Getting Kids to Try New Foods: My Advice

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is the Food Issue and, if you’re a print subscriber, I need to apologize in advance for sucking much of the joy out of your Sunday morning.  First I shared on TLT the lead magazine story by Nicholas Confessore on school food politics (my companion New York Times Motherlode piece is here) and this morning on TLT’s Facebook page I shared a cool photo spread on kids’ breakfasts around the world.  So why not kill your suspense a little further by sharing another Food Issue article, this one from Mark Bittman: “Getting Your Kids to Eat (Or At Least Try) Everything.”

In the piece, Bittman tells us about raising his two daughters, now grown women, to be adventurous, healthy eaters.  While his girls did balk at a few foods here and there, Bittman tells us that in general they enthusiastically embraced whatever was coming out of his kitchen — even dishes like salt-grilled mackerel or squid.  Bittman says his and his then-wife’s approach to feeding kids was only intuitive at the time, but he now boils down his advice to this:

Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk, and they should set and enforce rules on what their children are allowed to eat. I can be even more specific: Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can. Worry less about labels like “G.M.O.” and “organic” and “local” and more about whether the food you’re giving your children is real.

Let me say up front that I enthusiastically agree with all Bittman says here.  (And I just loved the piece generally for a glimpse into his decidedly unhealthy, non-foodie upbringing, and how that experience played into his approach to feeding his own children.)

But as regular TLT readers know, I’ve also been “blessed” with one child who’s been extraordinarily resistant to eating vegetables ever since he proudly announced, at the tender age of three, “I don’t eat vegetables anymore.” At the time I just laughed but, as it turns out, this kid really meant it.  As in: entire years would go by when nary a carrot or pea would cross his little lips, despite my application of various approaches, from the hands-off method I endorse philosophically, to the “For the love of God, just take just one bite!” approach I’d resort to in moments of total despair.

And the thing is, I pretty much followed all the rules Bittman lays out above, from the time my kids were tiny.  Not only that, my husband and I are very adventurous eaters, we’ve modeled healthful eating at home every single night, and the vegggie-avoider’s sister, though she certainly has her own clear likes and dislikes, never dug in her heels in quite the same way over vegetables.

My point here is this: just as I had one baby who would drift off to sleep in minutes and another who nearly drove us over the edge with sleep deprivation, I’m really starting to think much of a kid’s approach to new foods may be entirely hardwired.  In other words, who’s to say what would’ve happened if Bittman and his wife had a third child?  Maybe that child, too, would have tucked into salt-grilled mackerel with gusto — or maybe he or she would have made Bittman and his wife nuts by refusing to eat anything but bananas and buttered pasta.

In this regard, I really liked the blunt honesty of this post by food writer and cookbook author Debbie Koenig, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen.”  Koenig’s supposed to be the expert on feeding families, so I respect her all the more for being willing to admit this:

Here’s my confession: Lately, I hate cooking. The frustrations and challenges of coming up with creative, appealing, and easily reproduced meals that my insanely picky kid might deign to eat have sucked all the joy out of my kitchen. That’s why things have been so quiet around here lately. I’m tired, and I don’t have much to crow about.

But now that I’ve thoroughly depressed all of you POTPs (Parents of the Picky) by letting you think it’s a lost cause, allow me to recount an episode that took place in my house just last week.

The veggie-avoider, now twelve, came to me unsolicited to offer a dinner suggestion.  He wanted — and I swear, this was the exact request–  “portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli.”  Now, that might sound totally improbable except that, thanks to my friend Sue’s fabulous mushroom tart (which I almost told my kid not to try!), my son realized about a year ago that hey, mushrooms aren’t half-bad.  And he now loves the complex flavor of Gruyere cheese from regularly eating this sandwich (thank you, Katie Morford).  (As for the “pesto aioli” thing, I have no clue.  That must have come from some fancy restaurant menu because it certainly hasn’t ever graced our dinner table before.)

So that’s exactly what I made for dinner and, yes, my son enthusiastically ate every bite.  But if you’d told me this story just a few years ago, I would have laughed in your face.  The veggie-avoider making an entire meal of a big, black and somewhat scary-looking mushroom? Not gonna happen in this lifetime.

So take heart, POTPs, and also take my advice:

1.  Embrace Bittman’s rules, not just because they may help your kids try new foods but because they make sense for all of us trying to eat well.

2.  Remember that you know your own kid better than anyone else.  So if an expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrible idea, but you suspect your child would react well to that little push, then go for it.  And if another expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrific idea, but you know it’s only going to ignite an ugly mealtime battle that goes precisely nowhere, then forget it.  Your intuition is worth more than the tallest stack of “expert” advice books on picky eating.

