I recently got to hear Chef Jacques Pepin speak here in Austin. (I ❤ tiny old men.) It was a fun and interesting question and answer session, facilitated by his daughter, Claudette. I learned a lot, but the moment that connected to me most was when Claudette read a question about how to get kids to eat new foods. Claudette said she encourages her daughter to eat a variety of foods, and uses the “all, some, meh” approach. Eat all the veggies and some of the meat on the plate, and anything else is up to you. “I don’t do the clean plate club, though,” she said. Chef Pepin threw his hands in the air. “Eh, you eat what’s on the table,” he said in his thick French accent.
I work with teenagers, young adults, and young families with children. This question comes up all the time. How do we get our kids to eat something besides nuggets? Should they clean their plates? How do we get OURSELVES to eat healthier foods? All of these questions are based in a few myths about how children eat and learn to eat. So, let’s explore.
Myth #1 – “My kid only eats nuggets (or fries, or pizza, or whatever bland brown or white thing), and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
This is the big myth that leads to most of the others. Starting with the myth that your kids go to the store and buy their own food. Your three-year old is strong-willed and independent, but not that independent. If they eat nuggets three times a day, it’s because you give them nuggets. You need to change your mindset, and take responsibility for the foods you offer. They (mostly) only eat the foods you give them at this point. Which leads to…
Myth #2 – “But what if they starve?”
Humans are magnificent beings, with amazing wills. As you know, because your little ones (or your big ones, because I know some grown-ass nugget freaks) are throwing fits and refusing to eat. But the flip side of that is that it’s really hard to starve oneself to death. Occasionally, you hear of yogis and political prisoners refusing to eat, but they have enlightenment to achieve, or a cause to fight for. Your toddler’s really not that motivated, or rather, their motivation is to live, not starve themselves. Offer them a variety of foods (including foods they already like), and let them eat what they want. Gently encourage them to try new things, but don’t force it.
Myth #3 – “They’re wasting so much food!”
First off, it’s not wasted; it’s an educational opportunity. Studies have shown that it can take 10 to 50 (fifty!) exposures to a new food before a child will try it. (Think about how many it might take for an adult with “fully developed” preferences!) That’s not even times putting the food in their mouths. It’s times seeing the food. But cooks often give up serving something new after three tries. I know rejection’s hard, but keep trying. Second, serve less. Especially when you’re introducing new things. Serve something familiar and liked, and also serve a vegetable. Maybe only a teaspoon full. Let the child decide what, and how much, to eat from the plate. Just keep trying.
Myth #4 – “Kids HATE vegetables!”
Do they? Do they really? Take your kid to the produce section. Take YOURSELF to the produce section. Honestly, how often do you go there, and really look around, with an open mind? Look at all the colors! Smell the smells! Is there something new on the shelves? Let your children pick out a fruit or vegetable each week. Find a recipe online. Hate it? Try a new recipe. Scared of wasting food and money? See Myth #3.
Myth #5 – “I only eat nuggets and soda, but I want my kids to be healthier than me, so I’m going to make them eat healthy food.”
No, you are not. If you’re concerned about your kids’ health, you need to set an example. This also applies to your friends, relatives, and significant others whose health you’re concerned about. One, you can’t make anyone eat anything they don’t want to. (Cue screaming three-year old.) Two, you need to set the example. Your kids want to be like you. If you want them to try new things, and eat healthy food, you need to do the same. Hate vegetables? See myths 3 and 4. You can grow and learn together. It’ll be fun. Mostly. Put a vegetable on everyone’s plate every time you eat. When I was a kid, we always got fast food to go, and when we got home, my mom would open a can of veggies to go with our burgers and fries. Commitment.
Is it easy to raise kids who eat healthy food? Maybe not, but there’s not much easy about raising kids. Change your mindset, and don’t buy into the belief that kids (or reluctant adults) don’t enjoy fruits, veggies, and other healthy choices. It’s worth the extra time and effort to cultivate healthy, adventurous eaters.
Can you think of other myths you were told about eating or feeding your children? Do you have great eaters you want to brag on? Leave a comment!