I love taking children to the farmer's market this time of year. It's so much nicer than dragging them through the grocery store as they stare forlornly at the junk food placed precisely at their eye level.
With a bounty of crisp, sweet peas, bright green asparagus, fresh spring onions and the first crop of strawberries, May is the perfect time to return to the market. For parents, it's a wonderful opportunity to introduce new flavors and foods to children.
Because of that, it's no coincidence that Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution Day is scheduled for this week. He's a fellow Brit, so I may be biased, but I think he's done a fantastic job in the U.S. and UK promoting home cooking and proper nutrition for families. In fact, Food Revolution Day inspired me to make this video with acclaimed private chef Jennel Tiller on making a quick, delicious stir-fry at home with kids.
I was just speaking about cooking and kids with nutritionist and registered dietician Mary Shea Rosen of Brattleboro, VT. With years of experience designing healthy meals for children in Head Start programs and three children of her own, she shares my love for taking children to the market and finding creative ways to help them discover new favorite foods.
Mum, if you eat a healthy and varied diet, you've already begun preparing baby for a lifetime of proper nutrition. A recent study found that babies whose mothers ate carrots and carrot juice in their last trimester were quickly keen on carrot-flavored cereals.
If mum was a picky eater when pregnant or has dietary restrictions, not to worry -- after baby is born, there's about a two-year window when he is particularly open to new foods. It may take more than one go, but introducing new foods is relatively simple while that window is open.
As Mary points out, this window makes a good deal of sense from an evolutionary perspective. Children learn what's good to eat from the adults around them, who give them proper food and keep them away from poisonous or dangerous things. After two years -- two cycles of trying the different foods from each season -- anything that hasn't been parent-approved is suspect.
That's why the best time to introduce new foods and encourage adventurous eating habits is when children are quite little. Still, if you have a picky eater who's well out of toddlerhood, do not despair! Whether you've gotten a bit off track with meals or are just starting to introduce solid foods, now is the perfect time to get going in the right direction.
Here are my top tips for getting kids on board with healthy new foods:
1. Serve vegetables as an appetizer. While you set out the rest of dinner, keep hungry kids occupied with veggies. (I love carrot sticks and fresh cut bell pepper.) When you serve veggies before dinner, they're more likely to be eaten.
2. Offer control. Picky eating is often about control, not taste. Offer two options ("Shall we have peas or broccoli trees with lunch?") and give your child the power to choose one.
3. Remember tiny tummies. I often hear from parents concerned that their toddlers aren't eating enough. But when they describe all the child ate that day, it's really plenty of food. Children's tummies are quite small -- about the size of their clenched fist. What looks like a reasonable snack to grown-up eyes might be an overwhelming portion for little ones.
4. Never underestimate the power of a silly face. At snack time, try arranging cucumber slice eyes with a ranch dip smile and carrot teeth, or peanut butter eyes and a celery mouth on an apple slice head.
To make it a meal, add a bit more protein. "When my kids were really young," Mary remembered with a laugh, "one of the silliest things was to do low-fat cottage cheese on lettuce and make faces with veggies."
5. Make it interactive. Who says you shouldn't play with your food? Steamed artichokes with lemon butter for dipping, roasted asparagus with a little cup of grated parmesan, lettuce wraps for stuffing with seasoned chicken or beans and veg -- kids love interacting with their food! For bonus points, give each component a cool name -- "trees with snow" will add a dash of giggles to a dish of broccoli with parmesan.
6. Delegate sous chef duties. At the market, have everyone pick out one fruit or veggie they'd like to have that evening. ("Only one each, not two," you say, ensuring they'll want at least one.) Then, let them add their chosen food to the pizza, soup, or salsa. When children are involved in the cooking, they're much more likely to try the result.
7. Be a veggie pragmatist. As a busy mum herself, Mary is the first to acknowledge that it's not always possible to browse the market with your children. When that happens, reach for frozen vegetables. "The nutrient profile on vegetables that are flash frozen are just as good," she says, and frozen veggies are more forgiving of busy schedules and fickle toddler tastes.
8. Zucchini bread is not a vegetable. Quite a few recent books suggest ways to "sneak" fruit and veg into children's meals. Boosting nutrition is all well and good, but it's also important to teach children what things look and taste like in their natural state. Don't just sneak a cheeky puree into the pizza sauce -- tell them it's there, and let them see how it's prepared.
9. Grown-up food is kid food. As a child, I ate what my parents ate, and so did all the other kids I knew. Giving children bland, nutrition-poor "kid food" like macaroni or chicken nuggets is a recent phenomenon, and it does no one any good. Unless there are allergies involved, serve one meal for the family.
10. Don't give up. Studies show that children have to try a food 10-15 times to like it, and I've certainly found that to be true. Encourage children to play with a new food, touch it, smell it, and above all taste it, but keep things lighthearted. Remember your child isn't just being contrary -- being suspicious of new food is an entirely reasonable instinct, especially for children.
11. The no-thank-you bite. If your child refuses outright to try new things, introduce a "no-thank-you bite" rule. With this rule, if a child doesn't want to eat something, that's fine -- so long as she takes a small bite and says "no thank you." If she still doesn't like it, chalk it up to one of those 10-15 necessary new food exposures and move on.
To get you started, here are a few of my favorite recipes that feature spring flavors:
Spinach and Strawberry Salad
Toss baby spinach with washed, sliced strawberries and yogurt dressing.
Not only do the sweet berries balance out the slightly bitter spinach, but it's an especially healthy pairing. "From a nutritional point of view, it's a great combination," Mary says. "There's iron in the spinach and vitamin C in the strawberries, and you need vitamin C to metabolize iron."
Spring Veggie Fritters
Grate 2 large carrots, 1 small sweet potato and 2 zucchinis. Squeeze out excess moisture.
Add a few chopped spring onions, a handful of chopped cilantro, 3/4 cup whole wheat bread crumbs, two eggs, a pinch of salt and pepper and 1 tsp each of cinnamon, cumin, and mild curry.
Mix together and form into patties about 2" in diameter. Cook for 2 minutes on each side in a nonstick pan with a quick spray of olive oil. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt mixed with a bit of honey and a dash more curry powder.
Makes about 20 fritters. Wrap and freeze extras -- they heat up nicely in the microwave or toaster oven.
Berry Yogurt Dots
Use a fork or toothpick to dip blueberries or small strawberry halves in a bit of yogurt, one at a time. Set on a cookie tray lined with wax paper and freeze for 1 hour.
They melt quickly, but that's OK -- toddlers only need 3 or 4 dots as a snack, and older children love gobbling them up before they melt.
Last, my thanks to chef Jennel Tiller and nutritionist Mary Shea Rosen for their recipes and expertise. Readers, let us know how they worked for you in the comments!