Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Seven Year Old Ate Squid

My 7 year old ate squid on Saturday. As a matter of fact, so did my 10 year old and my 12 year old. Maybe that doesn’t seem amazing to you, but to me it is a milestone. My kids, like most kids, prefer all their food to be familiar, something they’ve eaten before and preferably not touching any other food. This eliminates all manner of exotic food, casseroles, sauces, and stir-fries. Amazingly, that cardinal rule gets thrown out the window when it comes to ice cream – the more stuff mixed in the better. My oldest son did a school project on the Giant Squid a few years ago, so my kids had some preconceived notions about squid. Up until this past Saturday evening their only other experience with squid was when my husband ordered it just to gross them all out. But the times they are a changin’. All it took was the youngest to open his mind and his palate and his siblings were forced to rise to the challenge. Nevermind that the calamari was deep fried in to oblivion and could just as easily have been fried squirrel for anyone knew (I’d point this out, but I just get called a spoil sport). The verdict – “It’s OK.” The older two smothered theirs in ketchup and can now say that they’ve eaten squid, but the youngest had seconds and thirds with no ketchup!

How do we get our kids to eat new foods? Or more importantly, how do we get them to eat healthy foods? That’s one of the biggest challenges parents have, and sadly, most of us are not up to it. Because it is a huge challenge and it’s much easier to just order the nuggets and fries or to cook spaghetti again. I’m with ya, I feel your frustration. Sometimes it’s not even just the fight, it’s designing the menu. It’s exhausting always trying to figure out what to feed them. You have to balance nutritional needs, fussy preferences, the work involved, the ingredients on hand, and what they’ll actually eat. I know it’s very efficient to write out a menu a week in advance, but some of us are lucky to figure it out 30 minutes in advance.

I’m a firm believer in persistence. I think it is the backbone of good parenting. We must just keep trying. We can’t give up. If we give up, who will make these children in to good citizen, considerate members or society, and healthy individuals? Who else will care enough? We are the only ones without an agenda or something to sell trying to influence our children. So we have to persist with our kids. I know it’s exhausting, but we have to do it. Besides, as every older parent constantly tells me – it’ll be over before you know it. Right.

So here are some things to remember when trying to widen your child’s culinary horizons:

Make it easily available. If my kids walk through the kitchen and say they’re hungry, I might suggest an apple and more times than not, they’ll make a face. If my kids walk through the kitchen and see a big bowl of beautiful apples on the table, they’ll pick one up. They might not even have been thinking of a snack, but the apple is so easily accessible and red and shiny - it’s irresistible. This works for all kinds of snacks. If you suggest an orange, your child thinks of the labor involved in peeling an orange, but if the orange is already sliced up and waiting on a plate to be eaten – who can resist? Especially when you smile at them with a slice in your own mouth substituting as teeth. They might roll their eyes at you, but they’ll be pulling the same orange grin on their sibling. So instead of suggesting a healthy snack, prepare it and they will come. Just like the Kevin Costner movie (whose title escapes me).

Here’s some other ideas for healthy snacks to leave laying about:
Unshelled nuts (peanuts, pistachios, or for the holidays – assorted nuts with several crackers) – just be sure to also put out a shell bowl and leave a few shells in there for demonstration purposes
Shelled nuts
Dried fruit of any kind (apricots, cranberries, cherries, raisins)
Frozen grapes
Orange slices
Celery & carrots (and dip if you must)
Pickle tray (assorted pickles, olives, and the very important toothpicks)
Cut fruit of any kind that doesn’t turn brown when left out (Watermelon, cantelope, pineapple)
Cheese and crackers
Pretzel sticks and mustard
PB&J tortilla rollups (sliced up in small colorful sections)
Cheese tortilla rollups (sliced up)
Ants on a log (celery or banana with peanut butter and raisins)
Hard-boiled eggs in “egg cups” (great thing to look for at garage sales)

Trust me. It’s all about availability. And pretty much right up there with availability is presentation. Your kids will eat lots of things you never imagined they’d eat if it’s presented right. (And served with a toothpick) An overripe banana may taste wonderful, but it looks horrible so don’t serve it – mash it up and make banana bread or a smoothie or something. Get creative with your presentation. I know, I know, I don’t want to work that hard either, but back to my earlier point – who else will? I’ll tell you who – the snack food companies! Why do you think kids love those lunchables (aside from the sugar and salt and fat)? Presentation! All those cute little compartments and bright packaging. If you don’t make eating healthy exciting, who will?

