Child-Feeding Expert andVictoria BC Dietitian (Nutritionist) Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD Answers Is It Okay To Feed Young Children Spicy Food. Babies and Spicy Food too.Read More
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).
Photo credit: Keenan Loo on Unsplash
This is a delicious way to include lentils in your diet. I mean, who doesn't like pizza?!
Note that if you have picky kids, don't call this pizza. Because while the crust is delicious, it does taste different than regular pizza crust. So, use a different term than "pizza". Such as "flatbreads". This way picky kiddos won't expect pizza and they'll be open to this new dish that's called "flatbread".
Also, note that you need to soak the lentils the night before you plan to make this dish.
Lentil Crust Flatbread (Pizza) - Crust Ingredients
2 cups of soaked red lentils (24hr then pureed)
1/2 cup water
1-3 garlic cloves (as per your taste preference)
1 TBSP dried basil
1 TBSP dried oregano
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 TBSP olive oil
Lentil Crust Flatbread (Pizza) - Toppings
1 can of tomato puree/sauce
1/2 cup of shredded white mozzarella cheese or feta
Vegetables/protein of your choice
Lentil Crust Flatbread (Pizza) - Directions
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Rinse and drain lentils and transfer into the food processor.
- Add 3 garlic cloves, dried basil, dried oregano, sea salt, baking powder and ½ cup of water for consistency.
- Puree all the ingredients until smooth.
- Heat a heavy-bottom frying pan over medium heat. Use ~1 tbsp of olive oil to grease the pre-heated pan and pour in the batter. Smooth the batter out with a spoon, it will look like a mini pancake. Make sure the batter is THIN.
- Repeat this step (should make about 8 mini crusts)
- Cook 2-3 minutes on each side. Then, transfer your flatbreads to a baking tray covered with parchment paper.
- Add your tomato sauce, cheese and toppings.
- Bake in the oven for 15 minutes until cheese is bubbling and brown.
Get more recipes on my recipe page HERE.
Photo and recipe credit: Amazing student Hanna Kim (Thanks Hanna!)
Usually I write my blogs with tips and advice for parents. But I know that there are a lot of Early Childhood Educators, daycare providers, nannies, and other important caregivers in our community. Today’s message is for you.
The other day, I received an email from a parent who has influenced her children to be good eaters by using the techniques that I share here. Her email was simply entitled “rant”. Here’s what this frustrated mama said about her experience with her daughter’s first month in kindergarten:
“Petunia’s* old daycare would always dictate what she was allowed to eat out of her lunch kit and in what order. Fruit/veggies, then sandwich, then yogurt… don’t send cookies.
AND NOW I’M HAVING ISSUES WITH HER AT KINDERGARTEN
So of course, she’s not eating any of her multiple fruit/veggie options. Not even when I cut the peel off the apple and provide caramel (cream cheese) dip for them after she’s agreed that that is how she would like to eat them.
I asked daycare over and over again to stop dictating her lunch choices. Petunia has declared kindergarten awesome because she can eat whatever she wants.”
* Name changed for privacy.
I wish that this was an isolated incident. But it’s by far not the only time that a parent has expressed their frustration with me. I knew that I needed to share it with you, so you could see the unintended consequence of your actions.
It’s only with good intentions that early childhood caregivers ask kids to eat their veggies first. You care about kids – otherwise this wouldn’t be your profession. You want kids to get the nutrition from the veggies.
Unfortunately, you’re having the opposite effect than you intended.
Forcing kids to eat veggies first only reinforces that veggies are something awful. Something that you need to get over with so that you can get to the shiny prize of the treats. The consequence is that when kids no longer have a gatekeeper around, and they can make their own food choices, they go after the forbidden foods and ignore the forced foods.
That’s what’s happening with Petunia now. At Kindergarten there is no adult gatekeeper making her eat her veggies and fruit. So she isn’t.
I know that you’re choosing your actions because you want kids to eat their veggies. But you’re actually teaching them to NOT choose to eat veggies. Oops.
For those of you working in licenced facilities here in BC, I have another reason for you to re-consider your actions. The regulations state:
48. (4) “A licensee must ensure that children are not
(b) forced to consume any food or drink,”
By dictating in what order kids must eat their meal, you are forcing kids; therefore, you are breaking the regulations.