3.  And finally, most importantly, please take the long view.  It took us twelve incredibly frustrating years to get there, but now, apparently, portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli are here to stay on this family’s dinner rotation.

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“It’s Not About the Broccoli” Book Review & Giveaway

Let’s take a break from Chinese chicken, shall we?  :-)

it's not about the broccoli

For weeks I’ve been wanting to tell you about a new book, It’s Not About the Broccoli, by Dr. Dina Rose, the sociologist and child feeding expert behind the “It’s Not About Nutrition” blog.

Rose has guest posted here in the past and I’ve always been impressed with her no-nonsense, provocative style.  She’s never afraid to question a lot of the standard feeding advice out there, like teaching children to eat well by parental modeling of good habits.  (That always seemed like sound advice to me until Rose debunked it in about ten different ways on her blog.)

The central premise of It’s Not About the Broccoli is that American parents are locked into what Rose calls the “nutrition mindset.” We read food labels religiously, can tell you all about antioxidants and fiber, and are always focused at some level on the nutrients our children are consuming (or not consuming) each day.   But, according to Rose, this sort of micro-level thinking often creates difficult mealtime struggles (wringing our hands over exactly how many green beans are eaten at dinner) and it tempts parents into bad food compromises, like giving kids a pass on pizza and hot dogs because, after all, the pizza crust is 51% whole grain and the hot dogs have protein.

dina rose head shot
Dr. Dina Rose

Rose asks parents to drop the emphasis on nutrition and instead focus on habits by teaching children three basic rules of healthy eating: proportion, variety and moderation.  According to Rose, once children adopt these three habits, dinner time struggles will end and lifelong healthy eating will naturally follow.

In teaching parents how to instill these three habits, Rose addresses virtually every conceivable problem a parent might face, and gives very concrete advice, complete with charts, graphics and even actual scripts to teach parents how to talk about food with their children.  It’s a provocative read that will give many parents an entirely new perspective on how they approach feeding, and the good news is that, according to Rose, it’s never too late to instill these three habits, no matter how old our kids may be.

And now for the giveaway!  If you’d like your own free copy of It’s Not About the Broccoli, just leave a comment below by Friday, January 24th at 6:00pm CST.   You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one FIVE lucky winners** and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.   I’ll email you directly if you win and I’ll announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.  This offer is open to U.S. residents only.

Good luck!

 [Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of this book for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

**  [Editorial Update, 1/23/14 at 11:50am CST:  An anonymous donor, who believes changing kids’ eating habits can change the world, has offered to pay for four additional copies of the book.  So I’m giving away not one but FIVE copies today.  Thank you to this healthy eating fairy godmother!  :-)]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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A Girl Scout Cookie Gets “Healthwashed,” And Some Musings on Nutritionism and Our Kids

The Girl Scouts organization has been criticized in recent years by some parents, bloggers and activists over the organization’s annual — and quite profitable — cookie sale fundraiser.  The complaints range from the cookies’ artificial and/or unhealthful ingredients, the general promotion of cookie consumption in an era of childhood obesity, and the company’s use of environment-depleting palm oil.

mango creme
Photo: ABC Bakers

In what looks like a lame PR move to counter some of this criticism, this year the organization is including in its cookie line-up a new variety called “Mango Cremes with Nutrifusion,” a nutrient-boosting additive.  The ABC Bakers website (ABC is the manufacturer of all many* Girl Scout cookies) touts the benefits of this “delicious & nutritious” product this way:

We all want to eat with health in mind. Now, you can in a delicious new way with our Mango Cremes with NutriFusion™ Girl Scout Cookies. . . . These tangy, refreshing tropical treats are packed with great taste AND vitamins!

I won’t even bother criticizing this hollow move, as numerous bloggers and commentators have already done so, sometimes using off-color language not suitable for my family-friendly blog.  :-)

What really caught my attention was the fact that there is a company out there called Nutrifusion producing this supplement, a proprietary powder which usually goes by the brand name “Grandfusion.”  The company is, according to its website, the “emerging leader in both the rapidly growing food science and nutritional supplement categories.”  Citing research showing that “only 21% of shoppers are satisfied that manufacturers and retailers are offering enough enhanced foods,” it seeks to fill this void by offering food manufacturers Grandfusion so they can add the “the nutrient-rich benefits of fruits & vegetables” to items such as “breads, muffins, cookies, energy bars, salad dressings, soups, yogurts and beverages.”

