What's The Healthiest Vegetable?

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I’m often asked my opinion about what vegetable is the healthiest. I also hear the “best-Mommy” contest that happens on the playground where each parent tries to one-up each other bragging about what weird & healthy veggie their child loves. It goes something like this:

“My Johnny loves carrots.”

“MY Suzie loves broccoli.”

“WELL, MY Nicolas loves kale.”

“Guess what. MY Olivia loves Brussels sprouts. Eats them like candy. Can’t get enough of them.”

You get the picture.

I understand why people ask me about veggies. And why parents feel pressured. The amazing powers of specific vegetables often are the subjects of headlines. It makes a great sound-bite. It’s a great way to sell newspapers & magazines.

But as is often the case, that which makes a great sound-bite isn’t always what’s true. Because it’s been pulled out of context, the sound-bite ends up being only partly-true.

Science’s understanding of exactly what it is in veggies that’s so good for us is crude. We’re constantly learning of new healthy nutrients. For example, when I was studying human nutrition as an undergraduate in the late 1990’s, I was taught that white veggies didn’t have any healthful substances. They may provide flavor and crunch, but they were nutritional zeros. However, we now know that onions, garlic, and their other cousins such as leeks, have healthful nutrients like antioxidants.

While science is constantly discovering new nutrients, what’s found again and again (and again) is that the people who eat the most veggies are the healthiest. Period.

I also like to balance current science with the tried-and-true. And, when I look at traditional diets around the world, I see that human beings have survived and thrived eating all sorts of plant foods.

Let me be clear. I’m not denying that dark green veggies (like kale) and brightly-coloured veggies (like carrots and purple cabbage) are really healthy. They’re fantastic choices! What I’m saying is to not consider veggies such as cucumber and celery as empty junk. While they’re today’s zeros, who knows if they will be tomorrow’s super-stars. And, they’re healthier than most processed foods which kids typically eat if they’re not eating veggies.

So don’t stress if your picky eater doesn’t like today’s super-star veggies.

When it comes to veggies, it’s about quantity. And, variety.

Instead of relying on the magic of any one vegetable (and trying to force your picky eater to eat it), enjoy a wide variety of veggies. Introduce your little one to many different veggies (and repeat those introductions, and repeat, and repeat…). Be a veggie variety role model yourself. Encourage your little one to enjoy the wide, wide world of veggies in all colours of the rainbow. Together explore all the different tastes and textures.

And celebrate when your little one eats ANY veggies - whether it’s kale chips or that French Breakfast radish that the Farmer convinced him to try at Saturday’s Farmers Market, or…

So, what’s my answer when I’m asked what’s the healthiest vegetable? Answer: The one that you’ll eat (because it doesn’t matter how healthy any veggie is – if you won’t eat it – it can’t do you any good).

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Photo credit: Keenan Loo on Unsplash

Picky Eater Success Tip: When to Serve Challenging Foods

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Maybe you’ve heard the statistic. It takes kids between 10 – 30 times of trying a new food before they like it. But did you also know that a study found that parents typically gave up offering a food after 5 times? Yes, they didn’t even make the minimum 10 times and certainly were nowhere near the 30 times.

I use the term “challenging food” to refer to a food that your child has either:

  1. Never seen before. This includes new recipes/dishes/ preparations of a food they’ve known previously. For example, if your child is familiar with raw and steamed carrots but has never seen roasted carrots before, roasted carrots would be considered a challenging food.
  2. Seen many (many) times but has never tried.

A mistake that I see parents make all the time is to only offer challenging foods at dinner. Offering challenging foods only at dinner is a mistake for several reasons. First, is the purely practical reason that if you’re working your way up to 10 – 30 presentations of a food and you’re only serving challenging foods at dinner, it’s going to take years before you reach those 30 times. No wonder parents in the research study gave up after 5 times. It seems like you’ve been trying to get your child to eat that food forever.

The second reason is that this contributes to kids’ bad behaviour at dinner. Kids are smart. They figure out pretty quickly that they can get their favourite foods at breakfast, lunch, and snacks. But, that they’ll be presented with scary stuff at dinner. So, they try every trick in their books to get out of eating at dinner. They misbehave. They announce that they aren’t hungry (and then whine about being hungry 20 minutes later). They complain that they’re too tired to eat. In other words, anything that they can brainstorm that will push your buttons and get them out of facing the challenging foods on their plate.

So, what’s the alternative? Use any meal or snack as an opportunity to present a challenging food. Breakfast, lunch, morning snack, afternoon snack, and bedtime snack are all fantastic opportunities to present a challenging food. Mix it up from day-to-day. One day at afternoon snack, serve some of the challenging food leftovers from dinner the night before. The next day, serve a new fruit at breakfast. One day, pack in your child’s lunch a couple of pieces of the raw veggies that you’re packing for your own lunch.

A couple of key tips to making this strategy work:

  • Always include familiar foods at the meal or snack. Remember: it’s unlikely that your child will eat the challenging food today. So, be sure that there are familiar foods from the other food groups that they can eat to satisfy their hunger and meet their nutrition needs.
  • Provide a small serving of the challenging food. I’m talking one baby carrot in their packed lunch. This limits the amount of food waste when they don’t eat it. And, a small serving is much less intimidating than a large serving. When your child does try, and like, the challenging food, as they say in showbiz, always leave them wanting something more. In other words, when your child does eat the challenging food, you can repeat that food soon and provide a larger serving.

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Is hiding veggies okay?

is hiding veggies okay
is hiding veggies okay

While presenting a workshop on Monday, a small group of parents pulled me aside and asked a question that I get asked all the time. “What do you think about sneaking in vegetables? Is hiding veggies okay?” You know what these parents mean. There are several very popular cookbooks, one by a celebrity, made up entirely of recipes that involve pureeing vegetables and hiding them in other foods. Classic examples are squash in mac and cheese and beets in chocolate cake.