What to do instead?
- Allow kids to eat whatever they want, in whatever order they want, from the foods that were packed for them.
- Incorporate vegetables and fruit into your curriculum.
- Organize activities that involve veggies and fruit.
- Eat with children at meals and snacks. Role model eating your veggies.
Communicate with parent about what veggies/ fruits were eaten each day so that parents can plan meals and snacks at home to create balanced nutrition throughout the day.
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It’s the second week of September. You made it through all the back-to-school craziness. You bought new clothes, school supplies, even figured out the family schedule for pick-up and drop-off. You likely browsed Pinterest, Instagram and Google for healthy, fun packed lunch ideas and dutifully engaged your inner food stylist so that your child had lunches that they loved.
Many clients have told me the stories of being in the dreaded line-up of parents doing school pick-up. Giving their child a quick hug and then opening the lunchbox to see what was eaten. Or, to be more accurate, to see what wasn’t eaten. This lunchbox check isn’t just a simple status update on what food your child digested that day. It’s a measure of your parenting skills, done in-front of a firing squad of your judgmental peers.
Or, at least that’s how it feels.
The purpose of my message today isn’t to jump on the judgment bandwagon. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m here today to let you know that whether or not your child ate their lunch isn’t a measure of your parenting skills. It isn’t about you at all. So drop the mommy-guilt and daddy-guilt. Let’s re-focus on your child. Because, this situation is actually about your child.
Why Kids Don’t Eat Packed Lunch
The ability to eat lunch in the highly distracting school environment is a life skill. And like any life skill, some kids pick it up easily and some find it more challenging. How quickly kids pick up on this new skill isn’t a measure of how “good” or “bad” a kid they are. And, it isn’t a measure of how “good” or “bad” a parent you are. I’ve helped thousands of families over my career. In my experience the kids who find eating lunch at school more challenging tend to be:
- Very social,
- Easily distracted, or
- Sensitive souls
How to Help Kids Eat Packed Lunch
In time, your child will pick up the important life skill of successfully eating a meal in a distracting environment. Here are some actions that you can take to support your child in learning this life skill. And, actions you can take to make sure that they are meeting their nutrition needs throughout the day.
- Make sure containers are easy to open. Have your child practice at home so you can determine if they can do it without help.
- Cut food into small pieces. Yes, this means cutting foods into smaller pieces than kiddos can handle at home. Because a smaller piece requires a shorter attention span. For example, cut sandwiches into 4 pieces, cut wraps into sushi-like round bites, or pack apple slices instead of a whole apple.
- Plan an extra big breakfast and after-school snack to make up for a missed lunch. This isn’t the time to restrict afternoon snacks to smaller amounts of food. Allow kids to have as much to eat at snack-time as they are hungry for. Serve healthy foods from a variety of food groups. An easy way to do this is to allow kids to open up their lunchboxes and eat their lunch leftovers (i.e. the majority of their lunch) as their snack. If you packed it as a lunch meal, it’ll be a healthy choice for an afternoon snack. With one caveat – make sure that foods are still safe – i.e. foods that need to be refrigerated haven’t been at room temperature too long.
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Each year, UBC dietetics students have a class project where they practice writing nutrition articles for the public. This year, I asked students Mei Ho and May Hasegawa to research are food dyes safe for kids. Here's what they found ~ Kristen
When you are shopping for snacks for your child, do the bright colours make you think twice about about adding it to your basket? Many foods we come across in our everyday lives have colour added in order to make it appear more appetizing. It is very common to see vivid colours in foods and beverages marketed towards children, such as candies, desserts and chewing gums. Foods can be coloured by natural food dyes like caramel colouring, or artificial food dyes, which are colours made from petroleum1. Today we will be looking at food dyes in the context of artificial food dyes, which have been used more commonly in foods in recent years.
Are Artificial Food Dyes Safe for Kids?
As early as the 80’s, researchers began to study the effects of artificial food dyes on children’s health. The results of their studies have been controversial, and has stirred concern amongst consumers. Some have suggested a possible link between artificial food dyes and hypersensitivity in children3. Others have researched possible risks of organ damage, cancer, birth defects and allergic reactions1. While no study findings have been conclusive, countries in Europe such as the U.K. have banned artificial food dyes altogether for safety measures1.
