Five Steps for Getting Your Kids To Eat Good Food

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“Daddy, this is marvelous!”

These were the magic words spoken by son #3. Let’s just say he is a “selective” eater, which has probably less to do with what’s on the table than his need to be noticed. He was hovering over bagna caoda (pictured above), a cold selection of fresh and blanched vegetables that surround a vessel of hot oil (which happens to be flavored with a bit of garlic and anchovies). This fusspot at the table was ogling over what is essentially a plate of simple, unadulterated vegetables. His favorite were the peas, skewered on bamboo sticks and then blanched. (Peas are the nemesis of children the world over. By some divine intervention my kids love them.)
My children like the things that most kids like: pizza, hamburgers, pasta. And they have their own tastes, as diverse as they are individually: our oldest loves his grilled pork chops but won’t touch peppers; our second son never refuses penne al tonno but cannot stomach polenta. Number three could eat all on his own a platter of pesto (garlic anyone?) and his favorite pizza features (as one its ingredients) caramelized onion– yet he’ll pick out the onions piece-by-piece if they appear anywhere else. Our heartiest eater is number four and eats everything. And then sometimes he just is too bored to eat because there is something else happening that is way more exciting. It’s hard to keep him seated through an entire meal.

If you have children or dine with children, you’ll recognize these eating patterns.

In an article on Huffington Post recently shared by my friend Shannon on my Facebook news feed, I read about Leigh Andersen’s struggle as a mother to feed her child and her discovery of nutritionist and family therapist Ellyn Satter’s book on feeding children. The blogger found salvation in the expression ‘You don’t have to eat this’ as way of not becoming a short-order cook and avoiding stressful mealtimes and showdowns over food between parent and child. Satter’s guidance may sound logical and Andersen’s support makes it seem the perfect solution: that having children decide independently and autonomously what and how much to eat. But both miss the mark far and wide, since the only person this approach benefits is—ta-da!—the parent.

As a father and personal chef to four boys who have different tastes and likes, it takes a gargantuan effort to put a meal on the table that everyone is happy about. From shopping, preparation, eating and clean-up, a meal at Cerines for six can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. Let’s immediately set aside the gimmicky ‘Thirty-minute Meals’ which makes any home cook feel inadequate. Most of us don’t cook on-set and with a dedicated staff.  Indeed, that misnomer doesn’t quantify where those thirty minutes are actually spent. Certainly not planning out the weekly menu, shopping at the market, prepping the foods, setting the table, serving, and then cleaning up. Andersen, too, talks about her frustration over preparing the meal only to have her child scoff at the quality of it once she serves it.

The solution? ‘You can either take it or leave it’. The take away of the article is to just carry on digging through your own plate of food and your child will spontaneously model your behavior. Or the child will not be bothered and can either eat it or not. His choice.

The only problem is that by assuming that your child will choose to eat a balanced meal is forgetting that a child doesn’t even know what that means. You may say it’s important to eat ‘healthy’ and we all need to eat the ‘right’ foods, but this means absolutely nothing to most people, let alone children. To young kids, it has roughly the same meaning as ‘You need to study in order to get a good grade’–the meaning of which is so abstract it has no practical application to their daily routine.

Andersen goes on to buttress Satter’s view that it is perfectly acceptable nutritionally to have the child eat dessert along with the meal. Let’s just dial that back a bit. Dessert? If you’re bribing your child to eat with the promise of dessert, we all know how that fairytale ends. Dessert really should be left to be what it is: an occasional treat and not a daily serving. Everyone knows more or less that processed sugar has zero nutritional value and those unhealthy oils that are used in processed baked goods or snack foods are actually bad for you. A child cannot conceive of the destructive effects that over-indulgence can do to the body. As kids, we were told not to eat candy or else we’d get cavities. There was no discussion of what excessive fat and sugar and preservatives were doing to our bodies. Trusting that their as-yet-to-fully-develop brains will process this information in actual terms is another fairytale with a very unhappy ending.

There is no discussion of her child’s relationship to food beyond dining a la carte at the table.

And therein lies the crux of the issue.