Most parents who ask me this question do so with a sheepish look in their faces. They’re expecting me to tell them that it’s a horrible idea. However, my answer isn’t a simple – “good” or “bad”. Here’s the details.

Studies show that kids do eat more servings of vegetables in families where they add pureed vegetables to dishes. Also, most of us could use to eat more veggies. So exploring new dishes that include veggies is a fantastic idea. Go ahead, incorporate more vegetables into your eating habits!

However, if you are going to use this technique, there are two very important steps to take to make sure that you are both helping your child eat more veggies now AND helping teach them to choose to eat vegetables as a life-long habit. (And, not inadvertently creating an even more picky eater).

Hiding Veggies Important Step #1:

If all you’re serving your child is mac and cheese and chocolate cake, all they’re learning is to eat mac and cheese and chocolate cake. You may know that there’s squash in the mac and cheese and beets in the cake, but your child doesn’t. If you choose to sneak in veggies, also be sure to serve obvious veggies too. For example, serve steamed broccoli on the side of that mac and cheese. Even if your child doesn’t eat the obvious veggies, you’re role modeling choosing to eat vegetables – an important lesson for life-long healthy eating habits.

Hiding Veggies Important Step #2:

Don’t deny that there are veggies in a dish if your child asks. One book I read recommended waking up in the middle of the night to prepare your purees and freeze them so that you can sneak them into dishes without your kids seeing you. Um, no. Not what I recommend. First, I want you to get the few hours of precious sleep that you can get. Second, picky kids are smart and pay close attention to detail. They’re also little conspiracy theorists about food. They will figure out that you’ve been hiding veggies in your dishes. Then, they’ll wonder what else you’ve been hiding and will become even more suspicious of their food. Not the path you want to head down. Don’t deny what you’ve put in a dish. At the same time, you aren’t a waiter at a two Michelin star restaurant. You don’t need to describe every ingredient and every step that you took to prepare each dish. In other words, you don’t need to divulge what’s in a dish, but don’t deny what’s in it either. If your child asks, answer them directly in a neutral, matter of fact tone.

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Picky Eater Tip: Be Good Company

picky eater tip be good company

When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period. This is a strategy for dealing with kids who are picky eaters (fussy eaters) that is amazingly powerful, yet seldom used. When the families whom I work with adopt this tip they love it. It immediately makes meal times way less stressful (for everyone). Everyone is freed up to enjoy the meal.

This strategy has the power to create the family meals for that you wish for. Yet, if you’re like most of the parents I meet, you feel that you need to be doing more to be good a good Mom or Dad. You’re under the impression that to do a good job of parenting your child around food, you need to cajole them into eating their veggies. To refuse allowing seconds of rice/noodles unless they take 2 more bites of their meat.

If this rings true for you, I have big news. You don’t have to be the food police. Your job is to plan, prepare, and provide meals and snacks. And, to join your child at the table to lead the way in creating a positive environment.

How to do this? Be good company. Have pleasant conversations. Yes, that includes having pleasant conversations with your partner too – your child doesn’t have to be the centre of your attention for every second of the meal.

What to talk about? Choose any topic except the food you’re eating. One of my favourites is to play good thing, bad thing. This game is also known by many other names. What it involves is everyone at the table taking turns telling about the best and worst things about their day. Even preschoolers love playing this game. And you’ll connect as a family.

No, this doesn’t mean that magically you’ll no longer be concerned about your child’s nutrition. It seems paradoxical, but the more you back off telling your children how many bites they need to eat, the better they’ll eat. Kids respond positively to you removing the pressure. Hunger motivates kids to eat. You don’t need to. When you follow this “be good company” strategy, it’s a weight off your shoulders and it’s empowering for your children.

When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period.

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My kid used to eat just about everything…

My kid used to eat just about everything

Does this sound familiar?

“My kid used to eat just about everything and anything but she stopped eating meat all of a sudden. She's now 2.”

This, hands-down, is the single most common question that parents come to me wondering. Well, it’s not always meat that their children suddenly won’t eat. It may be vegetables, fruit, or most foods (i.e. they’ll only eat something like 5 foods).

If you’ve recently experienced this, the good news is that you’re not alone!

Most (but not all) kids will happily eat almost everything when you’re first introducing solid foods. From about 6 months onwards, these happy babies keenly gobble up most foods you put in front of them. In fact, they’re delighted with all the different textures, shapes, and tastes that you introduce to them.

Then, all of a sudden, something changes. This change can happen as young as 9 months, and most commonly happens somewhere between 18 months – 2 years.

Welcome to the picky eating stage.

It’s a completely normal developmental stage that most kids go through.

No, you didn’t cause your great little eater to suddenly “hate” foods that she loved previously. If you’re like most of the parents I’ve worked with, I know that I need to tell you to turn down the volume of the Mommy-guilt (or Daddy-guilt) voice in your head that’s telling you that it’s all your fault, that you did something wrong to cause this. That you “broke” your child. Let me tell you definitively: you didn’t.

The science doesn’t tell us why kids all of a sudden become picky. Some scientists have theorized that it’s a protective thing. From back when we lived in caves. At this age infants become toddlers and start wandering away from parents. It would be evolutionarily protective to have kids become scared to put random (i.e. potentially poisonous) plants in their mouths. It’s an interesting theory but who knows if this is true.

What I do know is that picky eating is a developmental stage. Kids become wary of foods. They honestly become scared to try things (yes, even if they’ve eaten them before). They don’t have the language skills to tell you that they’re feeling trepidatious about trying that food. So they simply say “I hate it!” (before they’ve even tried it.