Despite the fact that this powder presumably comes from a processing facility**, the company throws around a lot of “real food,” and “whole food” language on its website based on the fact that its process incorporates all parts of the fruits and vegetables used to produce the powder, including the peel and skin.  And while Nutrifusion says it doesn’t promote its Grandfusion powder as a substitute for eating fresh fruits and vegetables, manufacturers incorporating the additive into their products might not be so scrupulous in their advertising.  Here’s what the Girl Scouts say about the Mango Cremes, for example:

Crunchy vanilla and coconut cookies feature a mango-flavored creme filling with all the nutrient benefits of eating cranberries, pomegranates, oranges, grapes, and strawberries!

You can easily see how a less food-savvy parent might conclude that feeding a child Mango Cremes is actually a net positive, the same as offering fruit, when of course a Mango Creme is, in the end, a highly processed, white flour cookie with 8 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar per serving.

There’s certainly nothing new about nutrient fortification (nor is it always a bad thing) nor is there anything new about “nutritionism,” a term popularized by food author Michael Pollan to describe our society’s overly simplistic way of viewing food’s value based solely on individual nutrients.  But this notion of nutritionism and children’s food is particularly on my mind today following my recent post about my failed attempt to sneak a carrot into my son’s smoothie. (That post generated so many interesting comments, by the way, that I’m going to do a follow-up to talk about some of the issues readers raised.)

For many parents, myself included, getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables can be a real and constant challenge.  There are lots of reasons why this might be so, from a child’s innate aversions or sensitivities to ineffective parenting and feeding techniques.  But some of the “problem,” in my view (and I use “problem” facetiously), lies with the fruits and vegetables themselves.  Here’s what I mean:  Fruits and vegetables are fibrous.  Their flavors are quite complex.  Even the sweetest orange or apple has an underlying tartness that’s integral to its taste — few fruits are uniformly sweet — and vegetables offer even more complex flavors, from the sulfurous notes in broccoli to the bitterness of kale.  Moreover, fruits and vegetables can be wildly unpredictable.  Sometimes the lushest, ripest-looking blackberries in the market turn out to be hard and sour, and that first bite can come as a rude shock to the palate.

Food processing, on the other hand, happily removes every last one of those obstacles to palatability.  When food is cleverly engineered and mass produced, fiber is intentionally removed to promote easier swallowing, faster consumption and better “mouth-feel,” fat, sugar and salt are carefully calibrated to delight the sense of taste, and there is never a hint of deviation or unpredictability from one box of the product to the next. (For more on how food manufacturers work their “magic,” check out David Kessler’s The End of Overeating and also the forthcoming Salt, Sugar, Fat, a new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, reviewed soon on TLT.)

Ideally, one might prevent one’s child from ever swallowing a mouthful of factory-produced food, but in my experience that’s not only an unrealistic goal, it’s undesirable.  Children live in the real world, a world rife with such food, and I regard it as my responsibility as a parent not to raise them in a “food bubble” but to arm them with the tools to navigate that environment for a lifetime.  That said, once children have experienced the pleasures of highly processed foods, even in relatively small quantities, I  believe those experiences make it that much harder for them to accept the “imperfect” tastes and textures of fresh produce, at least in children already predisposed to resist it.

And that’s where companies like Nutrifusion are ready to jump into the breach.  Here’s another research nugget offered on its website:

70% of parents are more concerned about the health content of foods and drinks they purchase for their children than those they buy for themselves.

That’s exactly right.  We do care deeply about what we feed our kids.  And as my smoothie post made clear, it’s about a thousand times easier to give your kid a packaged snack festooned with guilt-assuaging “nutritionism” claims than it is to get a veggie-resistant child to eat a carrot.   There’s never a struggle to get most kids to try a test-marketed, vitamin-fortified-salty-sweet-cheesy-whatever.  There’s no wrestling with philosophical questions about food sneaking.  There’s no pushing anyone (parent or child) out of their comfort zone.  And on a purely practical level, there’s no labor-intensive slicing, peeling, cooking or smoothie-making either.

Feeding kids well in today’s food environment can be very hard work.  Parents get tired.  I know I certainly get tired.  But that fatigue is exactly the lucrative marketing opportunity that Nutrifusion and other hawkers of pills and powders are counting on.  So let’s not give in to the healthwashing.  Armed with our carrot peelers and apple corers, supported by each other here (and on other great blogs like It’s Not About Nutrition, 100 Days of Real Food, Real Mom Nutrition, and Red, Round or Green), let’s continue to do what we can to teach our kids the pleasures of real “real food,” and try to resist the easy out that nutritionism offers us.

