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What the Fork Are My Kids Eating?

I hope these tangible tactics offer some guidance. It's the small changes that make the big difference so pick your starting point and go from there!
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The other day my younger son came home from school with a green lollipop in his mouth. "Where did you get this?" I asked. "From our treasure box at school Mom," he replied with a little too much sass for my liking. While I do let my kids dabble in the super bad junk every so often (candy, hot dogs, etc.), I don't leave it to them to choose when (especially not my 7 year old with health challenges). Despite the fact that I provided his teacher with ample supply of Hunter-safe junk (apparently she ran out) and my child is very clear on what he can and can't have, he always pushes the limit. But he's a kid and that's what he's supposed to do. So as the parent, I am frequently coming up with new ways to communicate with him about food and give him the tools to want to make better choices.

This is what I have realized over the years whether from teaching grown-ups, kids or my own experiences with motherhood--with an edible education, realism, a strategy and patience you can easily impart what you know onto your kids. But be sure to talk with them, versus at them and make them stewards of your family's sustenance. Strategies for Introducing New Nourishment (an abbreviated excerpt from What The Fork, Chapter 15) could perhaps offer some insight...

Let's face it, the most difficult part of your task is not going to be clearing out your pantry and checking labels one by one. If you are reading What the Fork, you are motivated on some level. The toughest part will far and away be convincing your family to get on board. So you have to make it fun while also setting some new boundaries and ground rules.

Talk to the adults about what you plan to do for you and your kids (if you have them) and hand them a copy of this book, but in the end they will make their own choices. Kids (from birth onward) develop healthy eating habits by modeling their grown-ups.

Thus constant exposure to healthy food and conversation about food is critical. Before suggesting some tested get‑onboard strategies, I would like to establish a few ground rules:

  • Never presume your child (or even your partner/ spouse) won't like something. I bet you are already thinking that you won't buy this or that because you know that they won't like it. If you have an open mind, it's likely that they will too.
  • Make a rule that everyone has to try something once.
  • Never quit on introducing new foods. If your kid (or resident grown-up) doesn't like the new Better for You version of those chocolate sandwich cookies, keep reintroducing. For fresh food like broccoli, relentlessly reintroduce (at two-week intervals), but think about how you are preparing it (perhaps you should sauté it with some olive oil, even add a little butter, rather than steam it, or try Skillet Broccoli on page 256).
  • When your child does not like a food, talk to them about why they don't like it. Explain to them why it is healthy. For example, "Spinach can give you muscles like your favorite professional athlete hero..."
  • Never forget that it is your job as a caregiver to provide your children with a variety of healthy foods, and it is their job to choose what to eat within that context. If they skip a meal, they won't starve.
  • Don't push food on your kids (as in "you must eat everything on your plate"); children need to learn how to self-regulate.

Supermarket Scavenger Hunt
Kids can be a hindrance while food shopping for sure. So how about making them an asset? You can give older children a list of food items to find and send them on a Supermarket Scavenger Hunt (with their own cart and all). You will be not only orienting them toward the grocery shopping experience (a good tool to have for self-sufficiency later in life) but also guiding them to better food choices. As in any scavenger hunt, there can be a prize of some sort at the end of the "game" (a small monetary token, the chance to pick a healthy treat, or perhaps a trip to the movies with a friend). Those who are too little to scavenge on their own can hunt with you by their side. Create a list and ask them to identify each item as you stroll through the aisles. Reward them accordingly as suggested earlier. This ends up being fun for the kids no matter the age and helpful for you.

The Taste-Testing Experiment
The Taste-Testing Experiment is a great activity to do with your kids (and even your partner/spouse) to get them involved and make it a little easier for them to give up their not-so-healthy choices. Using your Reaper Rescue Guide (from chapter 13) as a starting point, select two healthier alternatives for that food at the grocery store (use Appendix B, "Common Food Brands and Recommended Alternatives" to help here) and set up a taste test at home. For example, the fabulous fruit roll-up's Better for You Alternative can be found in Stretch Island's FruitaBü or even their fruit leather. To get your kids into the spirit of the "test," blindfold them if you have to. And let them taste the Grim Reaper and the Better for You Alternative. Then talk about the experience with them. Odds are good that once they try the healthier but just as yummy choices, they'll be open to trying more of the Keepers.

The Arts and Crafts Kitchen
My son Hunter is extraordinarily picky (see the "Respecting Funny Little Eating Habits" sidebar). So to ease his pain and mine, I turned to what I do best--cooking.

He has gone from the kid who eats nothing to the kid who loves to cook, eats what he cooks, and is now more open to trying new things (a huge step). Most kids' palates expand when they are allowed to touch and taste anything edible. Think arts and crafts but with food. While it may be more stressful for you, it's worthwhile to bear it with a smile on your face. So I urge you to get the kids touching and playing with edibles at an early age (as soon as they can sit in a high chair). This can then evolve into cooking with them. With a kitchen stool, a butter knife, a cutting board, and some soft foods to get started (such as mushrooms and cheese), your kids will be little cooks in no time. One of my favorite go-to resources for all things kid-and-cooking-related is julienegrin. com.

The Chopped Competition
Have you ever watched Chopped on the Food Network? Picture this: four chefs, a basket of four obscure ingredients, and the task of creating a dish within a fairly short time frame. There are three rounds, and at the end of each, a chef is eliminated, finally leaving one as the winner of $10,000. Now, I am not a big TV watcher, but this show surely planted a seed in my already overactive mind as I watched it with my boys. We created a family version of Chopped. My husband bought the ingredients (scallops, red potatoes, cucumber, and pineapple), and Jack and I competed (though we didn't set a time limit--a much safer way to do it with kids) while Hunter watched and eventually made a concoction of his own. We had a blast and it was a great way for me to connect with my boys around food. This is what we came up with:

Jack--Scallop soup; seared scallops with pan-fried diced potatoes; cucumber spears and sliced pineapple

Me--Seared scallops over potato hash with a grilled-pineapple-and-cucumber salsa

In the end, we not only cooked but also chatted about ingredients, meal preparation, and our creations and shared a meal together as a family. But most importantly, Hunter, my picky child who prefers food from a box, ate fish and mushrooms for the very first time! Everyone was on board that evening.

Say It On Social Media
I had just unwillingly (I wouldn't call myself incredibly social-media savvy) launched a Pinterest board, when one day, while cooking and posting, I caught Jack, then six, peering over my shoulder, "Hey, Mom, can I do one of those?"

It was the birth of an idea--we started a board, "Jack Loves Food" where we posted photos from our many food adventures whether shopping or cooking. Since, we have put Pinterest aside for Facebook, Instagram and the fabulous Feedfeed, a social media platform (and Smartphone app) that is 100 percent food-centric connecting people all over the world on everything edible from inspiration to actual recipes. You can find me on all three under "Stefanie Sacks" (I am finally getting better at social media) and know that many of the photos are compliments of Jack and his little brother Hunter as we love to take pics of anything food related and share the nourishment. Actively posting together has been a great way to keep the conversation going and I urge you to try it with your little ones.

I hope these tangible tactics offer some guidance. It's the small changes that make the big difference so pick your starting point and go from there!

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© 2014 Stefanie Sacks Tarcher Penguin Random House