“What’s for supper, Mom?” , my six year old son asked me. “Grilled chicken and….. cauliflower!” , I announced. An ear piercing cheer of excitement was heard around the property. (Not an exaggeration when you have eight children!) Yes, really. They love it. My kids love vegetables. Sometimes I think they are a little crazy. Frequently people are astonished at what our kids eat and how they seem to enjoy it. I finally sat down with a piece of paper and tried to outline some of the things we have done to help our children learn to love food that is good for them. Here are my thoughts…
1. Minimize dislikes. This is incredibly important. If you are a picky eater and you are always talking about all the food you don’t like, your children are listening. It becomes the normal to have a list of dislikes. Even if you are a picky eater, just be quiet about it! If your spouse is the picky one, ask them to join you in an attempt to stop emphasizing dislikes and focusing on the things you do like. Naturally, we all have dislikes. Make your goal to overcome dislikes – or at least not to focus on them.
I decided to test how well my strategy of dislikes was going with my own children. I asked them one at a time what foods I disliked. I got lots of, “Um…..I don’t know!” type answers, but finally Zeke asked, “Sugar?”. Ha. I could only wish this was true. I have quite a sweet tooth, particularly for anything containing chocolate. (And I do have dislikes, too. Mainly seafood and fish of any kind. Needless to say, since these are usually rather expensive items, I have not worked too hard on trying to change my opinion of them.)
2. Drink water and don’t overdo drinks until after a meal. If you serve your child a big sippy cup full of juice and then sit them down for a bowl of broccoli, chances are they won’t be overly hungry. I don’t serve drinks at any of our meals, although they are allowed to get themselves a cup of water. When they have finished eating they are allowed to drink as much milk as they want or a glass of juice. Before meals they really only drink water, but if the next meal is at least an hour away, they can have something else.
3. Serve the veggies first (or whatever you are having that you predict will be liked the least). Sometimes I just sit the kids down to a meal and serve up only the vegetable first. After everyone is finished with that, I serve the meat or whatever else we are having. That way they don’t eat their favorite part and decide they are too full for veggies.
4. Feed them when they are hungry. This sounds obvious, but it is something we often overlook. Growing kids need snacks between meals. They really do. Just don’t let them snack too close to a meal so that they aren’t very hungry at the table. The main meals should consist of the majority of your children’s eating and the snacks only supplemental to get them from one meal to the next. Food tastes a lot better when you are hungry!
5. Redefine the word dessert. In our culture, dessert usually means anything containing lots of sugar. In our home, the definition of dessert is a small snack served after your meal. Sometimes it is applesauce (homemade, without sugar), occasionally ice cream, a smoothie, fruit and if my kids spot Romaine lettuce in the refrigerator, they will even ask to eat a head of that plain for dessert!
6. Retry foods. We practice the ‘everyone gets at least a tiny bit of everything’ rule around our house. Don’t just serve brussel sprouts once and expect everyone to love them immediately. It just doesn’t happen that way. Usually. Try cooking them various different ways. I suggest selecting one item per season that you want your family to acquire a taste for. Don’t over serve it, but make it about once a week. You might be surprised at how food will grow on you! For example, I have hated watermelon (or melon of any kind, for that matter) for as long as I can remember. Odd, I know. Who doesn’t like watermelon?! It was a great inconvenience to me to dislike one of America’s favorite summer foods. Every summer I would try it again and again to see if my opinion would change. Last summer was the first year I began to tolerate it. I think I might even have eaten a whole piece on several occasions. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I didn’t dislike it. You know what happened this summer when I tried it? I loved it! Finally I can sit in the yard and devour dripping slices of watermelon with the rest of my family. Overcoming a dislike doesn’t mean you have to sit down every night and have a huge portion of it. Take it slowly. Give yourself time and basic exposure.
7. Make mealtimes enjoyable. In a chaotic household of ten people who come to a meal hungry, this can sometimes be a challenge around here. When Daddy is home for meals, it is always an exciting time of filling him in on the day’s activities. Funny things someone said. The latest picture texts from the aunts, uncles and grandparents. The day’s school grades. Meal times are usually very noisy and chatty!
8. Don’t run a restaurant. If I asked opinions and cooked everyone what they requested even for one meal, I would probably go crazy. I always take in to consideration everyone’s preferences when planning meals, but it doesn’t mean that I cater to everyone all the time. At the same time, I probably wouldn’t serve a meal that I knew any particular child would dislike all of the dishes. They really don’t have many dislikes. Zeke dislikes black olives. (The rest of them are crazy over them!) He also dislikes mushrooms. Jacob doesn’t like asparagus, but that is probably because the first time he remembers having them, I served them in long, sautéed spears. When I scooped them onto his plate, one of the siblings remarked that they looked like snakes and scared him half to death. Yikes! Other than that, I can’t think of too much else.
9. Don’t turn into an extremist. Sometimes I wonder if totally eliminating things from our diet encourages the development of food sensitivities. I don’t know. Just my speculation. General healthy eating is important, but a day of junk food at grandma’s house once in a while isn’t going to kill anyone. Two of my boys spent the weekend with my parents. Mama let Zeke make his own sandwich, which started out being Fluff. He decided to add walnuts for some extra health benefits, but when she wasn’t looking he also decided to add potato chips to the mixture. Lol!
10. Try cooking things different ways. I mentioned this briefly earlier. Don’t dump a bag of frozen broccoli into a bowl and microwave it for fifteen minutes and then expect everyone to love it. Gross. Steam it lightly. Roast it. Serve it with a little butter. I’ve even grilled it. Find your favorite ways to cook things. The first time our family tried chick peas, we were not overly impressed (myself included). I knew I liked store-bought hummus, though, so I continued to try different things with them. (My husband graciously told me that the chocolate chip cookies with chick peas were not something I really needed to make again!) I found a recipe for roasted garlic and rosemary chickpea soup. The first time I made it, the unique flavor seemed interesting. It was delightfully smooth and creamy, though, so I did retry the recipe a month or so later. Now chickpea soup is one of Zeke’s favorite meals. I compare it almost to mashed potatoes, if you have a high end blender and can make it thick. Amazing and good for you comfort food!
So why would you want to go through all the work of overcoming your own dislikes and trying to get your children to do the same? Well, I know for us it was partly a matter of overcoming selfishness. When going to someone’s house and being graciously served food, it is much more polite to be able to eat and enjoy what you are served instead of having a bunch of people sit around and look distastefully at whatever the host prepared. Seek to glorify God first in all you do, including what you eat!