The good news is that you don’t just have to wait until your daughter or son grows out of this stage. You can support them to be confident enough to try new foods, to increase the range of foods that they’ll eat, and to get the good nutrition that they need.

The bad news is that I can’t solve your question in 1 short and snappy blog post. I can, however, point you in the right direction.

As first steps, I encourage you to:

  • Continue serving your child small servings of every food that you eat in your household.
  • Role model eating these foods by joining your child at as many meals and snacks as possible.
  • Plan meals and snacks that include both familiar and challenging foods.

And of course, keep your eyes on your peeled for other strategies I'll share to help your picky eater transition smoothly through this difficult phase (while ensuring that they’re meeting their nutrition needs).

You can support your child to eat more foods. Get successful picky eater tips. sign-up for my e-newsletter today.

5th Annual Homemade Ice Pop Recipes

spinach-kiwi ice pop

It's back, my annual home-made ice pop recipe collection. Some may call these homemade popsicles or paletas. Or, frozen smoothies. Whatever you call them they're a delicious summer treat. I want to give a big shout out to Carla, the dietetic student who is volunteering with me for creating these recipes. My directions for her: the recipes need to be simple, include no added sugar, include fruit and even veggies, and only include easy-to-find ingredients. Oh, and of course, that they needed to be delicious. She sure delivered.

The directions for each recipe are the same:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. Pour into molds.
  4. Freeze.

Enjoy her work!

Kristen

P.S. For more delicious, healthy frozen recipes, check out these links:

Spinach Kiwi

Inspired by: http://www.kiipfit.com/spinach-kiwi-popsicles/

Packed with fruit and leafy greens, the vibrant green color of these popsicles comes from blending both kiwi and spinach.

  • 1/3 cup spinach
  • 1  kiwi
  • 2 drops lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup water

Mango Lassi

mango lassi ice pop

Inspired by: http://revisfoodography.com/2015/04/mango-lassi/

Inspired from a classic Indian cold drink, mango lassi is a blend of yogurt, fruit and spice. Not a fan of cardamom? Simply omit the spice and you can still enjoy it as a mango-yogurt blend.

  • 1 mango
  • 160 ml greek yogurt
  • 1 small pinch cardamom (to taste)

Cantaloupe

cantaloupe ice pop

This very simple and refreshing recipe allows you to use ripe or extra ripe cantaloupes. No added sugar necessary.

  • ¾ cup cantaloupe
  • ¼ cup water

Get more healthy home-made ice pop recipes here:

5th Annual Healthy Home-Made Popsicles (ice pops, paletas)

4th Annual Healthy Home-Made Popsicles (ice pops, paletas)

My Least Popular (But Very Effective) Picky Eater Tip

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I’ve been doing workshops for parents on picky eating for 8 years now. At every single picky eater seminar there is one strategy that always causes resistance with the parents in the audience. I continue to share it because it’s a very powerful strategy for minimizing picky eating. Yet I can almost hear the thud it makes when I describe it and it lands on the floor. The problem for which it’s a solution? How to get kids (particularly toddlers and preschoolers) to stay at the table for meals. It’s the solution for meals that go on and on forever because your child sits down, takes one bite, then pops up from the table to do something terribly important, then returns to the table, takes another bite, pops up from the table (and so on and so on).

So, what’s this successful, but unpopular strategy? Create a rule that all meals and snacks are eaten when sitting down. In other words: Stop. Eat. Then Continue On. Yes, I do mean snacks too. You may wonder why I continue to share this strategy knowing that it’ll be so unpopular. I share it because it really is successful for supporting kids to do a good job of eating. If we allow the common practice of letting kids eat snacks “on the run”, i.e. while in the car, in the stroller, you chasing them around the house spooning bite after bite into their mouths, we’re teaching kids that there is an alternative to sitting still at a table to eat. As seen through a toddler’s or preschooler’s eyes:

Why is it that sometimes can I eat while playing. But other times I’m told that I have to stop playing and sit at a table to eat (which is bo-ring).”

Create the expectation that all meals and snacks are eaten sitting down. In families who set this expectation, kids come to the table when called. They eat. Then, they continue on with their day (i.e. go back to playing). Meals and snack go much more smoothly and are less stressful because the kids aren’t constantly getting up from the table.

I understand the initial resistance that you may have to this strategy. In our super busy lives, how are we supposed to carve out time to stop and eat snacks? And it seems like I’m saying that you can never leave the house again, because you always need to be home to give snacks. Not true. Let me clarify.

Does this mean that you never get to leave the house again? No. In the summer this is especially easy. Stop at the park bench, picnic table, or spread out a blanket and enjoy a snack. Use similar ingenuity at indoor locations. For example, you can stop at the bench in the recreation centre foyer or use a table at the food court at the mall.

The important point is to stop. Don’t feed your child in the stroller, car seat, etc. And, don’t hand out a snack while your child continues playing. I know that it’s tempting to do so in our busy lives. But, it sets you up for more battles at meals and snacks. What seems like an efficient use of time in the immediate, actually costs you more time in the long run. In families who establish the stop-to-eat expectation, meals and snacks are very quick. And, they are much more pleasant. When it’s meal and snack time the kids simply get down to the business of eating.

Simply put: Stop. Eat. Then, continue on.

