Monday, April 26, 2010

Eating With Kids - Get off to a Good Start

Most parents agree that getting kids to eat a well-balanced diet is a daily challenge. It may require us to change our own habits, shop more carefully, and revise our schedules to make sure we’re allowing enough time for meals. In his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan asks the innocent question, “What should we have for dinner?” and turns the answer into a personal challenge. By empowering readers to investigate our food sources, he opens the door to making nutritious choices, supporting local food producers, and changing the way we feed ourselves and our families. 

I read his book around the time my daughter was born and became so convinced of the wisdom of knowing where our food comes from that I started a vegetable garden. I also decided to try an experiment: I’d see how long I could go without making separate meals for our daughter, and I wouldn’t  purchase processed foods.  In particular, I decided not to buy kid staples: Goldfish crackers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. 

One of my husband’s colleagues worried that our daughter would turn on us, or at best be really weird, like that kid who wasn’t allowed to watch any TV growing up (me). The good news is that I really believe in moderation, and I knew that she would eventually get her hands on all that “good stuff.”  But first I wanted to see if I could get a kid to eat her veggies without complaints or bribes. My hypothesis was that if she was only offered nutritious foods that the whole family ate together, her only options would be nutritious ones. No high-carb snacks between meals. No substitute dinners. Dessert would have its time and place. 

The first thing I did was make sure I was eating healthy foods myself. I’ve always been a pretty healthy eater, but I’d never really given much thought to organic foods, aside from the fact that they were more expensive. I began to shop more thoughtfully, waste less, and cut back on meat.  I bought a mini-food processor and gradually offered my daughter as many mashed up fruits and vegetables as I could find available. As she was able to chew more, she began grabbing food off my plate. I prepared more food and shared it with her. I soon found myself reaching beyond my established palate to sample new textures and flavors. 

To keep her interested, I involved her in every step of the process, from choosing vegetable seeds for our garden to shopping for the many things we don’t grow, and mixing it all up in the kitchen.  She may be more interested in making mud-pies than planting evenly spaced rows, and we inevitably find a lone carrot in the middle of the lawn, but nothing excites her more than plucking tomatoes off the vine and pulling hidden treasures from beneath the ground. She loves to help me wash vegetables and stir up sauces. Involving her in food preparation is a little messy and time consuming, but she’s learning what goes into her food. She’s developing a healthy respect for both the ingredients and the care it takes to prepare a healthy meal. 

Now that she’s in school, keeping things balanced requires significant resistance to food marketing campaigns and the general public’s ideas about what kids like to eat. When we eat in restaurants, we order a healthy appetizer for her, rather than the high-carb, fried options from the children’s menu. She’s finally had her fair share of hotdogs and cupcakes, but she understands that these are special treats. We don’t normally keep them on hand, so they are not a daily enticement.

Occasionally, I’ll give her something and she just doesn’t like it. It’s rare that she’ll reject an entire meal, so we just encourage her to eat more of what she does like. She’ll often taste new things when paired with an old standby. Like most kids her age, she goes through phases where she rejects foods she previously loved, like bananas. I just keep offering it, eating it myself, and eventually she comes around.  Her range is now broad enough that I can quickly substitute something equally nutritious.

We’ve also adjusted the way we view meal times. Without realizing it, my husband and I had become accustomed to eating very quickly. For awhile, my husband gobbled up his meal, assumed our daughter wasn’t going to finish her plate and...horrors...started finishing her food. Then we realized that she was modeling good dining etiquette. She takes her time, converses pleasantly, albeit randomly, about her observations, often incorporating song. In her own good time, she eats all that is offered. Eating with our daughter reminds us that a meal should be enjoyed with conversation, leisurely consumption, and measured portions.

It's never too late to start your family on a healthier meal plan. Start by growing your own salad. A pot on the porch will do. Lettuce requires neither much light, nor much space. Plant the seeds, watch them grow, and I guarantee your child will enthusiastically rip fresh greens from the soil and pop them in his/her mouth before you can stop him. Before you know it, you’ll be growing a whole Peter Rabbit garden!


  1. She is such a good eater of so many foods. Someday we need to chat with you about what we could set up on our balcony, maybe even have you over to help us get started.

  2. Any time! You can grow so many shade-loving vegetables in a pot on your porch. You could even try beets!