[Thanks to TLT reader Kim Spearn for sharing the Mango Creme story with me.  Little did she know the rant it would inspire.  :-) ]

[Editorial Update:  Thanks to blogger Bri at Red, Round or Green, on 1/18/13 I corrected this post to indicate that ABC Bakers does not produce ALL Girl Scout cookies.  In some regions, they are made by Little Brownie Bakers.  I’ve also learned that not all varieties of Girl Scout cookies are offered in all parts of the country, so some of you may never encounter a Mango Creme.  Whether you think that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. :-) ]

[Editorial Update:  My original post speculated that Nutrifusion presumably comes from a lab but on 1/24/13, at the request of William Grand, president of Nutrifusion,  I corrected this post to indicate that the Nutrifiusion powder comes from a “processing facility.” Mr. Grand’s guest post responding to this post may be found here.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 5,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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“Suffering Succotash:” Book Review and Giveaway!

Most of you already know about my youngest child, a “selective eater” who is not [understatement alert!] so fond of the vegetables.  Over the years I’ve shared with you my frustrations, my intermittent successes (including the recipes which have led to small breakthroughs) and my musings about the different approaches parents are often advised to follow with a so-called “picky eater.”

That’s why I was especially eager to read Stephanie Lucianovic’s new book, Suffering Succotash:  A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate.   The book seemed like a perfect way to get inside the head of a picky eater, someone who could clearly articulate what she was thinking as she recoiled from certain foods, and maybe that knowledge could help me understand my own child’s eating habits.

In Suffering Succotash, Lucianovic vividly (and humorously) describes her intense childhood food aversions and clever coping strategies, along with her surprising evolution as an adult into an omnivorous foodie.  Along the way she consults numerous scientific experts and fellow picky eaters (both current and former) to examine the issue of picky eating from almost every conceivable angle.  Among the many topics she covers are “super-tasters,” gag reflexes, the role of genetics, the impact of emotion on taste perception, sensory issues, and “feeding clinics.” There’s even an interview with a sword-swallower!

And while I can’t say that reading the book totally clarified my son’s vegetable aversions (we might need a consultation with an expert for that), I do feel helped by it.  Even though I know better than to pressure my son into eating something he doesn’t want to, in frustration I sometimes find myself doing it anyway.   But after seeing the picky eater’s side of the dinner table through Lucianovic’s eyes, I have a new appreciation of just how stressful that parental pressure can be.  I was also left with more empathy for my son’s food aversions and with greater hope that someday, like Lucianovic, he’ll move beyond his food fears.

I should note that Lucianovic writes with a chatty and at times digressive style, dropping numerous footnotes to share funny bits of trivia, going off on silly pop culture riffs, or addressing topics (like the sword-swallowing) which can feel a little beside the point  So, depending on your taste and your reasons for reading the book, you might get a somewhat impatient as you search among the jokes for solid nuggets of information about picky eating.  But it’s more likely that you’ll find yourself laughing out loud and enjoying the ride.

And now for your chance to win your very own free copy of Suffering Succotash!  Just leave a comment below by noon CST tomorrow (August 2, 2012)*** to enter the drawing.   You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.   I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.  Good luck!

 

*** UPDATE!!  I inadvertently used today’s date, 8/2, when I meant tomorrow’s date, 8/3.  So today’s winner (drawn from all comments left before noon CST 8/2) will get the prize copy.  Then I’ll do another drawing from those comments entered between noon CST on 8/2 and noon CST on 8/3.  That winner will get my own (slightly) dog-eared copy of the book but with a little consolation prize thrown in!  Sorry for the confusion!  :-)

 

 [Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of  this book for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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“French Kids Eat Everything” – Book Review and Giveaway!

I have a confession to make.  Though Karen Le Billon has become an “online friend” and though I’ve always enjoyed her blog about school food in France, I wasn’t actually looking forward to reading her new book, French Kids Eat Everything.

First of all, the title seemed to promise a little too much, and I couldn’t help raising a skeptical eyebrow.  (Really?  Everything?)  Moreover, after months of hearing about the superiority of the Chinese Tiger Mother, and then more recently learning that the French are better than Americans at Bringing Up Bebé, (not to mention dressing themselves more stylishly all the while), I was feeling uncharacteristically jingoistic:  Oh, just leave us alone, you Superior Foreigners!

But then I opened up French Kids Eat Everything and I was hooked.  As in, tote-the-book-everywhere-until-it’s-finished hooked.

Now, as someone who’s written about “kids and food” five days a week for two solid years, I’m clearly predisposed to be interested in a book about, well, kids and food.   But I think any parent, even one less obsessed with the topic than I, will be fascinated to read about the often diametrically opposed ways in which French and American parents approach the feeding of their children.

