to ask me about everything I’m working with. She asks to sniff my herbs, taste my spices – even the salt – and has even helped me pick out what to put in dinner, before. She’s become pretty adventurous this way.
“Mommom, what’s that?”
“It looks really green. Can I try some?”
I’ll give her a slice, sure… and then I also take a slice for myself. I teach her how to approach it while, at the same time, making it a “teaching” moment. “Mmm, it feels soft and creamy, doesn’t it?” I always approach new vegetables the same way I approach my favorite chocolate. “Mmmmm, I like avocado! Do you like it?” “Yeah! I like it!”
From there, it’s all about execution. Gotta throw it in a dish that makes it even better for her, and before you know it she’s getting excited when she sees me grabbing an avocado or she’s asking me to pick one up at the farmer’s market.
Getting kids to eat it and love it at home is the first part. Getting kids to prefer your stuff over everything else? Well, that’s a completely different story.
You have to be the super clever parent.
You have to be armed. With cookies. And I know this is a terrible thing to say, but it’s real. Make little spoon-sized cookie bites. The Dad on the other end of the playground with the Go-gurt packages for kids will be no match for you. Get a little cupcake pan – like this, though not this pricey – and make tiny cupcakes – light on sugar, creative on toppings and very filling – for the kids to enjoy.
Don’t get me wrong, here – if you can tell your kid to not eat the food and they can abide by that without a problem, then go for it. If you can pull out apples and all the kids will cheer, then by all means… do it. There are days when that works perfectly. However, with kids, there’s a social element to food. Being able to snack with the other kids at the playground is an opportunity to make friends. If they can’t eat with them, there’s an isolation that can happen. And while sometimes it’s avoidable, sometimes it’s just better to make a better snack offering. You’ve got to be prepared for both sets of situations, if you should choose to engage. You certainly don’t have to. Just know that you will face this sooner or later.
Besides, you’ll have to scope out what kinds of snacks are at the playground because these are the snacks you’ll have to compete against at their lunch tables. You’ll have to get in the habit of making better snacks, anyway… so start now and use whole foods. Use real blueberries in your blueberry muffins. Use unbleached flour (or almond flour, or black bean flour… I’m sayin’. Creative.) Add flavor by using fruits and veggies. Color your kids foods by using fruit, not food coloring. Top your treats with carob chips and raisins and other kinds of dried unsweetened fruit. Sweeten the snacks using fruit instead of granulated sugar. Have fun with it. Because its real food, you don’t have to worry the way you would if you were dealing with processed food.
A lot of kid food, really, is about color and novelty. It’s not really taste – the only taste present in a lot of kids food is SWEET!, nothing more – just novelty. That being said, I’m a huge fan of cookie cutters. Alphabets are cool, but shapes like high heel shoes, coffee mugs, houses, trucks, cats, dogs, birds? Oh, you’re in there like swimwear.
You’ve also got to make use of whatever fruits are on sale. Those strawberries that are on sale 3 for $5? Take advantage. The pumpkin on sale? Grab one. Get creative with it. Pumpkin mini muffins with whipped topping… sneaking in some veggies (zucchini muffins?) and wowwing kids with something nice and pretty can also win. Shaved coconut on sale? Make gingerbread cookies in the shape of birds and put shaved coconut on the wings.
As far as the bulk of her lunch? More often than not, the little one likes her peanut butter. So… peanut butter on one side, honey on the other, cut the way she likes (you can also be fancy and use the cookie cutters on this, as well.) She also likes her little nachos, so I’ll make her a big salsa with black beans and cheese with tortilla chips. I let her help me make fruit spreads, so if I let her help me make some apple butter, she looks forward to her apple butter sandwiches for that week. It’s a win/win for the both of us.
Sometimes, it’s about making something that your kid will want more than everyone else’s stuff, not just making stuff that the other kids will want. You’re sneaking fruits and veggies into your kids diet, but you’re also elevating their palate beyond what’s typically shoved down a child’s throat. A few things are always going to be certain: kids, no matter how old or young, are going to eat anything that caters to that sugary fatty loving thing in the brain. You just have to figure out how to head it off at the pass, and early, before they develop into the full blown “I will not eat a vegetable ever ever ever” syndrome that I see often in adults.
But what happens if none of that works?
If all else fails, you can always rely upon consistency. You teach a child how to eat healthily by exhibiting these behaviors at home, and giving them a foundation on which to understand food. Children develop consciences. They know that they eat one way at home, and another way entirely when they’re skipping and dipping out to their friends homes for the junk food. So even if they do eat junk at a friend’s house, they’re very aware of the fact that it’s junk. You tell ’em – “I can’t control how you eat elsewhere, but in this house, we eat healthily because we want to live healthily.” When they leave the nest, they’ll have that understanding of food that they obtained from living at home to build from, and can change their habits and environments accordingly.
Kids are tough, sometimes, especially if you’re converting them away from processed foods instead of raising them to live without it (the difference, here, being age.) Even though my daughter was converted at around age 2, she still has faint memories of the crap I used to give her and asks why she can’t have it. However, when I tell her she can’t have it because “it’s not healthy,” she understands. It’s a lot of work to get a kid to that level, but if you work at it (and work at it hard), it can be done.
Who else is struggling with keeping their kid away from the crap food? What tips do you have?