In my dreams, my two daughters, ages 2 and 6, are full-blown foodies, pint-sized bon vivants, little gastronomes, happily eating sushi or goat cheese with gusto. But then I wake up.
My reality is two finicky daughters — funny, spirited, interesting daughters, but finicky nonetheless. On any given day, they’d rather swear off sweets for life than taste a piece of sashimi or a spicy tuna roll; needless to say, I had to reset my expectations a bit. These days, I measure family food success by such benchmarks as one of my girls choosing fruit over a cookie. (This actually happens occasionally, I promise.)
These successes, as small as they sometimes seem, are hard won. In her brilliant 2008 book The Dinner Diaries, Betsy Block, a Boston-based mom of two, might as well be reading my mind when she writes: “I’d always thought food was pretty straightforward: you’re hungry, you eat; you’re not, you don’t. Then I became a mother.”
Going into parenthood, I was convinced my children would be stellar eaters, smugly declaring that I’d never make two different dinners (one for the grownups and one for the kids) or regularly resort to chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Boy, was I naïve.
From the minute I introduced solid foods, feeding my kids was wrought with drama; it was a fragile balance between what I wanted them to eat and what they would actually consume. On several occasions, a spinach sighting triggered dinner-table apocalypse. Compared to my own parents, who cooked one dinner and insisted we kids eat it or go to bed hungry, I became far too indulgent. If my girls refused everything on their plates, there was always an alternative. I’m convinced that this food safety net created less adventurous eaters, as they became accustomed to holding out for the back-up sustenance waiting in the wings.
After nearly five years of tug of war, I knew something had to change. I was motivated not only by the desire to raise children with a healthy attitude toward food and an adventurous palate, but also by the inevitable health consequences that awaited us if we continued down this path. According to an October 2008 article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6-11 more than doubled in the past 20 years.” Add to this the findings of a March 2005 report published in The New England Journal of Medicine stating that the current generation of children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents, as the rapid rise in childhood obesity, if left unchecked, could shorten life spans by as much as five years. For the first time in two centuries, our children’s lives are potentially being cut short because of what they eat. I was alarmed and ready to take action.
I quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone, as chatting with other moms revealed that this kid-food conundrum was widespread. But I was still daunted. How, amidst raising a family, nurturing a marriage, running a household and having a career, could I orchestrate a change in my daughters’ attitudes toward food? Wouldn’t it be time-consuming, expensive … impossible?
To help document my journey and potentially inspire other health-hungry families, I started a blog titled “Raising Foodies” (www.raisingfoodies.blogspot.com). Here, I set to work grilling families I knew whose kids exhibited good eating habits, often sharing their stories online. I scoured the Internet, read other blogs and books and gathered strategies. The result was a slew of strategies that collectively helped reshape mealtime out our house.
RELAX: THERE WILL BE "NO!"
Early in my quest for healthy eaters, I discovered the fluidity of my children’s palates. My oldest was relatively adventurous as a toddler, only to become supremely picky when she hit 4. My youngest has always been a picky eater but pulled out the occasional surprise — like a fondness for asparagus. To make matters more complicated, either girl may have eaten a particular food with gusto on Monday only to deem said food Public Enemy No. 1 on Friday. What was going on?
According to North Texas mom of three and licensed dietitian Leslie Lopez, kids must try and try again. “It could take a child up to seven times experiencing a particular food before he or she is willing to eat it,” she says. Lopez urges parents to stay the course, reminding them that creating good eaters is a process. “Our job as parents is to decide what to cook, while our kid’s job is to decide what and how much they’ll eat,” she says.
Lopez suggests creating meals that include a few accepted tastes because “trying to introduce more than two new foods at any given meal sets the stage for mealtime battles.” Meals should be about connecting your family rather than policing every morsel, she says, adding that parents shouldn’t put too much focus on a single meal.
DISCOVER THE SOURCE
A key driver in the quest to change my children’s ideas about food was to get us eating as locally and sustainably as possible. I’d long been a proponent of buying organic and did so while sticking to our monthly food budget by focusing on the “dirty dozen” — a list of fruits and vegetables researchers at the Environmental Working Group say you should always buy organic, if possible, because their conventionally grown counterparts tend to be laden with pesticides. I was also adamant about buying organic milk and meat, offsetting any higher costs by serving fewer meat-based meals and eliminating many processed and convenience foods.
But I wanted to create an even stronger connection to our food by supporting local farmers and food producers. With markets such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, Central Market and Sunflower touting robust local selections and the plentiful network of Dallas-Fort Worth farmer’s markets, I found it surprisingly easy to buy local, thus enabling us to enjoying tastier, fresher food while reducing the number of miles something traveled to reach my plate (also pumping more of our food dollars back into the community).
