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This is the third article of a four-part series with local chef Dan Wu, in which we approach and break down a culinary task that might seem daunting to the naked eye. This month, the task at hand is “getting kids to eat well.”
The culinary series is presented by Crave Lexington, Smiley Pete’s second annual food + music festival celebrating “all things made from scratch.” Visit www.cravelexington.com to watch “Crave Kitchen Shorts,” a series of short videos that accompany the articles, and to get more information on the festival, which takes place Sept. 13-14 at MoonDance Amphitheater in Beaumont Circle.
Picky eaters are made, not born. As the father of a 9-year-old girl, I’ve seen firsthand the fickleness of kids when it comes to eating. OK, so maybe my wonderfully snobbish little foodie, Sofia, prefers tripe to carrot sticks, but before she became the pint-size gourmand, she was a kid like any other, skipping her veggies and holding out for ice cream. Having seen my share of finicky eaters (and not just kids), I was determined to raise mine as a good eater, conscious of both nutrition and taste.
So how do we get kids to try new foods?
At an early age, I made sure Sofia always tried everything at least once before claiming not to like it. As big fans of the show “Bizarre Foods,” we adopted host Andrew Zimmern’s rule of “try two bites.” I also share his ethos that no food is intrinsically weird, that the perception of strangeness is based on cultural differences. Ethiopian kids who grew up eating the spongy sour bread injera may find hot dogs pretty peculiar.
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Give them the power to make choices. But set the parameters of those choices. Letting them pick between a peach and a Snickers may be a bit lopsided. After all, how many candy commercials has a kid seen versus those extolling the virtues of fruit? Give them a choice among all healthy, wholesome options. Apple? Mango? Raspberries? Any will work. When it comes to fruit, it’s important to wean children off the artificial (and heightened) sweetness of processed desserts and candies and redirect them to the natural, complex sugars found in fruits.
Without the allure of sweetness, vegetables — which are not always ready-to-eat, unlike fruit — face their own challenge at the table. Choice again is key. I love to have Sofia pick out her own vegetables for meals, letting her pick out three or more colors as a guide. You can’t really go wrong with this rule. Kale, tomatoes and mushrooms? Corn, avocados and red peppers? Carrots, spinach and cauliflower? Instant variety! And you don’t always have to throw cheese on everything to get kids to eat them. Just do the two most important things when it comes to veggies (or any food really): Cook them correctly and season them. Nothing’s worse than unsalted broccoli that’s been steamed to a soggy death.
In fact, one of the keys to healthy eating for kids and adults alike is simply cooking your own food. You know what goes into it; you know how it’s made; you control what goes into your body. In the kitchen, it’s vital to get youngsters involved in the making of their own meals. Start with the no-hassle assemblage of a peanut butter sandwich (on locally baked bread of course). Move on to washing salad greens, cutting the tops off carrots (with scissors). And eventually graduate to chopping potatoes, cracking eggs, stirring pots. Soon enough you might have a “MasterChef Junior” contender on your hands!
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When a kid is in the kitchen helping, don’t ever worry about perfection. Potatoes left with a little peel? A little shell in the egg bowl? Flour all over the counter? No worries. They will get better as they practice, and they’ll want to keep practicing if they’re having fun.
From a pretty early age, I never made Sofia her own meal. She ate what we ate. It broadened her palate and reinforced the idea of mealtimes as important, both nutritionally and socially. It was a time to put away the phones and games and talk and catch up, time to savor the food together. These days, if she doesn’t like the sound of my menu, she’ll make her own meal. It’s not an arrangement I’d deal kindly with from an adult dining companion, of course, but the tradeoff is my kid taking the initiative and responsibility for her meals. Here’s hoping that someday very soon, she’ll be making me dinner.