Friday, September 14, 2012

End Mealtime Battles - 5 Tips To Get Fussy Kids Eating Well: Food Friday

Mealtime battles can take a toll on even the most enthusiastic cook. I have one kid that started out as a fussy eater. He refused to eat most solid foods, and for a while he'd only eat cheese. Of course, to keep the curveballs coming, now he can't stand cheese. Though, mozzarella is okay. And cheese crackers, or Doritos. Logic does not work, even though he's a teenager now.

With my oldest kid getting traction as fussy eater, his little sister decided to pick up on it too. With both of them escalating their "I'm more particular than you" competition, and my own multiple food allergies, and a husband with a severe peanut allergy and sodium sensitivity, I felt like a short-order cook trying to make different specialties for everyone.

try it you'll like it

1. You Don't Have To Be a Short-Order Cook

I finally flipped out one day and put my foot down - solidly - and made the rule that whatever was cooked for dinner was dinner. I would no longer make four different menu options for every meal. If they did want something that wasn't served that night, they had to learn to make it themselves. This is my guiding principle, and the linchpin for any plan to deal with fussy kids. Or adults!

2. Set Up Your Kids, and Your Kitchen, For Success

It's one thing to tell a fussy eater they have to eat what's there, or cook something different themselves. It's quite another to make it a successful learning strategy as opposed to a parental hissyfit that solves nothing. It's important to have a rich environment and tools for fussy kids to be able to get involved on their own terms.

Shopping with a list is a very good habit for the whole family to get into as it saves time, money and waste. From Scratch Club has a great free downloadable food planning template that is useful for getting organized for a week's worth of meals and cooking projects. There are categories for setting up a menu for the week, but what I really find useful are the other sections like "Use It or Lose It", which reminds you to take stock of what's in the pantry already that you don't want to waste by letting it go bad. If you are a CSA member or get a weekly produce selection from a service like the one we use, Field Goods, there's a section to note what's coming in that week's bag so you can plan around it more efficiently. Then there are sections for What to Prep, Food Projects, and Food Preservation tasks that you may want to do during the week.

3. Kids Should Help Plan Meals

I think a large part of fussy eating habits are not so much a taste or texture issue with kids, but an autonomy issue. Even, or maybe especially, toddlers like to know they can have an effect on their environment. In our experience, that was a huge point, because a lot of the complaining at mealtime had more to do with my kids feeling put upon than actually not liking whatever was on the menu.

Having a weekly plan laid out clearly makes it very accessible for everyone in the household to see what's going on in the kitchen, and to be a meaningful part of it. The From Scratch Club Food Plan is broken down into different sections, no one has to feel like they must do the whole list by themselves. Even very young kids can be a part of the planning - if they have an idea, it's easy to add, and easy for everyone to see when it comes time to go shopping. By including children in planning, and shopping, you give them some control over what's happening at mealtime.

4. Kids Should Help Prepare Meals

If you do nothing else around food with your children, require them to pitch in and help prepare meals. Everyone, regardless of age, or inclination, can help wash veggies and fruits, stir up a salad dressing, or do simple things like pick which pasta shape will be used for that meal.

Each child will be different as far as how much they can safely do. For example, my daughter was particularly into making food (as a toddler she called cooking one of the superpowers she'd like, along with flying) and she was baking at age 3 with moderate supervision. She particularly liked measuring ingredients, though she's still not keen on cracking eggs (too slimy!)

Her older brother tended to go off on tangents at that age. Even through middle school, he wouldn't stay on task as much and needed heavy supervision to keep things like "let's see how far this faucet sprayer can REALLY send jets of water" from happening. With time and consistency on my part, he's getting into age-appropriate cooking now too. Graduating to using real knives and machines like the blender and food processor was a big draw for him, so I made the use of these more dangerous (and super exciting) tools conditional upon him demonstrating that he could be trustworthy and not wreck the kitchen BEFORE allowing access to them.

*ETA: Here are the green eggs, sans ham, that the boy cooked earlier this evening.  Electric neon food color gel for the win!

5. Enrich Kids' Food Environment With Classes and Media Resources

Cooking classes for kids are a great tool to use to get fussy eaters to try new foods. Sometimes, when Mom or Dad is the one telling you to try something, it automatically generates resistance, but if another fun adult, or group of kids, is doing it, suddenly it's more appealing. Make sure you aren't just picking a class on your own - give your child a range of options, and let them choose. This doesn't mean you can't be selective as to what options you offer, but you can make it a win-win instead of a zero sum game.

Another tool that worked really well in our house were the many cooking videos and television shows available. My son particularly liked ones with other kids doing the cooking, and a big favorite was Kids Cooking For Kids, hosted by twin boys Mike and Will. Suddenly, he wasn't just seeing other adults doing stuff, he was watching and learning from peers that he could relate to. For my daughter, the site Spatulata appealed to her, with lots of videos by sisters Isabella and Olivia. Both sites and shows are very accessible, and will help kids expand their horizons in a fun way.

If you have a DVR, it's worth setting up to record other cooking shows as well - some of our favorites are Jacques Pepin, Daisy Martinez, and America's Test Kitchen. You may be surprised at how much your kids will tune in to, and be inspired by, these shows that aren't specifically geared to children. They are also great inspiration for the adults in the house.

Food doesn't need to be a family battleground, and with a little strategy and some basic planning, you can successfully initiate a ceasefire at mealtime.

Relevant To Your Interests:

Kids Cook Too: Healthy Cooking Classes Have Long-Lasting Benefits - via Albany Kid Family Travel

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