What Are the Safety Regulations of Food Dyes in Canada?
Regulations in North America state that there is not enough scientific evidence to say artificial food dyes cause negative effects on children’s health3. Canada permits the use of food dyes in everyday foods from bread, butter, milk to cheese. All food dyes must first be approved by our federal regulatory body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). At this time, Canada has approved ten dye colours for use in food and beverages.
However, it has not been ruled out that food dyes may affect children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioural problems differently3. Researchers agree that more research on artificial food dyes is required.
Food Dyes Across the Globe
In 2009, the U.K. imposed strict regulations to remove certain food dyes from foods and beverages. This prompts us to think, why hasn’t North America followed along? It is interesting to note the different approaches used by North America and the U.K. when it comes to ensuring public safety through foods.4
- North America: tries to find the strongest evidence available before implementing new regulations.
- UK: uses a more precautionary approach, meaning that it will take action to protect the public even if the evidence is not entirely conclusive.
Moving Forward: What Can You Do?
With all this information, it can be confusing to decide whether you want your children to be consuming artificial food dyes. It may first be helpful to understand how to identify whether something contains artificial food dyes. By law, companies are required to list the name of the dye on the ingredient label. It may be tricky for shoppers to recognize the commercial names of artificial food dyes. Here are the names of 10 common artificial food dyes in Canada:5
- Allura red
- Brilliant blue FCF
- Citrus Red No.2
- Sunset yellow FCF
- Fast green FCF
- Erythrosine Red
- Amaranth Red
- Ponceau SX
There are also ways to add colour into your cooking at home without using food dyes! Kids are drawn to bright colours, and baking at home can be more fun if your child has the chance to make their own colours. This can be done by boiling, blending, and/or pureeing vegetables or fruits for their natural colours.6
- Raspberries, pomegranate and beets - pink/purple
- Carrots – orange
- Turmeric powder – yellow
- Blueberry – blue
- Spinach – green
- Red cabbage – purple and blue
- For purple, boil cabbage in hot water until water is dark purple colour
- For blue, slowly add some baking soda to purple water
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - May’s Opinion:
While there is not enough evidence to conclude that artificial food dyes are harmful to our body, I feel that more research is needed to fully understand their effects on our health. I like to refrain from using artificial food colouring in my own baking, and opt for more natural options like using juice from fruits or vegetables.
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - Mei’s Opinion:
As the research is inconclusive, it is ultimately up to the consumers to make an informed decision. New food labelling requirements in Canada will now include the commercial names of synthetic food dyes in the ingredient list, but it is questionable whether or not consumers will recognize these names or be able to associate them with food dyes.
Are Food Dyes Safe for Kids - Kristen's Opinion:
Call me conservative, but I am suspicious of foods that are highly processed. My motto is "foods closest to the way nature made them are the healthiest choice". Artificial food dyes are about as far from nature-made as you can get. So, I would recommend steering clear of artificial food dyes for day-to-day eating. But I'm also practical. Our bodies are amazingly adaptive. Eating foods with artificial dyes once in a while is likely not going to cause harm. So if your child is invited to a birthday party where they serve cake with bright green icing, let your child enjoy the cake right along with the other kiddos.
If your child has behaviour concerns, such as ADD/ ADHD, I think it's worth doing a food trial where you eliminate all food dyes and see how your child's behaviour responds. There may be no effect. Or, your child may be a member of the sub-set of kids who have a link between behaviour and food dyes.
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1Kobylewski, Sarah, et al. “Food Dyes a Rainbow of Risks”. Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2010.
2Stevenson J, Sonuga-Barke E, McCann D, et al. “The Role of Histamine Degradation Gene Polymorphisms in Moderating the Effects of Food Additives on Children's ADHD Symptoms.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2010; 167:1108-1115.
3 “FDA panel concludes food coloring isn't associated with hyperactivity in children.” Nutrition Today. 2011; 46:104.
4Banned in Europe, Safe in the U.S. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/banned-europe-safe-us/
5Food Colours - Permitted Synthetic Colours in Canada and Corresponding United States and European Names.