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Don’t Make this #1 Mistake with Picky Eaters

Don’t Make this #1 Mistake with Picky Eaters

The most common mistake with picky eaters that I see parents make is that they stop serving their kids foods that they don’t eat. I understand why parents make this choice. It seems futile to go to the effort of making food only for your child to ignore it. Or, loudly announce that they hate it. Or, melt down from just seeing it on their plate. It seems like a waste of your precious time, a waste of food, a waste of money, never mind the heartbreaking feeling that your child is rejecting you. However, stopping serving the dreaded vegetables/ meat /[insert the foods your child doesn’t eat] is the wrong way to go.

I like to give non-food analogies because food is such an emotional issue that it can be hard to see what’s going on. So here’s my non-food analogy for kids and challenging foods:

Deciding that you’ll serve your child vegetables [insert the foods your child doesn’t eat] once they like them is like deciding that you’ll take your child to the pool once they know how to swim. Of course, you need to take your child to the pool so that they can learn how to swim. They aren’t going to suddenly wake up one morning knowing how to swim.

The same goes for foods your child doesn’t like. They won’t learn to like them if they never see them. Research shows that kids need to try foods somewhere between 10 – 30 times before they learn to like them. That doesn’t count the number of times that a child needs to see a food before they’re willing to try it. Of course each child and each food is going to vary in the magical number of times. I just learned to like Brussels sprouts last year and trust me, I’ve tried them way more than 30 times.

A study showed that parents usually give up after trying 5 times. So you haven’t even made it to the minimum number of presentations never mind the top end of the average range.

So what’s the solution? Plan meals that include both safe foods and challenging foods. One meal for the whole family that includes at least one safe food for your child. Yes, if you have more than one child you will need to include safe foods for each of them. What should the challenging foods be? Foods that you eat in your family. This way you aren’t making separate foods just for your child, which, when they aren’t eaten, feels like that waste of time. You’re cooking food that you’ll eat. If the kids don’t eat it – then more leftovers for you! No wasted time, food, or money.

The powerful word in this situation is “yet”.

Your kids don’t like it yet.

Serving a food again and again is how they learn to like it. Just like how a child who is starting swimming lessons doesn’t know how to swim yet.

Keep up with the practice and trust that your child will get there.

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Healthy Eating Storybook: Stargold the Food Fairy

Stargold

To celebrate the end of Nutrition Month, I caught up with fellow dietitian Claudia Lemay, RD to find out about her new nutrition children's storybook. It's available on Amazon. And, the e-book version is free today and tomorrow!

KY: Claudia, how old are your children now?

CL: My happy-go-lucky son is 9 years old and my CEO/corporate lawyer in-training (I swear!) daughter is 5 1/2 years old.

KY: Why did you write the book?

CL:I wrote it because my daughter, who never takes "no" for an answer, started asking for candies at every single meal and snack. She is a very insistent person and just explaining why she needs to eat healthy wasn't enough, so I had to think of something else. I made up a story for her (Stargold the Food Fairy) and when I saw the spark of real understanding in her eyes, I knew I was on to something.

KY: What ages is the book for? 

CL: Children of elementary school age is who it was written for, but I would say anyone from age 4-12 would enjoy and learn from it. The story is also available on my website as a PowerPoint presentation for teachers to use in a classroom setting.

KY: What is the book's message?

CL: The story is about a young girl, Lucie, who travels to a magical land of elves called Growland after she gets a "no" from her mother at her request for a candy dinner. In Growland, Lucie learns from Stargold the Food Fairy that every food she eats becomes a different building material for a house that is being built for her. The main message is that a house in Growland actually represents the body of a person, and so, by eating a healthy, balanced diet the house (and hence her body) will grow up strong and healthy.

KY: What's your favourite part of the book?

CL: Well, many of the people who have read my book said that their favourite part is when Lucie truly "gets it." Near the end of the story, after Stargold explains that every part of her body used to be the food she ate, Lucie looks down at her hands and has that "wow" moment where she truly "gets it."

KY: Where can people buy the book?

CL: On my website at www.stargoldthefoodfairy.com, under the Shopping Corner tab or directly on amazon.ca (search for Stargold the Food Fairy). It is available in hard copy and ebook, in both English and French. The ebooks will be offered for free for the last 5 days of March as a promotion for Nutrition month.

KY: Are you writing any more books?

CL: Yes, I am working on my second book for children to teach them about diabetes. It also involves Stargold the Food Fairy helping a boy named Brody understand living with diabetes.

KY: Anything else you want to share?

CL: Part of the proceeds of this book will go to Malala's fund, which helps promote children's education worldwide.

Spitting Out is OKAY

spitting out is okay picky eater

While it may be considered poor table manners (and perhaps somewhat gross) to spit food back out, it’s actually a good strategy for helping picky eaters gain the confidence to try new foods. Yes, spitting out is okay.

For toddlers and preschoolers, trying a new food is scary. One way to make it less scary is to know that if you do choose to put something in your mouth, and it doesn’t taste good (or has a “yucky” texture), you can spit it back out.

For some picky eaters, “tasting” the food by touching it to their outstretched tongue is even less intimidating than putting the food in their mouths. This too is okay. Because it’s them taking steps towards trying the new food.

Now just because you allow food to be spit back out, doesn’t mean that you need to allow the drama that often goes along with it – the loud exclamation of “yucky!” and over-exaggerated action of spitting the food back out (perhaps accompanied by the classic wiping of the tongue to get rid of the “disgusting” taste).

Even young children can be taught how to politely take food out of their mouths without the fanfare. And, as they get a little bit older, you can teach them how to subtly spit the food into their napkin.

Bottom Line: Spitting food back out is okay. Making a big fuss about it isn’t.

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Be Careful What You Say to Picky Eaters

careful what you say to picky eaters

You need to be careful when it comes to talking with picky eaters, toddlers and preschoolers, about food. Words are powerful. What you say can help kids open up to trying new foods. Or, it can backfire and make them more resistant to trying new foods. So what are the right and wrong things to say? It’s likely not what you think.