As a parent, our responsibility is–first and foremost–making sure our children develop a positive relationship to food. Entrusting a child to look after his diet has a knock on effect that will bear its rotten fruit later on: children who develop poor eating habits are likely to continue them throughout their adult years. Andersen points to her two-year experiment as a success while acknowledging her lack of family meal times, unhealthy food choices and lack of basic culinary skills.

So here’s the real solution: get the kids involved from market to table.

Why? This is the only way for them to really understand how the food gets to their plate. You’re not expecting them to put an entire meal on the table, just to be involved in the process from start to finish:

ONE: Plan the menu together
We keep a weekly menu which is one part organization and three parts easy: it allows you to budget your money, organize your time and de-stresses cooking daily meals. Check out our weekly menu article here and our feature category here. Kids get a say in what they want to eat so everyone feels they have a voice. With a family of four boys, not everyone gets their favorite meal in one week, otherwise we’d be having pizza, pasta and burgers three days a week. This is an opportunity to teach about a well-balanced diet. We like to follow these general guidelines: pasta once a week; meat no more than thrice a week; fish at least once a week; legumes either as a side dish or as a main dish; vegetables at every meal including a salad or leafy greens for roughage.

TWO: Go to the source
Whether it’s done at the market, farm, dock, butchery or grocery store, take them food shopping with you. Explain to them how to choose the right meat and vegetables, allowing them to touch and feel. This brings them into the process from the beginning and to understand where things come from. A little time spent canvassing the vegetable stalls for what’s good and the difference in prices teaches them everyday skills for becoming a smart consumer. Check out our feature category “At Market” (click here).

THREE: Lab work
The kitchen, the ideal classroom, already is set-up. It’s the perfect learning environment, a laboratory that has low- and high-tech gadgets kids find interesting. Being given a job of snapping beans, removing mushroom stems or shelling peas was a coveted one growing up and I remember competing with my best friend, David, over how many ears of corn each of us got to shuck. These jobs are also eagerly taken by my boys. Kids then get to graduate to age-appropriate jobs. I dare say my teenager is on his way to becoming a master griller. Being involved in the preparation allows kids to understand what goes into the meal and why. Try this simple trick to washing green and herbs (here), an appropriate task for a child of any age.

FOUR: Set the table and sit down
The importance of not just sitting down at the table but sitting at one that is set for a meal is paramount. Why? A tablecloth (I prefer runners) is to a table what a blanket is to a bed. Your experience is simply better. It invites you to stay and relax. This results in conversation and communication, also known as quality-time. It’s just a theory, but a table that is set with any kind of linen makes those seated at it stay a little longer. I know I will see and catch up with everyone once in the morning and later for the big meal of the day, for either lunch or dinner. Try mixing it up; we eat in different locations to make everyday mealtimes a little bit less ordinary. Dine anywhere you can set a place: in the kitchen, dining room, at the bar, out on the loggia, poolside or grill-side–  we’ve even picnicked on the floor of the Ontas (click here). No matter where, it’s important it happens together. Ring a dinner bell for added effect. It gets everyone to the table. (Last one to the table has to refill the water!) We don’t stick to a certain time; every day our schedule has some variance in it, so we adjust accordingly. Insist on children and adults remaining at the table until everyone is done. And no personal devices, please.

FIVE: Get the job done
Yes, clean-up is part of the process. They’re forever belly-aching about this (who likes to do this part, anyway?) but focus on getting everyone to tidy up before you sit down (lots of things can be put away, loaded into the dishwasher or washed up before the meal is finished). If the child is invested in the process, your home will be seen less like a restaurant where kids make orders and have someone serve them. Setting the right boundaries goes a long way in communicating what individual responsibilities and personal contributions mean. Divide these tasks up by age (not gender!). As a general rule, someone who cooks or sets the table doesn’t do pots nor cleans the kitchen. Everyone is responsible for clearing their own place setting. Slow-eaters are less likely to drag out the meal if they know there is clean-up to do, one more task that separates them from free time. If you’re not doing this already, create a chore board to formalize these tasks (click here).

Follow these five steps and you’ll notice a change over time in habits, both eating and behavioral. You can’t entirely avoid tiredness, crankiness or total meltdowns but you can stop them from being part of the daily routine. Once kids get involved in the process, stress levels for the parents decrease significantly. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to nurture you child’s healthy relationship towards food so that the long-term benefits of this can be enjoyed for many years to come.