68 Ways to Make Organic DIY Food Colouring. http://www.networx.com/article/8-ways-to-make-organic-diy-food-coloring
It’s a new year and so it’s time for my annual post on 2017 food trends I love. I really am lucky that my work is my passion. I honestly don’t know if I’m working or ‘off the clock’ when I’m reading food magazines, browsing food blogs, shopping at farmers markets and grocery stores, and watching cooking shows. Regardless of whether I’m working or spending leisure time, being immersed in the nutrition and food-geek world, I see many, many a food trend. Lots of which make me cringe and I can’t wait until they pass. But others get me excited. Here’s the 2017 food trends I love. Enjoy!
Hot Produce: Fennel, Radish, Persimmons, Watermelon, Dragon Fruit
Now I don’t know if any of these trends will be strong enough to knock kale out of the King of Produce spot that it’s held on to for the last many years. But perhaps they’ll be strong enough to move Brussels Sprouts and cauliflower out of the spotlight (not that there’s anything wrong with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower).
I include these veggies and fruit trends on the list of food trends that I love because I hope that their trendiness will inspire you to break out of eating the same few veggies and fruit and try new things. And, overall, eat more veggies and fruit. Each vegetable and each fruit has a slightly different nutrient profile. Meaning that each one has a unique blend of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, phytochemicals, fibre, fruit, and more that’s good for us that science hasn’t yet discovered. Every fruit and every vegetable is a healthy choice. And, the more variety you get, the better.
The dark shadow of the food trend is that people can get caught up in eating one particular food. Or, get worked up if their child doesn’t like one particular vegetable or fruit. But there’s nothing to get worked up about. Our bodies are amazing. We don’t need any one particular food in order to be healthy. We can meet our nutrition needs by eating a wide variety of foods. In fact, the wider the variety, the better. So use the food trend for good – as inspiration to try new foods. Or, to try new recipes for vegetables and fruit that are already familiar to you.
Looking for recipe inspiration? Check out my recipe ideas on Pinterest. So far, I have healthy recipe ideas for fennel and healthy recipe ideas for dragon fruit. Radish, persimmon, and watermelon will be coming later this year so stay tuned.
While I’m on the topic of vegetables and fruit, there’s another trend that has been gaining steam – ugly produce. This one is a win-win-win in my eyes – it encourages eating veggies and fruit (a nutrition win), encourages less food waste (environment win) and creates a new market for farmers (economic win). So what’s ‘ugly’ produce? It’s produce that is perfectly nutritious, but just doesn’t look perfect – in other words it’s ‘ugly’. For the last few generations who have done their grocery shopping at major grocery chains, the only produce that they’ve been exposed to are perfect-looking specimens. The hidden side of this fact is that a huge proportion of perfectly good vegetables and fruit are thrown out just because they don’t look perfect. But no more! Now, some major grocery chains are starting to carry ‘ugly’ produce. Farmers markets and farm-gate sales have long been where ugly produce is revered.
Buying ugly produce does require you to shift your perspective. You need to no longer judge a book by its cover (or a carrot by how straight it is). You need to be more tuned in to what’s in season, how food smells, how heavy it is, and firm/soft it is, to determine whether something is ‘good’ or not. But once you gain these new skills, it’s super easy. And, considering the win-win-win of ugly produce, you’ll likely see just how beautiful it really is. As they say, true beauty lies beneath the surface.
No Food Waste
How about a food trend that is good for the environment and saves you money? Sound too good to be true? Well that’s just what the ‘no food waste’ trend offers.
I’ve heard estimates that 40% of all food in North America is thrown in the garbage. What a huge negative environmental impact! We know that fresh water and agriculture land is under stress. Now think that almost half of what’s being grown is going to waste. It’s a tragedy.
The good news is that taking steps to solve this problem is really easy. And, it’ll save you money. One part of the solution is what I’ve described above – buying ugly produce. No longer demanding that every single piece of your produce be the equivalent of a supermodel.
The next part of the solution will save you money – buying less that you’ll throw away. This means meal planning. I’ve talked about the benefits of meal planning before. But another benefit is that you’ll buy less food that will go bad and end up in your green bin.
Got the first two solutions under your belt and now you’re ready to up your ‘no food waste’ game? The last solution also could technically fit under the meal planning title. It’s applying the nose-to-tail philosophy from meat eating to produce. In other words, including more creative recipes that use parts of the veggies/fruit that we usually throw away. Keep your eyes tuned because I’ll be sharing some recipes that I’ve been working on.