Right Things to Say to Picky Eaters:

Do use creative marketing. There’s nothing like an unfamiliar word to make a kid say “I hate it!” before they even try a food. On the other hand, kids respond both to fun names and descriptive terms. Use their extremely keen observation skills to your advantage by using familiar and descriptive terms. For example, broccoli can be “little trees”. Name a dish after your child’s favourite superhero.

Here’s a great example that a friend of mine shared with me recently. Her son is 4. A couple of months ago she announced that dinner was lasagna. She hadn’t served her son lasagna before so he responded with the classic “Yuck, I want something else.” As a friend of mine, she knows better than to believe him and make something different. Instead, she put a piece on his plate and while he was watching she said “see, it’s pasta cake” and separated it into it’s different layers. Her son knows what pasta is. And, he definitely knows what cake is. Sure enough, once he saw that “lasagna” was something that he recognized, he happily ate it. So far, her son won’t eat lasagna. But he happily eats “pasta cake”. As he matures, he’ll become comfortable with the word “lasagna”. Until then she’ll happily include “pasta cake” in the family meal repertoire.

Wrong Things to Say to Picky Eaters:

Don’t talk about the nutritional benefits of a food. Most parents I work with and who attend my workshops unfortunately get this one wrong. Of course you care about healthy eating. You think about it when you choose what foods to serve. But don’t talk about it with your child. Studies show that if kids are taught about how healthy a food is, they are less likely to try it. And, if they do try it, they rate the taste as yuckier than if nothing was said. So, as tempting to talk about how the broccoli will make your child grow big and strong, make the effort to zip it. In this case, your actions speak louder than words. By serving broccoli, and eating it yourself, you are teaching your child that they should eat broccoli. No words are needed.

Don’t call multiple dishes by the same term. Toddlers and preschoolers are not yet able to classify things. It’s just not where they are at developmentally. Sure, we adults can use the term “fish” to mean salmon and halibut and tuna. While these foods all have very different tastes and textures, we adults can use one word “fish” to refer to them all. The developmental stage for toddlers and preschoolers means that they use a word to refer to one very specific thing. Very specific. If you use the word “fish” to mean “halibut” then that’s what they expect. If you then say “we’re having fish” and serve them salmon, they’ll freak out. Because you lied. The food in front of them is something very different than halibut – that’s obvious to see. And their natural reaction is to not want to try it. Instead, use the technique that I shared above. If you’ve always called halibut “fish” and you want to serve salmon, call it “pink fish”.

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Stress During Meals Will Cause Picky Eating

stress during meals

There’s a common reason behind several of the techniques that I teach to prevent (and turn-around) picky eating with kids. It’s stress. If your child experiences stress during meals they will honestly lose their appetite. And it’s not all in their heads. There’s a physiological cause to their lost appetite. As such, if you want your child to eat well (and what parent doesn’t), you want to minimize the amount of stress that your child experiences while at the table.

Stress During Meals

Here’s how stress causes people to lose their appetite. I imagine that you’ve heard of ‘fight or flight’. It’s the signals that travel through our body when we’re scared/stressed. You’ve likely heard that adrenaline is involved. One of the many results of these messages is that the body moves the blood flow away from our digestive tract towards our muscles in our arms and legs. It’s preparing us to be able to fight or run away from that saber-tooth tiger that’s chasing after us. The body only has so much blood so it prioritizes saving our life from the imminent threat – not having lots of blood ready to absorb nutrients that we’ve eaten and digested. Because, we’re highly unlikely to eat a meal with that sabre-tooth tiger. We can eat later once we’ve found safety.

Unfortunately our bodies can’t tell the difference between a physical threat (like that tiger) and psychological stress. It creates the same reaction. So, when your child experiences stress or anxiety at the table, they honestly lose their appetite.

Now does this mean that you never serve your child a new food ever again? No. Nor does it mean that you need to go to great lengths to entertain your child at the table. I actually recommend no screens or toys at the table. Afterall, the opposite of ‘stress’ isn’t ‘entertained’. It’s ‘pleasant’ or ‘calm’.

Stress-Free Meals with Kids

Here are some strategies to create a stress-free meal environment for your child:

  • Be good company. Talk about your days, play eye spy, any pleasant conversation topic.
  • Don’t choose mealtime to be the time to scold or punish kids. Or, argue with your spouse.
  • Always serve at least one familiar food at a meal. This way your child can rest assured that even if they don’t like the other foods on the table, they can fill themselves up with their familiar food.
  • Don’t stress the mess. Kids gradually learn to use utensils. Don’t expect them to be proficient until they reach school-age. Allow toddlers and preschoolers (and younger school-age kids too) to use a mix of fingers and utensils. Constant nagging about utensils and manners can create anxiety.
  • Don’t have a one-bite rule. Now before I get a slew of responses from people who swear that it works, I agree that the one-bite rule (also called the “no thank you bite” or “polite bite”) can work with some kids without causing any stress. Some kids are just wired so that trying new foods doesn’t stress them out. For lots and lots of kids however, making them try a food before they’re ready (or even the anticipation that you’ll ask them to try a new food) can cause the stress reaction in their bodies before they even sit down at the table. The result is that they’ve lost their appetite before the meal has begun.

For a step-by-step solution to reduce stress at meals with picky eaters, check out my book.

Halibut Avocado Tacos

halibut avocado tacos

I'm often asked for fish recipes that kids will eat. This is a good one for several reasons. First, halibut is a very mild (read: non-fishy) fish. Second, lots of kids enjoy "deconstructed" or "build your own" style meals because they get to have control over what's on their plate. The result is that they'll eat things that they wouldn't have otherwise. There's also something inherently fun in make-your-own tacos.

