What’s changed so much since our parents were children? Well, there is so much more food available now and far more choice. Treats and snacks are on offer almost constantly whether it is the stop at the newsagents or petrol station on the way home from school or passing the fast food shop which has opened just in time for the children leaving school. It is rare that a child is so hungry that they are actually grateful for what they get to eat. That’s not to say that the children who are grateful do not exist, rather that statistically most children have sufficient food. So how can we create a culture where children are grateful for what they get to eat and in fact enjoy a wide range of healthier but real foods? Since I started studying nutrition and in particular since I became a parent, these are the things I have learnt:
Eat Together Whenever Possible
I understand why it is necessary to provide an earlier meal for a toddler or baby who cannot keep going with nothing in their belly until 7pm. Once they’re through this phase though try and eat together as much as possible. It makes meals times so much more sociable and interactive. It’s a great time to find out about each others days, worries or even celebrations. I appreciate that this is not always possible due to the working hours us parents keep these days but if you cannot sit together during the week then do try and sit together at the weekends or during the holidays.
The best bit about eating together is that you don’t have to cook twice and therefore you don’t have to wash up twice (or load the dishwasher twice). Result! Furthermore, the children can get involved in the process, from helping you cook to laying the table to clearing up. It’s more of a corroborative effort and it is centered around the important activity of eating.
Don’t serve up ‘kiddy food’
There will need to be some compromise of course when eating altogether but that doesn’t mean that adults have to suddenly start eating fish fingers, nor do children need to start eating chicken madras! There are so many classic family meals to choose from that are crowd-pleasers and can be enjoyed by all from roast dinners, to pasta-dishes to taco’s. Just start with some simple meals and progress from there.
Play to their want to be grown up
Children love the idea of being more grown up than they are, at least being considered to be more grown up than they are, especially in the eyes of their parents. You can use this to your advantage. Remind them that adults and grown-ups love eating slightly spicier food, or love eating cabbage. You’ll find that in general this approach encourages children to want to eat a wider range of more ‘grown-up’ foods than they do currently.
Never assume they won’t like something
I have been surprised on so many occasions by how my children like something that I had wrongly assumed they wouldn’t. It’s important to always offer them a taste of something. It’s even more appealing to children if they are allowed something from your plate. I have found food fairs and farmers markets a great place to find out more about my children’s’ likes and dislikes too without them refusing foods that I have lovingly prepared at home.
Try not to succumb to pester power
If you do take your children shopping with you remember that the supermarket has been designed with them in mind. There are all sorts of appealing ‘child friendly’ foods at their eye-level.In fact studies reveal that we can spend between 10-40% more money on a shop when we take the children with us. One way of dealing with this is to let them choose a treat from a couple of options that you know they will appreciate and that you find acceptable or you could take some form of distraction with you to the supermarket in the first place. I find giving my two jobs and tasks to do in the supermarket has always helped keep them distracted.
Do make sure they try something before they’re allowed to say they don’t like it.
After 20 attempts at serving my daughter mushrooms I had to accept she didn’t like them. She will eat mushroom soup and mushroom sauce though and I know that because I wasn’t put off by her not liking the texture of mushrooms and carried on trying! It’s important to encourage them to try new foods on multiple occasions and in multiple ways before they can truly make a decision as to whether they like or dislike something.
Don’t force children but do gently encourage them.
This is a golden rule to encouraging children to eat a range of new foods. They’re never going to be truly keen on something and have positive associations with that food if they have been forced to eat it. This happened to me and fried fish that I was forced to eat at school and I hear stories of many friends parents who forced them to eat Brussels sprouts for example. It didn’t end well!
These are just some of the things that I have learnt as a parent and a nutrition expert. I thought you may benefit from me sharing these with you. I hope you find them useful.