Just keep putting it out there. A year ago, my daughter would never even consider eating a grilled chicken breast. A chicken nugget? Sure, pass the ketchup. But a marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection? No thank you. We had chicken the other night and my husband and I both swallowed our comments when she asked for seconds. How many pieces of chicken has the dog had in the interim? Too many to count. But she’s seen the last of it! Plan a healthy meal and serve it up. Don’t consider who will eat what. Just serve it up. We have a sign on the wall in our kitchen that reads:

1. Take It
2. Leave It

Plan some healthy meals and just do it again and again. They’ll come around. Either that or they’ll eventually move out. Don’t sacrifice your own healthy eating for your kids.

Involve your kids in the growing, picking, and cooking. I’ve written lots about the benefits of getting your kids in to the garden or the fruit orchard, but getting them in the kitchen is just as important. It is easier to do it yourself, but taking the time to involve your kids will give them incentive to eat what they cook. Start with the things you know they like – cookies, bread, macaroni and cheese and move on to things they don’t necessarily enjoy yet. Most kids love to cook – it’s messy, smelly, exciting, kind of like a science experiment. Embrace the mess and the chaos and accept ahead of time that it may not turn out just like the picture. But let them really do the cooking.

There’s so much to teach them in the kitchen. You might not think you’re much of a cook, but get a 10 year old behind the apron and she’ll look to you as the expert. You know how to crack an egg, measure a liquid, preheat an oven –such skill! Share it. Find out what they’d like to make and learn how to cook it together. Bagels are fun (check out my post from March 13, 2009 for an easy recipe). You can’t really mess up scrambled eggs and they make a great snack too. Another great snack (and an assumed cooking ability) is hard-boiled eggs. If you don’t teach them now, they’ll be frantically searching the internet someday when their own children want to color Easter eggs.

Another idea is to let them plan the menu. I haven’t used this much, but it makes sense to me. Tell them they need to balance the meal and include things like protein, veggies, fruit, dairy, and whole grains. Get them thinking. Everyone is more enthusiastic when it’s their own idea. So far, I only let me kids choose the menu when it’s their birthday. One of my children chose pancakes with a side of peas. Another chose noodles with NOTHING on them. We have a ways to go. But I like the idea of negotiating with them over a menu. “You can choose anything you want, as long as it’s….” I have all the power in this relationship because I control the kitchen and the shopping. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I know I make feeding your kids healthy food and getting them to try new things sound easy, but I do know it’s not. I struggle too. My kids might have eaten calamari last Saturday, but just last night they turned their noses up at homemade (healthy) macaroni and cheese made with quinoa noodles. It’s a constant struggle. My daughter recently proclaimed to a group of friends (in my presence, no less) that “My mom makes all this disgusting healthy food.” She further informed them that “If it’s organic or my mom made it, it’s gross.” I made a mental note to remind her of her comments the next time I serve my organic homemade ice cream for dessert or she wants a warm fresh homemade bagel just baked.

So maybe challenging your kids to eat squid, isn’t the place to start (especially deep fried squid!), but start somewhere. Your kids are getting messages about food all the time, whether it’s the food pyramid at school (unbelievably boring) or from the Television (Cheese curls that will turn your whole mouth blue? Cool!). This is not a lesson to delegate to others. What we eat affects our physical and mental health and our future. It’s way too important to ignore or leave in the hands of people who don’t love our kids like we do.

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