Many people get a lot of pleasure out of their weekly glass of wine or an occasional cocktail. But the reality is that alcohol does have significant calories in it. Any calories that you drink, your body doesn’t recognize, and so you still eat the same number of calories as if you hadn’t drank anything. This can contribute to creeping weight gain over time. We also know that alcohol lowers inhibitions and so while sober you may not have ordered the extra large, fully loaded nachos, after a few drinks, you’re happily elbow-deep in a platter.
It is for these reasons that I love the ‘no alcohol’ trend. The trend includes people who choose to not drink any more. And, people choosing to take a temporary break from alcohol (e.g. dry January).
What’s a non-drinker to do? More and more restaurants are now including interesting, low sugar, alcohol-free drinks on their lists. Love it! As a non-drinker myself, I really appreciate this. Whether you’re choosing to not drink for a while, or you’re the designated driver, you’re no longer relegated to choosing between plain water or a sugar-laden (or artificial sugar-laden) pop. Kombucha is showing up in more and more grocery stores and on-tap at restaurants and pubs. I’m also seeing an explosion of low sugar, no artificial-sugar, sparkling waters/pops.
Overall, this ‘no alcohol’ trend is one that I’m hoping has staying power.
A recent study reinforced something that as a child nutrition dietitian, I’ve known through working with thousands of families over the years in Vancouver, Victoria, and beyond. The study found that giving kids frequent snacks is associated with lower iron levels. In other words, it increases the risk for kids' iron deficiency.
Why are we concerned about kids’ iron levels? Because iron is necessary for having good energy, overall growth, but perhaps most importantly, it’s necessary for little ones’ growing brains. Without adequate iron, kids won’t live up to their full cognitive capacity.
It’s very, very common for parents to give kids frequent snacks. Families record a food diary when I work with them. In reviewing their food diaries, more often than not, we realize that they’re feeding their kids just about every hour. No wonder the far is full of crumbs and you have food stashed in every purse and jacket pocket!
So how does this habit contribute to kids’ lower iron levels? In two ways:
- Snacks usually consist of foods that we deem “snack foods”. They’re things like fruit, granola bars and cookies. These are all low in iron.
- Because kids are in the habit of snacking all day long, they don’t have an appetite to eat at lunch and dinner – the times when iron-rich foods are usually served.
Now this doesn’t mean that kids only need to eat 3 meals a day. They have big energy needs (to keep those busy bodies moving and growing), small tummies, and short attention spans. So it’s unlikely that kids will meet their nutrition needs by eating just 3 meals a day. I recommend that kids be offered opportunities to eat 5-6 times a day. There is no one pattern that families have to follow. But a common pattern that achieves this is:
- Morning snack
- Afternoon snack
- Bedtime snack
To avoid constant snacking, look ahead at your family’s schedule. Plan for when you’ll offer these 5 – 6 opportunities to eat. Plan for the opportunities to eat to be at least 1 hour apart from each other so that your child has a chance to digest what they’ve just eaten and build an appetite again. Aim to have your meals and snacks at about the same times each day.
Previously I’ve written about using share plates as a successful strategy for helping picky eaters to try new foods on their own. Today I’m sharing how to take it up a notch if you’ve been using the share plate strategy already. You can also use what I’m sharing today as your starting point. Either way, I’ve seen this be a successful way to getting picky kids to try new foods.
Almost always, when I visit families for an in-home consultation, I observe that a parent plates the food on each family member’s plate and then brings the plates to the table. I recommend serving meals in a different way. Instead of individually plating food in the kitchen, I recommend serving food on share plates that you place in the middle of the table. This is also called serving food “family style”.
Toddlers and preschoolers, also known as the picky eater or fussy eating years, are at a developmental stage when they want to do things for themselves. It’s what I call the “me do it” stage. They are also at a developmental stage where they are wary of food. Considering these normal stages of child development, you can see why kids this age hate it when their plates arrive in front of them with food already on it. They didn’t get to choose the food themselves and the food is arriving out of nowhere – how suspicious.
