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I am a husband and father of 3 small kids and am having a horrible time getting them to eat foods that are healthy and easy to prepare. My kids are incredibly picky and although my wife and I have tried almost every trick in the book, we can’t seem to get them to try anything new and struggle with feeding them healthier options. We want to enjoy what we have for dinner as a family too – so it’s important that we eat more than hot dogs, fish fingers, pizza and sandwiches.
Although I know you do not have any children of your own, you are creative in the kitchen. Can you help us with some advice on how to enjoy our family meals times more plus get our kids to eat dishes that are healthy and easy to prepare? Do you have any tips on getting our kids to try new foods?
Picked Out Dad
Dear Picked Out Dad,
Thank you for your email and for asking for my advice.
I really feel for you and your wife (who I assume both work outside of the home). Coming home from a long day at work and fussing about with picky kids can be awful and downright frustrating – both for the kids and for you. As well, getting caught in the kid friendly “hot dogs, fish fingers, pizza and sandwiches” rut can be boring and tasteless – not to mention lacking of important nutrients and vitamins we all need to stay healthy.
Family meal times should be a time to connect and bond – not for bickering about food choices or dying from sheer boredom after yet another fish fingers dinner. The eating habits we learn in childhood are at the core of building lifelong habits so “kudos” to you and your wife for trying to find a way to get your kids to eat healthier and build those habits early on in life.
As you mentioned, I do not have any children of my own but having spent time as a nanny in Germany and a considerable amount of time around children of all ages in the last years especially, I have some advice that may help you.
Know Your Audience
How old are your children? What kind of fruits and vegetables do they enjoy already? Which meal times are more or less successful for you and your wife in terms of trying new foods or dishes? Or in terms of trying healthier options? Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Snacks? Desserts? Consider your answers and adapt your “healthy” strategy accordingly.
For example, if your kids like fruits more than veggies, try to get them to eat more nutrient dense fruits such as berries by blending a bag of frozen berries in a blender and serving it as you would ice cream for dessert. Or, try my Vegan Chocolate Banana Peanut “ice cream” for a healthier-than-ice cream chocolate lovers option. Choose whole grain options when available and focus on preparing vegetables or dishes that your children already enjoy. Shepards Pie is a very family friendly dinner option as most children enjoy mashed potatoes, meat and gravy – plus you can adjust the vegetables you use in the dish according to your family’s tastes. This dish also can be made ahead of time and freezes well.
Give Them What They Want (But Control The Choices They Have)
Anyone who’s spent even some time around children knows that children like what they like – and it can be mission impossible to try to change their preferences. But that’s okay! Try the strategy of allowing them to choose what they want, but you control their choices.
For example, prepare foods or dishes that your children are already familiar with but make healthier versions. My favorites are:
Homemade (Healthy) Pizza
Make the pizza crust dough from scratch the night before and let it “slow proof” in the refrigerator. Homemade pizza dough is very inexpensive especially since most recipes make enough dough for two pizzas. If you have a standing mixer such as a KitchenAid, making pizza dough takes 10 minutes (including time to knead) and is a snap to do. If you don’t own a standing mixer, making pizza dough can also be a cinch – but kneading will take 10-15 minutes by hand. To make your dough even healthier, try replacing part of the flour with whole wheat flour.
After you’ve made the pizza crust, prepare your favorite kid and adult friendly toppings to go on top. You can make two pizzas or one pizza with two different halves of toppings. Try cooked meats like chicken & taco meat (leftovers work well here) or prepared meats such as ham and salami. Kid friendly vegetarian options are sweet corn, tomatoes, various cheeses, tomato sauce and pineapple. Adult friend options include fig, goat’s cheese and other cheeses, garlic (roasted or fresh), thinly sliced potatoes, zucchini or other types of squash, sun dried tomatoes, fresh herbs, mustard, olives and several other options. Let your creative juices flow and experiment.
Homemade (Healthy) Chicken or Fish Fingers
Chicken and fish fingers get a bad wrap – and for good reason. Most of the pre-made options out there are full of cheap fillers and salt. Make your own from scratch by cutting chicken breasts or white fish filets into strips , dipping into a scrambled egg “bath” then into panko or normal breadcrumbs and bake in the oven until completely cooked.
Kid friendly dipping sauces are bbq sauce (Santa Maria makes a good bottled variety), ketchup or a yogurt with honey. Adult friendly dipping sauces are honey mustard and yogurt with dill.
Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce and Meatballs
This is probably my favorite family friendly dinner. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love this meal and it’s perfect because both the sauce and the meatballs can be made ahead and freeze well. I usually make a double batch of meatballs, freeze them, then toss them into the marinara sauce as it’s simmering. That way I do not have to thaw them out before I cook them in the sauce – which saves time. Serve with whole-wheat pasta and you have an even healthier dish altogether.
Roasted Chicken with Side Veggies
I made this chicken a few weeks back in London for a friend’s family as her son HATES anything but fish fingers, chicken nuggets and bread. All doused in ketchup. But believe me, we could not tear him away from that bird! He ate and ate and ate…and did not ask for ketchup!
To make the perfect roasted chicken:
Rinse a raw chicken with cold water and dry it with paper towels. Put the chicken breast side down into the roasting pan, cover with 2-3 big spoonfuls of a rapseed oil or melted butter (even better!). Sprinkle the bird with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Put the chicken breast side down (important so the breast doesn’t over cook) in a pre-heated 200 degree oven for 30 minutes, then rotate it so the back of the bird is now in the front of the oven. Let the chicken cook for another 30 minutes. You always want the breast side down so the breast meat doesn’t overcook and stays juicy.
After the chicken has cooked for a total of 60 minutes, check it for doneness. Cook another 15-30 minutes or until you can see the juices bubbling up under the skin of the chicken. When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the oven and let it rest 10-15 minutes before carving it.
One can always make a 5 minute gravy with the liquid in the baking dish, a bit of flour or corn starch, a bouillon cube, water and a teaspoon of Marmite (optional – but WORTH IT!). While cooking the gravy, be sure to continually whisk it as to avoid lumps in the gravy. I promise you, this gravy will make you the family hero for the night! The kids will hug and kiss you for days.
Side veggies are whatever the kids will eat plus what the grown-ups want. Side salad, sweet corn, mashed or boiled potatoes, oven roasted broccoli/cauliflower, boiled carrots and steamed cabbage all come to mind.
If your kids like dishes such as lasagna, make trying making two dishes of lasagna at once instead of just one, and freeze it. It takes only a bit more effort to make two dishes of lasagna and that way the next time you come home from a long day of school/work and practices, you can pop one of your homemade lasagna dishes in the oven to warm it. This is a much cheaper and healthier option than takeout or buying one of the pre-made lasagna dishes.
Ketchup and the One Spoonful Rule
To ketchup or not to ketchup? This always seems to be a question that comes up when talking about children’s eating habits. I think this is a very personal choice and varies from family to family. I’m very much a fan of parents making their own decisions on this topic. Back in my nanny days, the family I worked for came up with a good solution. Their kids were only allowed to eat ketchup when there wasn’t gravy prepared with a meal – and they were only allowed one teaspoon of ketchup at a time. That’s right – this family evoked a portion control rule which limit their children’s intake of ketchup to a teaspoon per meal. This became a house rule – and once the kids got used to it (which did take a few weeks) – they never complained. They got to have a bit of ketchup and the parents were happy that it was only a small amount per meal.
Try this in your own family and see how it works out.
Avoid Guilt, Begging or other Forms Of Bribery
Just. Don’t. Do. It. Children who grow up in homes where guilt, begging or other forms of bribery are used in terms of food consumption tend to grow up with more negative attitudes towards food – and tend to resent having been forced fed. Remember the days of “if you don’t eat your dinner, you’ll be eating it for breakfast”? Those days are long gone. Respect your child’s preferences and practice common sense.
When Needed Seek Help – And Early
Reach out to friends and family (or food bloggers like me) for help in finding family friendly foods and dishes which suit your lifestyle. Research options on recipe web sites such as Parents Need to Eat Too (Debbie is an awesome food writer in general but has a host of recipies and stories about her journey with her own picky eater), on Pinterest or in parenting communities.
Plan ahead and tailor your choices to your lifestyle. Some parents like to organize themselves with things like meal plans to make sure they plan ahead for their family’s schedule. Others find meal planning time consuming and useless. Find what works for you – and what you’ll be able to sustain over time.
When All Else Fails, Use Humor or aka Be Sneaky
No matter how hard you try, sometimes you might find yourself on the losing end of the healthy food battle. Just as in life, when all else fails, use humor to get your way. What kids doesn’t want a plate full of fruit shaped into a monkey or other silly face? Or what kid can resist a brownie made with un-detectable vegetable puree?
JessicaSeinfeld’s 2008 book Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food is a resource of recipes and her tips on getting kids to eat healthy without them knowing it.
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