I've shared the basic recipe here. Feel free to add other veggies to make it your own. Examples include: shredded cabbage (particularly purple cabbage), thinly sliced radishes, tomatoes, shredded raw zucchini or even cucumber slices.

Halibut is widely available frozen, year-round. Fresh halibut season is typically in May. Feel free to substitute any other white fish (or even salmon) in this recipe.

Halibut Avocado Tacos Ingredients

  • 8 taco shells
  • 480 g (16.9 oz) raw halibut
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 tsp spices, cumin
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp oregano, ground, dried
  • 1 dash cayenne pepper
  • 1 dash black pepper
  • 1 dash salt
  • 1 cup chopped lettuce, green leaf or romaine
  • 1 avocado, ripe
  • 1/2 cup (4 fl oz) sauce, salsa, ready-to-serve

Halibut Avocado Tacos Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Place the halibut in a non-stick or parchment-lined baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and lime juice; sprinkle with spices and herbs.
  3. Chop lettuce and slice avocado.
  4. Bake fish 12 to 15 minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Heat taco shells in the oven for 1-2 minutes.
  5. Coarsely flake the fish. Stuff the taco shells with lettuce, avocado, salsa, and flaked fish.
  6. Enjoy!

Halibut Avocado Tacos Deconstructed:

  • Serve taco shell on the side.
  • Bake a small portion of halibut just brushed with olive oil.
  • Serve in separate piles or small dishes, the lettuce, avocado and salsa.
  • Serve a small portion of the “spiced” halibut.

Find more delicious, healthy recipes here.

Will Kids Starve Themselves?

will-kids-starve-themselves

Some sayings are true. Some aren’t. You’ve likely heard people say “kids won’t starve themselves”. I hear it all the time. And, I rarely read an online conversation about picky eaters where someone doesn’t say this. Unfortunately this is one of those sayings that just isn’t true.

Will Kids Starve Themselves? Yes, Sometimes.

For some picky eaters, mealtimes have become very stressful. They’re left between the two choices of 1) being hungry or 2) facing the stressful meal situation. Some kids choose to go hungry. Yes, in other words, they starve themselves.

These kids either aren’t eating enough foods and their growth starts to falter. Or, they eat such a narrow variety that they aren’t getting the nutrients they need (even if they’re getting lots of calories).

Now the answer to the problem is not to force kids to eat more. Let me repeat that very loud and clear: THE SOLUTION IS NOT TO FORCE KIDS TO EAT MORE. More often than not that approach just increases kids’ stress, causing them to eat less.

Stress

What causes this stress? There can be many causes. That’s why I do a full assessment when working with families, because it’s important to identify and address the root cause. Some kids are sensitive souls who need to approach new foods gradually. Some kids are at a boundary-pushing stage and choose to engage parents in a battle of wills. Some kids miss out on learning specific chewing skills and find a variety of foods difficult to eat. Some kids have texture sensitivity and find certain food textures unappealing. I could go on listing causes.

I want to be really transparent here. I went back and forth many times about whether or not to write this article. I don’t write this to cause you more panic. The last thing that I want to do is cause more mommy guilt because guilt and shame get in the way of making change. I’m writing this because I do see kids who are starving themselves. So I feel the need to address the myth that’s spouted so very, very often by well-meaning advice givers.

Will Kids Grow Out of Picky Eating?

I also write this because I see so many families who could use my services. But they don’t seek help because they think that their child will “grow out of” their picky eating and that “kids won’t starve themselves”.

Lastly I write this because sometimes I see clients whose child is 7, 8, 9, or 10 years old and who is still a picky eater. Creating change for these kids is really, really hard (and progress is painstakingly slow). I wish so much that I could turn back the clock and work with these families when their kids are 2 and 3 years old. Not only could we prevent years of poor nutrition and stress for the child, we could have alleviated stress for the whole family. Because the whole family is affected when feeding isn’t going well with one child.

What’s important is that if feeding isn’t going well, you look for a solution to the problem. Don’t believe this myth that kids won’t starve themselves.

Check out my book where I share my simple-step-by-step solution for picky eaters (2-5 years old).

1 Simple (and Overlooked) Step to Get Picky Eaters to Eat More

get picky eater to eat more

There’s a very simple technique to get picky eaters to eat more. It’s something that I always look for when working with individual families. I can’t tell you how often it’s missed by parents. Let’s just say a lot. So, what’s this super simple tip? Make sure your child has their feet resting on something solid. Kids eat best when they have something solid to rest their feet on. Take a peek at your child’s feet when they’re sitting in their highchair or booster seat. Are their feet dangling? If you want your child to eat better, get them something on which to rest their feet.

Have you ever sat at a bar stool that didn’t have a footrest? Did it feel unsettling to have your feet dangling? Likely, yes.

This is something that I’ve looked for since I started my practice in 2008. But I never knew why kids ate best when their feet are supported. Then last month I attended a workshop and learned why. The reason is that while eating is a priority for our bodies, there are two priorities that supersede eating: 1) breathing; and, 2) staying upright (i.e. not falling on our heads). When your child’s feet aren’t resting on something solid, their bodies are required to focus on not falling over. This takes away from the focus on the task of eating. Babies and young children under 3 years of age are still novice eaters and they need to pay full attention to the task of eating. By providing a solid footrest, you’re removing a big source of distraction.

Some highchairs are adjustable. These are my favourites. Don’t have an adjustable chair? Not to worry, just MacGyver a footrest for your child. Inexpensive footstools (usually used at the bathroom sink) work well. As do a stack of phone books – although these are getting harder to come by.