The differences are apparent at birth, when French moms breastfeed on a strict, to-the-minute schedule, no matter how loudly their tiny newborns cry in hunger.  (Reading of that practice made me cringe in horror, as it did Le Billon when she learned of it.)  When solid food is introduced, our little jars of pureed baby food are almost unheard of in France, as is our obsession with food allergies, requiring the cautious testing of each new solid food.   And the contrasts go on from there, from toddlers who are spoon-fed their lunches by preschool attendants, rather than being allowed to eating messily with their fingers, to elementary school menus that sound like those of a four-star restaurant.  (Example:  endive salad followed by Alaskan hake, a cheese course featuring blue cheese and a dessert of plain yogurt with apricots in honey syrup.  Really.)

These cultural contrasts are placed in the context of a memoir of Le Billon’s year in her husband’s home town, a small, French seaside village.  She tells us frankly about her initial gaffes and missteps (some of which are quite funny), as well as the insularity of the townspeople, who are less than welcoming to this foreigner.  (And, by the way, while I speak here of contrasts between America and France, Le Billon, a native Canadian, speaks more broadly of “North Americans” and the French in her book.)

It’s Le Billon’s interactions with the villagers that bring out most starkly the contrasts in approaches to food.  For example, when I first moved to Houston from the East Coast, I was annoyed to learn that it was customary for grocery store employees to offer my toddler a free cookie every time we shopped.  In stark contrast, when Le Billon offers her own toddler a cookie for behaving well during a grocery outing, she’s immediately chastised by other shoppers for spoiling her child’s appetite and treating food as a reward.  (!)  Similarly, I’ve gotten so fed up with strangers feeding my children in their school classrooms that I recently pounded out a “manifesto” in protest, whereas when Le Billon sets up a table at her child’s school to honor local agriculture, replete with fresh strawberries, crème frâiche, and homemade bread and jam, the other parents actually snap at her for daring to feed their children between meals.  (!!)

The book distills these cultural differences into ten “food rules,” rules which Le Billon tries to impose on two young daughters accustomed to American-style “kid food” and snacking at will.  And by the end of their year-long stay in France, her children’s palates have expanded considerably, they no longer snack (except for one scheduled snack after school) and they’ve learned to eat more slowly and savor their food.

While there’s much to be learned from Le Billon’s experiences, I do have a few small quibbles.  For one thing, the author thinks she got off to a “late start” in training her children to be French-style eaters, because her girls were aged two and five at the time.  And so for a reader with a picky preteen or teenager, it almost feels futile to try some of Le Billon’s tips, like “taste training” via vegetable purees.   The comparisons between French and American school food also bothered me a bit since Le Billon glosses over the fact that American schools have far less money to work with in preparing meals, let alone the support of the culture at large to promote healthful, mindful eating.   And there were several times when I had the urge to pick up the phone and dial a random French citizen to see if he/she could possibly agree with Le Billon’s always-rosy assessment of eating behaviors in that country.  For example, Le Billon makes it sound like each and every French kid is happily tucking into Roquefort by age two, yet she also cites many French parenting books devoted to feeding and eating behaviors.  The very existence of such books makes me wonder if all French kids get with the program so easily.

But those small issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed French Kids Eat Everything and also saw in hindsight the many (many!) errors I made in feeding my own children when they were young.   There’s no way to know, of course, but I do have to wonder if my son, the veggie-avoider, would be eating differently today had I known to follow Le Billon’s French “food rules” from the start.

And now for your chance to win your very own free copy of French Kids Eat Everything!   Just leave a comment below by 3:00 pm CST tomorrow, June 29, 2012 to enter.   You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.   I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.

Good luck!

Or should I say, bonne chance!  :-)

 [Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of  this book from the publisher for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Kale Chips Conquer the Cafeteria

Just wanted to relay this little news item from Missoula, Montana where, apparently, kale chips have been so well received in cafeteria tests that they’re being included in middle and elementary school menus next fall.

When I saw the article’s headline I feared the chips would be some horribly processed concoction bearing little resemblance to the real vegetable.  (Remember those orange-powder-coated chips at my district’s Food Show which would have qualified as a school food vegetable serving?).  But these chips are the real deal and from kale grown on local farms, no less.

And for those who already love kale chips or would like to know what the fuss is about, be sure to try out this recipe, courtesy of Andy Bellatti, which turned both my children (even the veggie-avoider) into kale eaters.

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,300 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Will The Kale Wonders Never Cease? (Words of Hope for Parents of the “Picky*”)

So, for any TLT newcomers out there who haven’t read about my struggles, I have one child, now nine, who has continually astonished me since age two with his stubborn stance against vegetables.  While there have been little pockets of success over the years (remember the spinach malfatti and the “Miracle Mu Shu Vegetables“?), it’s been a long slow road, and he still generally spurns anything green (or orange or yellow) on his plate.