Instead of trying to work against kids’ normal developmental stage, the share plate technique uses children’s developmental stage to your advantage. Kids get to closely inspect the food on the share plate and choose, for themselves, what specific pieces end up on their plate. This level of empowerment certainly is worth washing a few extra dishes (especially if you have a dishwasher).
To take this strategy to the next level, I recommend not just having the share plate sitting in the middle of the table. Pass the plate around the table and allow each person to choose what they want from the plate. Yes, smaller children will need help holding and serving themselves from the share plate. But they can still participate. This strategy is particularly helpful for highly picky kids, particularly those who have anxiety about a food even being on their plate. This strategy also is good for kids who completely ignore the food on the share plate when it’s sitting in the middle of the table. This passing of the plate can be a simple, and non-threatening, way for them to interact with each food that you’re serving. You’re also silently expressing to them both how much they are included in the family as well as your faith that one day they’ll choose to eat each food. Talk about empowering messages!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Rarely do I give a workshop on introducing solid foods to babies or feeding toddlers and preschoolers (including picky eaters) where a parent doesn’t ask how much food they should feed their child. It’s quite an easy question for me to answer. And, the answer applies to any meal or snack for a child of any age:
As much as they are hungry for.
If this answer surprises you, you’re not alone. This answer usually is met with confused faces. So, let me expand. As the adult, it’s your role to provide opportunities to eat 5 or 6 times a day. It’s your child’s role to choose how much to eat.
I recognize that it’s difficult to trust them to know how much to eat. But it really is best to do so.
We’re born being able to know when we are hungry and when we are satisfied. Over time, through social pressures, we learn to not listen to our bodies and instead look to external cues for how much to eat. This is associated with higher rates of eating disorders and obesity.
Studies show that when kids are raised in households where they’re told to stop eating before they’re satisfied (i.e. because the adult believes that their child has “had enough”), they learn to sneak food and gorge on food when they get the opportunity.
On the flip side, when kids are forced to eat more than they are hungry for, they learn to over-ride their bodies’ signals and they learn to overeat.
Instead, trust your child to listen to their bodies and eat as much as their bodies tell them. Expect this to vary from day-to-day. Some days they’ll eat so much that you don’t know where they’re putting it all. Other days they’ll eat so little that you won’t know where they’re getting their energy from. I recommend serving a very small portion. If kids want more, allow them to have seconds.
You’ll know that your child is getting enough to eat when they have lots of energy and their growth is tracking along their curve on their growth chart.
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.
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.
This squash soup, with its bright orange colour and warming ginger is my “chicken” soup that I eat when I have a cold or the flu. Or when I’m looking for comfort food to warm me on a cold day.
This is a “Kristen” recipe – very imprecise but also very flexible. It takes some time with all the chopping. I recommend making a big batch because it freezes well.
Squash Soup Ingredients
- Vegetable oil (preferably olive oil)
- Member of the allium family (onion, garlic, leek, shallots)
- Ginger (I like about an inch)
- 2 or 3 kinds of orange vegetables like winter squash (my favourite is butternut but any kind will work including pumpkin), carrots, yams, sweet potatoes
- Vegetable stock, chicken stock or water (water will make the blandest soup – use as a last resort)
- Orange juice
- Salt or seaweed
- Fresh ground pepper
Squash Soup Directions
- Finely chop the members of the allium family.
- Grate the ginger.
- Peel and chop the orange veggies. Cut squash, yams, and sweet potatoes into ½ to 1 inch pieces. Cut the carrots into coins. Carrots take longer to cook than squash and yams/ sweet potatoes are in the middle. So, you will want the carrot pieces smaller than the squash pieces and the yam/ sweet potato pieces middle in size.
- In a large, heavy bottomed pot, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Heat it over low-medium heat. Add the allium family members and cook until onions/ shallots are translucent or the leeks have softened.
- Add the ginger and orange vegetables and sauté for a few minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add enough stock to just cover the veggies. Add seaweed or salt. Cover with a lid, turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil gently until the orange veggies are soft, stirring periodically. Add stock/ water while cooking, if needed.
- Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
- Using a blender or hand-held mixer, puree the soup, adding orange juice one splash at a time until you reach your desired consistency and flavour.
- Return to the pot and re-heat. Serve hot, topped with a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper.
Find more delicious recipes here.
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”.