The perfect height for your footrest is the height where your child’s feet are 90 degrees from their legs. In other words, your child is resting flat-footed.

Remember, check your footrest every couple of months. Kids grow!

Get more tips to help picky eaters eat well - in my e-newsletter.

Healthy Kids Snack - Banana Roll Ups

healthy kids snack banana roll ups

Sometimes the classics are a classic for a reason. Bananas and peanut butter simply taste great together. Here's a fun way to bring this classic duo together in a healthy kids snack. I'm choosing to share it today because it's easy for young hands to manage. Perfect if you're gearing up to pack snacks or a lunch for little ones with back-to-school next week. This works well with peanut butter, other nut butters (e.g. almond butter) and the non-nut butters if your child attends a nut-free facility.

Hey, it's also a delicious idea for those of us who are young at heart :)

Banana Roll-Ups Ingredients 2 small tortilla wraps, whole wheat ¾ medium banana 1 tbsp natural peanut butter, nut butter or non-nut butter ½ tsp honey (optional) 1 dash cinnamon, ground

Banana Roll-Ups Directions

  1. Slice banana.
  2. Spread nut butter or non-nut butter on wraps.
  3. Top with bananas.
  4. Drizzle honey and add a dash of cinnamon.
  5. Roll (pack in lunch boxes) and enjoy.

Get more healthy, simple, kid-friendly recipes.

3 Ways to use Farmers’ Markets to Get Your Child to Eat Veggies

3 Ways to use Farmers’ Markets to Get Your Child to Eat Veggies

It’s the height of summer and farmers' markets are approaching their peak. Perhaps you already shop at your local farmers’ market. Or, you’ve been meaning to check out the one in your neighbourhood. I’ve been a big fan of farmers’ markets since before the locavore movement made it cool. I have fond childhood memories of waking up early, piling into the car, and driving out of the city to the big farmers’ market in the country. Shopping at farmers’ markets supports your local economy, builds food security, and promotes community. Farmers’ markets are also a fantastic opportunity to get your kids excited about vegetables – from toddlers to pre-teens. Here are 3 fantastic activities to harness the opportunity at the farmers’ market to maximize your picky eaters’ enthusiasm for veggies and fruit.

  1. Helping Hands. Let your little one pick your produce. For example, tell her that you need 10 potatoes (or 1 head of lettuce, or 5 pears, etc). Then, let her pick and bag the 10 potatoes. Encourage “help” from the vendor – ask him questions like “How do you pick the best potatoes?” or “How do you know that a watermelon is ripe?” This is a great way to engage the pickiest eaters because it doesn’t even involve tasting the food. However it gently gets them to explore and feel ownership for the veggies/fruit. Both of which help them move towards trying it.
  2. Different Varieties, Same Food. Another gentle way to help kids be open to trying new foods is to have a taste testing of different varieties of the same food. Choose a food that your child already eats. Then choose other colours and shapes of the same food from the farmers’ market. Prepare all the varieties and try them all, comparing them. Take cucumbers for example: pick up one each of field cucumber, lemon cucumber, long English cucumber, pickling cucumber, and any other variety that you can find. When you get home, cut slices of each variety and lay them out on a plate. Gather your family. Try each one. Describe all your senses – how do they look, smell, taste? Is one sweeter, one more sour, one have a thicker skin?
  3. Kids’ Choice. Let your child choose any one vegetable or fruit at the market. Let kids pick themselves, or have them talk with the vendors to get recommendations such as “what’s especially yummy today?” or “My favourite vegetable is broccoli and I don’t like radishes, what would you recommend that I try?” Prepare your child’s choice together later that day. Older kids can help research and choose recipes. This will inspire pride and ownership of this food which helps many kids be open to taste it. You may want to set a budget ahead of time – otherwise your child may choose the giant, $30 hubbard squash, LOL!

One final (and important) note: It’s all in the attitude. Yours. Do these activities with your kids in the spirit of fun and exploring. Not in the spirit of forcing. Their enthusiasm will soar. And, with their new-found enthusiasm, they may feel brave enough to try the veggies (and perhaps even like them).

Picky Eater Success Strategy: Deconstructed Dishes

This is a favourite picky eater success strategy. It really can help you make one meal for the whole family. I have no idea why many kids don’t like their foods to touch. Another mystery that stumps me is why when sauces touch foods it’s considered unacceptable, but dipping is fun and yummy.

These are just 2 of the common great unsolved mysteries of young children’ eating habits. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to figure out why it is this way. It’s equally futile to try to rationalize with your child about how peas that have touched chicken are no different than peas that haven’t touched chicken.

So don’t waste your time (and brain cells). Leave it be and trust that (eventually) they’ll grow out of it.

In the meantime you aren’t relegated to eating sauce-free meals. Or, making your child a completely different dish every night. Instead, serve your child deconstructed dishes.

Picky Eater Success Strategy: Deconstructed Dishes

What I mean by “deconstructed” is to serve your child all the same components of your meal – but in a manner so that they aren’t touching. Take a beef and broccoli stir-fry for example. Cook a small amount of the meat, broccoli, and other veggies in the pan before you add the sauce. Remove them and set aside. Continue cooking the stir-fry with the rest of the ingredients and sauce. On your child’s plate place each of the items so that they are not touching each other, i.e. some beef, broccoli, other veggies, plain rice, and a small amount of sauce (perhaps in a dipping container like a small ramekin or saucer). And, place a very small amount of the stir-fry with all the foods touching with the sauce on it (like you are eating it).

“Deconstructed” meals are a fantastic compromise because they:

  • Allow you to eat a wide variety of dishes.
  • Allow your child to join you in sharing dishes.
  • Make your child feel confident with food because he has control over what ingredients he does and doesn’t eat.