Well, last night I decided to make another batch of Andy Bellatti’s delicious kale chips, the same chips my daughter and I devoured a few weeks ago.  But I was pressed for time and instead of measuring out the topping ingredients I tried to eyeball them, and I wound up going overboard on the lemon juice and red pepper flakes.  The chips, which are inherently a little bitter even when properly made, came out way too sour and spicy.  Big mistake — or so I thought.

But I decided to serve the chips anyway, and I wasn’t even looking at first when my son — of his own free will and with no encouragement from me — took one from the bowl.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was amazed but also panicked.  Here he was, trying kale for the first time in his life, and it was going to taste awful.  It could take years to overcome this setback!  But before I could explain that this was a bad batch and he shouldn’t make any hasty judgments about kale generally, he’d already eaten the first chip and was reaching for another.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And you would have been so proud of me, people.  While inside my head I was screaming, “OMG, OMG, OMG, did you see that?  Can you believe it?”, on the outside I was cool as a cucumber.  I didn’t even look directly at him and  afterwards all I said was, “Hey, you need to wipe some kale crumbs from your chin.”

[Sorry – please indulge one more . . . .]

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So what can we learn from this development?

You Can Never Tell What Will Appeal to Kids

Trying to determine what kids will or won’t like is a futile endeavor.  For example, I sometimes serve roasted sweet potatoes mashed with a little butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and orange zest.   That dish has “kid-friendly” written all over it, right?  But my son will take only a nibble of it, at most, while the hyper-bitter, too-sour kale chips were inhaled.  Go figure.

Try Not to Pressure

It’s notable, I think, that my son took a kale chip with not a word of encouragement from me.  I feel quite certain that if the batch had come out well and I’d said something as innocuous as, “Hey, you’ve got to try one of these, they’re great,” his exploration of this new food would never have happened.  And this is what kid/food expert Ellyn Satter has been arguing all along – that even the mildest encouragement can feel, at least to some kids, like pressure, and that pressure often backfires.  Maybe your child does respond well to prompting from you, in which case, go for it.  But if repeated requests to “just try it,” or “just one bite” are not working (and they never have in my house), consider giving the completely non-interventionist approach a spin.  That said, you also need to . . .

Take the Long (VERY Long) View

As I’ve said here before, I’ve come to believe that any progress my son makes on the vegetable front is primarily a function of age and growing maturity, not some clever parenting technique on my part.  So if your four-year-old is digging in her heels about vegetables, don’t panic — but also don’t necessarily expect to see progress in a matter of months.  Maybe you’ll be lucky and she will quickly grow out of that stage, or maybe, like my son, it will take years and years.  Bottom line:  keep the faith and keep offering a variety of foods — no matter how discouraged you get.

You Need to Make These Kale Chips!

Finally, some credit has to be given to Andy Bellatti, blogger at Small Bites, for his excellent recipe, which has now converted both my children to eating kale.  My original post with his recipe and my cooking notes is here.  I also want to add a recent tip from my friend Karen who, upon hearing that the chips were not crisping up properly, suggested I use the convection feature of my oven (a button I have a tendency to ignore).  I took her advice and it made all the difference.

* * *

So if you’re a parent of a veggie-avoiding child like mine, good luck, stay strong, and feel free to compare notes with me and the rest of the TLT community.

[* =  I really don’t like the word “picky,” which labels a child from the get-go and doesn’t allow for the kind of slow growth I’ve described here.  Forgive my shorthand use of the word in a blog post headline, where brevity is needed.]

 

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Does Having a French Mom = Veggie-Adventurous Kids?

Those of us with kids who are, to put it mildly, a tad veggie-resistant often scratch our heads and wonder where we went wrong.

In my own case, I’ve long been baffled by my son’s (now lessening, but still an issue) vegetable avoidance, given that we’re clearly doing a lot right. For example, my husband and I love vegetables and have modeled our enjoyment of them since my son’s birth. Following what I believe is sound advice, I’ve tried (when humanly possible) not to make too big a deal out of it, lest our pressure backfire. In keeping with the notion that kids eat what they grow, my son has had the experience in school of growing his own vegetables — but nonetheless passes on a chance to taste the harvest. And, not to be immodest here, but I’m a pretty decent cook and my vegetable side dishes are, in general, tasty and kid-accessible.

So where did I go wrong? Turns out the problem is quite simple: I’m not French.

french tomatoes
Just havin' fun with the stock photo credits, people. TLT does not in any way endorse the dyeing of one's tomatoes blue just to make a cool French veggie montage.

OK, I’m being a little glib here, no doubt because I’m feeling pretty bitter. Go check out Dina Rose’s fascinating post today on It’s Not About Nutrition, discussing why French kids may be eating more vegetables than your kids do, and what we can all learn from the differences between how the French and the Germans approach early childhood feeding. It’s such an interesting read.

