Trust Kids To Like Healthy Food

If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know I have a strong propensity to proselytize. Nothing religious or political, don’t worry. My abiding passion is delicious, healthy home cooking, and I’ll chew your ear off about it if I get half a chance.I’m at my most zealous when it comes to teaching children about healthy food, for the eating habits they develop in early childhood will stay with them for the rest of their lives — both the good and the bad!

Children are the toughest customers when it comes to healthy eating. They love what nutrition scientists call “high food reward” fare (plain English: anything addictively fatty, sugary, crispy, crunchy or nugget-shaped) and turn up their noses at anything vegetal, whole-grain or additive-free, especially when it comes out of a cooking pot rather than a package.

Or do they?

In my experience, children *do* like healthy food — provided it’s tasty and attractively presented. The problem with a lot of “health food” is that it isn’t always very appetizing: steamed fish, overcooked vegetables, brown stews, chewy whole grains or “white cubes of nothingness” (as my oldest son describes tofu) just aren’t that appealing. And so when faced with a perceived choice of brown sludge on the one hand and Happy Meals on the other, most kids will choose the latter. Can you blame them?

“A few years ago, I went through a quinoa phase,” recalls Delphine, a friend of mine. “My children are still traumatized! Whenever I cook, they say: please don’t let it be quinoa. This put me off trying to cook healthy food — they won’t eat it anyway. My kids just love McDonalds!”

As with most things in life, however, there is a Middle Way: food that’s healthy *and* tasty!

I’m very lucky that my kids (aged 9, 9 and 14) generally like “real” food — including more unusual items like seaweed, smelly cheese and bitter chocolate. Even quinoa! I never got into cooking “kids’ food” because I was too lazy to make separate meals for adults and kids, and too time-starved to make cute snacks like caterpillars made from miniature pancakes.

So instead, our kids have always eaten the same dishes as their parents: home-cooked vegetables, fish, meat, stews and soups, and for dessert, a fruit, a square or two of dark chocolate or — on special occasions — some home-made vanilla egg pudding. They generally eat these hungrily and happily.

They even take quite a lively interest in food — not just the eating of it, but also shopping for it at the farmers’ market and cooking it. All three help in the kitchen, with my oldest son producing whole meals single-handedly on days when I’m busy or he’s bored.

Of course my kids aren’t immune to the lure of “kids’ foods” they see advertised in magazines and on billboards, and get to sample at their friends’ houses or at school. As I have written about before, I am resigned to their occasional forays into the world of edible junk (which are nearly daily, given the amounds of sweets and candy bars their friends bring to school); it’s just that I don’t buy that stuff for them.

This strategy is bearing fruit, as a school week’s worth of anecdotes will illustrate.

On Monday I did something unusual: at the health-food store, buying some peppers for dinner, I picked up a roll of chocolate cookies for the kids as a snack after school. (I don’t know what came over me — I never buy cookies. Maybe a need to mitigate my Food-Nazi reputation?)

When the kids got home, I produced the cookies with a triumphant flourish — tadaaaah! Three disappointed pairs of eyes stared at me. “I’d much rather have one of those,” mumbled my oldest, pointing at a red pepper peeking out of the shopping bag. “OK,” I said, “you can have a pepper — but are you really sure?” He was. Then the twins started clamoring: “If he can have a pepper, we want one too!” Sure, go wild! So they all started chomping on peppers and I improvised a side-dish of frozen spinach. The cookies are still in my kitchen cupboard.

On Tuesday, my 14-year-old took a tub of dinner leftovers to school for lunch, a portion of lentil byriani, an vegetarian Indian dish. He was slightly worried his friends would make fun of him for eating something so “health-foody.” Instead, attracted by the scents of cardamom, coriander, cilantro, garlic and caramelized onions, a class-mate took a taste of his lunch and liked it so much she offered him $5 for it! (Maybe I should set up a byriani stand outside the school?)

On Wednesday, my twins’ school held a cake sale and of course I allowed them to buy a piece of cake at recess. My daughter picked a cupcake with blue icing, topped with a gummy-bear. “I was really surprised, it tasted horrible — really artificial,” she told me in the afternoon. “I picked off the icing and tried to eat just the cake, but even that was too sweet.”

To satisfy their cravings for crispy-crunchy-fatty-spicy sensations, last night’s dinner was home-made falafel: vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free garbanzo balls made from sprouted beans, cooked in olive oil and drizzled with a garlicky sesame dressing. Extreme healthiness nothwithstanding, my kids wolfed them down.

And today, my older son took a piece of home-made chocolate-zucchini cake to school which he shared with a class mate known for his aversion to green vegetables. “He loved it – didn’t notice a thing, and I certainly wasn’t going to ruin his appetite by telling him,” my son reported cheerfully in the afternoon.

I’m not trying to brag; I simply want to show you that, contrary to what junk-food advertisers would have us believe, children actually like the taste of real food — even those who, like my son’s friends, don’t eat like this regularly and whose mothers aren’t health nuts. So please remember, it’s never too late to teach your child (or yourself!) to enjoy healthy, tasty, home-made food!

Here are just some of the things that help get kids interested in healthy food:

  • Make dishes taste interesting by using exciting textures, spices, herbs, (natural!) colors and salt (yes, in moderation salt is fine)
  • Don’t scrimp on fat — healthy fats such as olive oil, cold-pressed nut oils, ghee, coconut oil or raw, pastured butter bring out the flavors of any dish and are wonderfully satisfying to young taste buds
  • Encourage kids to be creative with food (e.g. assembling a wrap filled with healthy ingredients such as tuna salad, guacamole, hummus, egg salad and chopped raw vegetables; or dipping fresh fruit into dark melted chocolate or threading it onto kebabs)
  • Don’t allow filling snacks in-between meals: come dinnertime, a ravenous child can’t afford to be picky
  • Downplay dessert: serve small desserts as an occasional treat, but teach children to fill up on mains, not afters
  • Offer healthy, home-made versions of unhealthy foods, e.g. home-made chicken nuggets or fish sticks with home-made ketchup; bring home-made lemonade or pop corn to the movies
  • Get kids involved in shopping and cooking, and ask them to suggest ideas for meals (a sure way to get them to eat that meal, since they suggested it!)
  • Eat with your children and set an example by being a non-fussy eater who revels in simple, tasty food

If you’re new to cooking, check out my YouTube cooking videos, where I show how to make simple, tasty dishes that my children love and that even beginners can easily master.