My family started making weekly pilgrimages to the farmer’s market, and the girls’ resulting excitement was palpable. On any given Saturday, my otherwise shy-with-adults 5-year-old could be found chatting with local farmers about the chickens that supplied the eggs I was about to purchase. Lopez had a similar experience with her own children who, after visiting a road-side produce stand a couple of years ago, became farmer’s market “junkies,” begging her to go to local markets twice a week.
Beyond our standing farmer’s market date, we also planted a clutch of herbs in our backyard. The trend of home and neighborhood gardens is on the rise, with local community gardens sporting long waiting lists and families tending small plots together. Amy Twomey, a Dallas mom of three kids ages 3-11, watched her children’s palates expand after planting a small patch of veggies in the family’s backyard earlier this summer. Twomey notes, “I think my children’s disdain for tomatoes stemmed from the fact that they’d never tasted a good one before. The first time they ate a cherry tomato we had grown ourselves, it was a revelation.”
Susan Flanagan, Dallas County master gardener and mother of two grown daughters, has also seen kids’ tastes grow as they gained a greater understanding of where their food came from. As the project manager for Dallas’ Robert E. Lee Elementary school garden, she’s currently working with kids to plant, harvest and cook veggies such as broccoli, Swiss chard, spinach and beets, allowing them to experience foods many have never tasted before. A recent afternoon saw Flanagan working alongside a class in the school cafeteria to make an eggplant dish. Flanagan says, “Kids are more open to new foods when they’re part of the process.”
MIX IT UP – TOGETHER
Once my own girls forged a stronger connection with where their food came from, I knew we would need to bite the bullet and start cooking more. Let’s be honest, way more, as in our busy lives cooking had taken a back seat to the lure of convenience.
I was determined to get us back into the kitchen. I started slow, not wanting to get overwhelmed and abandon the mission straight out of the gate. We picked up a few kid-friendly cookbooks — Fanny at Chez Panisse ($15 at www.chezpanisse.com) became an instant favorite, as the recipes are prefaced by a whimsical story about author Alice Waters’ life growing up at the famed Berkley, Calif., foodie temple Chez Panisse. We began regularly flipping through cookbooks with the kids, pinpointing recipes we wanted to try together.
Lisa Greene, a Dallas mom and author of the upcoming book Processed Kids — The Real Moms Guide to Raising Natural Kids in a Processed World, also cooks avidly with her two young children, ages 3 and 6, and her fool-proof strategy for keeping mealtime healthy but still quick and affordable is to spend the bulk of her grocery budget on whole, unprocessed foods and to prepare meals in advance. A typical Sunday afternoon might find Greene chopping carrots three ways: shredded for sneaking into homemade desserts, cubed for soups and into sticks for easy snacking. She also keeps cut-up fruit on hand for a quick snack.
In addition, Greene enlists her older child in preparing and freezing several meals out of a single ingredient, such as using a rotisserie chicken to make tortilla soup, enchiladas and quesadillas. She also turns out healthy alternatives to fried chicken nuggets and fish sticks by slicing chicken breast or firm white fish into strips, dredging in egg and bread crumbs and baking until crispy.
Similarly, Twomey saw her two older children’s interest in trying new foods soar after enrolling them in a cooking class. After learning how to make black beans, rice and enchiladas, the kids were clamoring to re-create their culinary adventures at home.
Like Greene’s and Twomey’s children, my oldest daughter quickly caught the cooking bug. We let her help in the kitchen at every opportunity, and her first “solo” undertaking was sautéed green beans from the farmer’s market, replacing the canned version we usually bought. It was quick, easy, cheap and fun, and (the true test) she ate every last bean on her plate. When she was involved in selecting, preparing and cooking them, green vegetables were no longer in enemy camp.
We were on our way to better eating, but as I was factoring time, money and health into our endeavor, I knew we needed some structure to keep us in check. My husband and I agreed to still allow for the occasional take-out meal but set a firm limit of no more than once a week, and, like Greene, we regularly made bulk batches of favorite healthy meals. I also began creating a weekly menu and sticking to it, as being prepared inevitably helps me resist the siren song of the drive-through on harried evenings.
Above all, we aimed to stay laid-back and flexible. I vowed not to sweat it if the girls refused to eat something on their plate, and if my husband and I both worked late or things weren’t accessible around dinnertime, we allowed ourselves to go off-menu. We we’re determined to keep meals fun and easy.
Our family is now enjoying more time in the garden, at the farmer’s market and in the kitchen, and I can honestly say that we don’t miss the time we used to spend watching an extra episode of Yo Gabba Gabba or squeezing in just “one more” extra household chore. Instead, we’re doing something that we strongly believe in — to us, it’s worth the extra effort that might just let our kids enjoy old age. By buying more local food and cooking meals together at home, I’m convinced we’re raising healthier, more conscientious kids. For us, dinner has never been better.