And as for my son and the ways in which I may have failed him as an infant? Well, what can I say now except “C’est la vie?”

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Mother-Daughter Book Review (and a Giveaway!): “No Whine With Dinner”

Recently the Meal Makeover Moms (aka moms and registered dietitians Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss) were nice enough to send me a free copy of their latest cookbook for review.   With the excellent title No Whine with Dinner, the book sets out to tackle the problem of the “picky eater,” the child who tempts parents into the dreaded mac-n-cheese-hot-dog-PBJ rut just to get their kid to eat something.  (And you all know how I feel about that: see my B4FD post, “Short Order Cooking and the Family Dinner: Back Away from that Peanut Butter Jar!”).

Here’s what the Meal Makeover Moms have to say about their cooking philosophy:

. . . .there are skeptics who believe feeding kids a healthy diet is a lost cause. Others believe that adding pureed vegetables in everything from brownies to the breading on chicken nuggets is the best way to get more nutrition into kids’ diets. Our approach is more optimistic and revolves around the simple premise that kids will eat an array of nutritious foods – colorful fruits and vegetables, hearty whole grains, seafood, and even beans, if — and here’s the catch – they are presented in a way that appeals to their senses. The way a food crunches, how it smells, and the way it looks can make or break a child’s willingness to try it. Presentation is key.

I let my kids thumb through the book and the breakfast and snack sections seemed to get them most excited.  Here are photos of some of the many dishes we made.  The Peter Pumpkin-Eater Waffles in particular have been a godsend to me —  I now regularly make a double batch and freeze them for busy mornings:

(L-R top:  Nest Eggs, Peter Pumpkin-Eater Waffles; Chocolaty Pumpkin Bars; Bottom: Pumpkin Pancakes (we were on a crazy pumpkin run, clearly!); a Nest Egg in progress; Apple-icious Oatmeal Bake (my kids didn’t love this dish but  I adored it – I’ve made it since just for myself).]

And here’s what my 11-year-old daughter had to say about some of the items we made:

Me:  What was your favorite thing we made?

Daughter:  I guess I loved the pumpkin waffles the best. They taste great when they come right out of the waffle maker, but you can freeze them, then microwave them up for any morning and they’ll still be delicious! I especially liked them with ginger syrup!

Me:  Do you want to say something about some of the other things we ate?

Daughter:

[Nest Eggs]   I loved this recipe! Its really good, and you can have it for breakfast or snack, and I love dipping the extra “hole” of bread in olive oil!  [The olive oil was my daughter’s “gourmet” addition to the recipe.]

[Chocolaty Pumpkin Bars]   When I first had these, I thought they were dessert.  They’re so good!  It would be awesome with nuts.

[Grab-and-Go Granola Bars (not pictured)]   At first, I thought these looked like bird food with all the nuts and seeds. but when we added white chocolate chips, they are so amazing!  [The recipe called for chocolate chips but I only had white on hand – a big hit, clearly.]

The book totally delivers on its promise of offering lots of streamlined, kid-friendly but nutritious recipes for all meals of the day, as well as snacks, beverages, meatless meals and slow cooker options.  And I liked the fact that the Meal Makeover Moms build in solid nutrition with ingredients like wheat germ, flax seeds, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, but they’re also willing to include reasonable amounts of butter, sugar and white flour when called for.  The result is a nice balance between kid-acceptability and parent approval.

My only critique – and it’s not really a critique, in the end – is that the dinner entrees seemed targeted to a younger audience in the sense that they go very easy on spices and other potentially challenging flavors.  For example, my ethnic-food-obsessed gang might want a little more kick from their pad thai or enchiladas than the book’s recipes provide.  But the whole point, of course, is easing less adventurous kids into exploring new dishes, and that’s just what the book does so well.

I want to thank the Meal Makeover Moms for the opportunity to cook from and review the book — and for also providing a free copy to one lucky TLT reader!  Just leave a comment on this post — any comment will do – and I’ll use a random number generator at noon CST tomorrow (Wednesday, November 16th) to select the winner.

Good luck!
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Monkey See, Monkey Do? A DVD Promises to Get Your Kids Eating Veggies, But I’m a Skeptic

One thing that’s surprised me about blogging is how quickly you get on the radar screen of PR people.  Not long after I launched TLT, my inbox started clogging up daily with sales pitches for anything and everything food related.  (And some of these pitches are so off the mark, it’s hilarious.  Remember this one?)

Normally I just ignore this stuff but I recently received one solicitation that was just so  . . . unusual . . . I wanted to share it here and get your thoughts.