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ARFID & How To Get Your Kids to Eat Everything?

ARIFD & How To Get Your Kids to Eat Everything?

Usually my posts are inspired by questions that you ask me. But today I’m sharing my two cents’ worth on two picky eating media articles that seemed to blow up this past week. The first on Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder - ARFID. The second on getting your kids to eat anythingNot quite viral, they definitely got lots of attention. The reason that I’m responding to them is because as a part of popular culture, they feed into the norms and expectations that people can have regarding kids and food. And I want to make sure that they aren’t impacting you in an unhealthy way.

So please be patient with me as I get up on my soapbox.

The first article was the CBC picking up on a commentary from health professionals in Ontario regarding something called ARFID. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a category of eating disorder added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) in 2013. The DSM-5 is a psychiatric classification and diagnostic tool used across North America. ARFID is a mental health condition where kids or adults are so limited in the foods that they will eat that it’s having a negative impact on their physical health and getting in the way of social situations. It’s beyond the normal developmental picky eating stage that kids go through.

My concerns with ARFID are the same concerns that come with any label. A label is intended to be used as a diagnostic tool get a child help. But frequently I see labels used as a crux. Because someone has placed the ARFID label on a child, it explains the child’s behaviour and means that nothing can be done. You accept the status quo and don’t work to find ways to support your child to expand their food repertoire. In other words, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You accept that your child only eats a few foods and those are the foods that you serve him/her.

My other concern is that a child will self-identify with ARFID and use it to prevent trying new foods. One of the first steps that I take when working with families is to have them stop talking about food in front of their picky eater. We want to start distancing these kids from the identity of “picky eater”. Then they can start to build the confidence to challenge themselves and try new foods. It’s the same reason why we tell our children that they’re smart, kind etc. We want them to believe that they are these things. So, why would we want to tell kids that they’re a picky eater. They’ll believe you and live up to your expectations.

When parents contact me initially saying that their child has ARFID or is a selective eater or is a super taster, I immediately am concerned. Because I’m worried that they’ve decided that there’s no way to help their child. They’ve given up. Defenses up, parents tell me “My child has ARFID so I’ll feed him nothing but apple sauce and chicken fingers because I know that he’ll eat them.” Kids always have the potential to grow. Success might be slow, but I’ve seen positive improvements in the eating of children who would be diagnosed (by a health professional) with one of these labels.

Ironically, the second article that was super popular this week was on the other extreme. It was a piece by Huffington Post Canada called “Picky Eater Tips: 6 Tricks To Get Your Kids To Eat Anything”. Hey, I have to give it to the editors at Huffington Post, they are experts at grabbing people’s attention. I mean, what parent wouldn’t want to click on that title?! The problem is that it sets unrealistic expectations. I’ve never met anyone – adult or child – who eats anything. OK, maybe Anthony Bourdain (not that I’ve actually met him). But the fact that he’s so abnormal that he’s crafted celebrity for it is my case in point. Your goal as a parent absolutely is not to get your child to eat anything. Your job is to support your child to eat a wide enough variety of foods that they meet their nutrition needs, can attend social functions without stress, and can calmly face eating foods that aren’t their favourites when their favourites aren’t on the menu. But I suppose an article title like that isn’t sexy enough to get lots of clicks.

Some kids are better eaters. Some kids are pickier. Your role is to create an environment that supports your child to be the best little eater that they can be.

OK, I’m off my soapbox now.

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How to Help Kids Stop Dawdling at Meals

How to Help Kids Stop Dawdling at Meals

Most parents ask me for help with getting their kids to actually stay sitting at the table (if that’s you, check out this blog post). But every once and a while parents ask me for help with the opposite problem. Their child takes forever to eat. Every meal is a long, drawn out affair with long minutes going by between each bite. Every time you go to take their plate away they take another bite or two. You feel torn amongst letting them get enough to eat and actually moving along with the day. If this sounds like you, here’s a strategy to help your child eat enough during a reasonable mealtime.  

Step #1: Check Your Expectations. For us adults, the mechanisms of eating are easy. We move the muscles in our mouths and throats to eat without even thinking of it. And, we have the dexterity to use utensils with ease.

Toddlers still are learning the mouth control for eating. So it can take longer to chew and swallow safely. That’s exactly why we have the recommendations of not giving choking hazards to kids under 3 years old.

Preschoolers and school-age kids have mastered chewing and swallowing. But they are still mastering utensils. Expect them to take longer to eat when a meal involves utensils.

Step #2: Use a Visual Clock. Have you taken into account the extra time for mouth coordination and utensil use and determined that you have an honest to goodness dawdler? Here’s a technique that I’ve used with lots of kids to help them learn to manage their mealtime. It’s quite simple really. Kids this age do well with visual cues. This technique stops you from nagging that it’s time to finish up (and prevents kids from learning to tune you out). You simply set a timer, let kids see it counting down, and kids learn to manage completing their task (in this case, eating) within the allotted time. Older kids can follow a simple timer countdown on a cell phone or tablet set up on the table. Younger kids need a visual that doesn’t involve numbers. There are a number of apps and devices available to create a visual representation of a clock. An example of a product is: http://www.timetimer.com/store

To look for apps simply search for “visual timer” in your device’s app store (iTunes, Google Play).

To use the visual clock, introduce the new rule to your child then follow-through. Expect them to get it wrong a few times as they experience the learning curve. During this transition, don’t let them continue eating after the timer is done. Because they will likely be a bit hungry, do plan an extra big snack and, if you can, move snack time up a bit.

Kids are smart. They learn how to regulate their meal time within a few days.

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