All we want is for our children to be healthy, right? But getting them to eat everything they need can sometimes feel like a mission. Dietitian Katrina Pace offers clever ways to boost nutrients.
Even dietitians have kids who don’t like certain foods. My eldest child (now verging on 13) has been on vege-strike for two years. But it’s maybe not a preference for no vegetables that is the issue. What I learned from Rachael Wilson-Farrokhmanesh, paediatric dietitian at The Food Tree, is that this food choice may be just another way of my daughter exploring her newfound teenage status and testing the boundaries.
Here’s what Ms Wilson-Farrokhmanesh says might be behind a child’s food behaviour, at different ages.
Toddlers and preschoolers are finding their independence. They’re pushing to find where the limits are and establishing their own opinions, including an opinion on what they will and won’t eat.
Primary school-age children’s tastes are still evolving. A certain level of mistrust around new foods is completely normal. Giving kids plenty of exposure to a wide range of foods, where there’s no pressure to eat it, can help them eat a more varied range of food in the long run. Food tastes differ in this age of kids too. Their taste buds are more sensitive than adults – so that curry really is hotter for them.
Pre-teens and teenagers are, again, establishing their independence. Like their toddler counterparts, they still need to know they can rely on the adults around them to set clear boundaries, while still giving them freedom to make their own choices within those limits. With food, peer pressure to eat and drink in a certain way can have a huge influence. Showing them how they can make healthy food choices, and openly and calmly discussing their food questions, can help them make great independent choices.
5 ways to help your kids develop a growth mindset about food
It’s not your job to ‘get’ your kid to eat. As Ellyn Satter, a US-registered dietitian and authority on eating and feeding says: “You provide, the child decides.” Our role, as the big person, is to provide a varied range of foods then sit back. Let them decide what they want to try, how much and even if they want to eat it. Beyond this, if you are doing anything to affect how and what your child eats, give yourself permission to stop.
Here are five ways to take the battle off the table, according to Ms Wilson-Farrokhmanesh.
Get them involved
Where possible, involve your kids in cooking and preparing food. Get them in on the action by experimenting and trying new things with you. Keep the pressure off and the atmosphere positive. Kids of all ages can have some role in meal planning, shopping and preparation. By the time they’re pre-teens, they’ll be cooking you meals.
Try out a new mealtime language. Instead of saying “Emma doesn’t like peas”, simply say: “You don’t want peas today. That’s okay, maybe next time.” This leaves the door open for future opportunities. Let your kids learn that tastes and food preferences are not set in stone.
Set them up for success
Keep in mind your kids’ food preferences. Set your children up to succeed by serving something you know they’ll eat alongside a new food. By adding a new food to a meal or snack you know they like, there’s no need to offer alternative meals if they choose not to eat.
Pick ‘n’ mix
Think about serving smorgasbord meals where kids can pick and choose from a variety of foods. This is great for kids who’re pushing limits, as it gives a sense of control while still making choices from what you’ve provided. It means you can relax knowing they will eat something and you do not need to become a short order cook. Your role now is to relax and enjoy your own meal. Try bento boxes, fajita/taco platters, deconstructed salad plates or burgers where you add your own fillings. Letting kids choose their own pizza toppings is fun and can bring up some interesting taste combinations.
Don’t assume kids will automatically dislike something. Children are born scientists, full of curiosity; if we can step back and allow them to explore without pressure, they may surprise us. Talk to them about how they’d prepare the food or what they’d serve it with. Ask them to describe the food – the taste, texture, smell. Does it look like what it tastes like? Can you serve it in different ways?
Super-size the food value
Apart from exploring boundaries, there are many times throughout your kids’ lives when they may not be getting the nutrition they need to thrive, such as kids with very small appetites, athletic teens, children with food allergies or intolerances, and constantly moving toddlers.
Here are some ways that doubling-up (or even tripling-up) nutrition in some family favourites can provide ‘super foods’ for those times when your kids just need an extra hand to get all they need.
Cheesy baked beans
Baked beans can be high in both fibre and iron. But stirring through a handful of cheese can increase the protein for active kids, or those with a little appetite. Adding a teaspoon of liver (grated when frozen then cooked) will boost the iron even more. Try our baked bean pizza recipe.
Cheese mini muffins
The cheese provides extra protein for growing bodies and calcium for healthy bones. Try our cheesy ham and corn mini-muffin recipe.
Blueberries add extra antioxidants that are thought to help boost brain health. Try swapping half the plain flour for wholemeal to fill up your hungry youngster for longer. Try our gluten-free lemon and blueberry pancake recipe.
Grate an apple into the oats as you’re making a hearty warm breakfast for your family. Not only do they get more fibre, but the apple will sweeten the porridge too. Try our apple and spice porridge recipe.
Meatballs with hidden veges
In our house, meatballs were called ‘dragon eggs’, which, according to my kids, totally explained the mix of colours they saw flecked through the meatballs. Using the fine side of the grater, grate carrot, courgette, mushrooms and parsnip into the meat before making them into balls. You can also add finely chopped red pepper for firey dragon eggs. Extra veges rovide a boost of fibre and vitamins. Try our spiced lamb meatballs with baked cauliflower salad recipe.
Not your everyday mayo
Mayonnaise can add extra energy, but if you swap out some of the mayo, mixing in a little hummus, you will also add extra protein, iron and fibre. Try our roasted garlic hummus recipe.
Chewy peanut butter biscuits
Adding peanut butter to homemade biscuits means they’re higher in energy for fast little children or those who are growing quickly. Try our peanut butter and chocolate cookie recipe.
Smoothies can be a great way to help kids get extra fruit and veges. Make sure to add some milk, yoghurt or calcium-fortified milk alternative for an extra boost of calcium and protein. Try our berry smoothie recipe with added greens.
Little cottage pies
Cottage pies can be a tempting way to eat a variety of food in one bite. Use pre-rolled pastry in muffin tins and fill with mince, chicken, fish or beans and finely chopped or grated veges in a gravy, tomato or cheese sauce. Try our little cottage pie recipe.
Chocolate avocado mousse
The monounsaturated fats in avocados are a great, healthy way to help kids who have small appetites, who are in a growth spurt or just super sporty, to get extra energy. Adding other fruits like banana and dates also gives extra fibre and potassium. Try our chocolate avocado mousse recipe.