It’s for a DVD series called Copy-Kids and, as far as I can tell, it’s nothing but video footage of very young kids eating produce.  According to the sales pitch, “It features kids having such a good time eating fruits and veggies, that when children watch it they want to join in.”

In other words, you park your toddler in front of the t.v. and make them watch other toddlers munching away with abandon on things like whole red peppers and entire heads of raw broccoli with the hope that he or she will follow suit.  My kids happened to be in the kitchen while I was watching all this, and we were howling at the sales reel’s footage of a child watching the t.v. and then “spontaneously” getting her own entire head of raw broccoli (have these people never heard of a knife?) and imitating the toddler on the screen.  Really?

As a parent who has had  her fair share of challenges getting at least one child to eat vegetables (a problem he’s now rapidly growing out of, thank goodness), I can understand the motivation behind a product like this.  But would it actually work?  I asked my daughter what she thought about it and she said, “No, it wouldn’t work, because those kids aren’t kids you know.  Like, who cares if those kids are eating vegetables?”

And that’s exactly right, in my opinion.  There is a “monkey see, monkey do” element to getting some kids to eat well, but the role model needs to be you, the parent, and the rest of your family, and maybe even your child’s veggie-loving pal down the street.  Your child cares deeply about all those people and, as kid/food expert Ellyn Satter often writes, he or she has a built-in desire to imitate and please.  So even if the process is slow, as it was in my son’s case, it’s the veggie-filled meals you eat together as a family that gets kids interested in exploring those foods.

Maybe a video like this could be a helpful adjunct to real world modeling, and I know there’s nothing new about using television to teach desired behaviors to little kids (think Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, et al).  But there’s something so incredibly heavy-handed about this particular approach, something so sterile and forced, that it makes me sort of sad to think about.

Hmmm . . .  after a review like this, maybe my inbox won’t be so clogged in the future.  :-)

 

 

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TLT’s Table: “Miracle” Mu Shu Vegetables

Even though he’s been a longtime veggie-avoider, one of my son’s favorite dishes in a Chinese restaurant is mu shu chicken.  Somehow he’s never quite realized that lurking within that folded pancake is not just chicken and savory-sweet hoisin sauce, but also a big ol’ pile of shredded cabbage — and I’ve certainly never felt the need to tell him.  :-)

Well, last week I decided to try making mu shu at home but I wanted to make a vegetarian version; without the presence of the familiar chicken, I was pretty sure my son wouldn’t eat it.   And when my son — who just finished a week of cooking classes — asked if he could help me cook the dish (which would mean seeing the entire array of vegetables in their raw state), I became certain he wouldn’t eat it.  Following my “No Short Order Cooking” philosophy, I’d even planned the meal to include some pre-made cilantro and chicken dumplings so he wouldn’t go completely hungry.

Pretty, right?

We started with a recipe from Epicurious.com called “Mu Shu in Moments,” but I ramped up the garlic and ginger a little bit, omitted the chicken, doubled the amount of egg (I like my mu shu a little “eggy,” plus it replaced the protein of the omitted chicken), and I added three vegetables not called for by the recipe – shredded carrots, julienned snow peas and julienned sliced bamboo shoots.  My revamped version is written out here.

The dish was really yummy —  I’d say it was about an 80% approximation of mu shu from my favorite Chinese restaurant which, for an amateur home cook, is a pretty good result.

But the real surprise?  You guessed it.  My son put a huge scoop of the all-veggie mixture onto his

Here it is on a w/w tortilla - use real mu shu pancakes if you can find them.

tortilla and proceeded to eat EVERY BITE.   When I say that he ate in one sitting more veggies than he’s eaten in the past year, I might be only slightly exaggerating.  And he hasn’t eaten that many carrots – formerly his vegetable Arch Enemy Number One  – since the days when I was spooning carrot puree into his tiny infant mouth.

Cue up angelic choir.

How to account for this miraculous event?  Was it because I was copying a dish he already loved?  Was it the fact that he helped me cook the meal and has been going to cooking classes (more on that in a future post)?  Or was it just a reflection of the fact that he’s getting older and slowly outgrowing his veggie phobia, as experts predict most children eventually will?

All I know is, this recipe is inexpensive, easy, vegetarian, delicious — and possibly a conduit for divine intervention.  What more could you ask for on a random weeknight?

[Ed Note: All recipes previously published on this site, including this one, now appear at the top of every page under the “Recipes” tab.]

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“Picky” Eaters: Cutting Yourself Some Slack

Regular TLT readers know about my one child who has been a veggie-phobe since age two, continually astounding me with his refusal to eat vegetables, no matter how deliciously prepared or how much the rest of the family is enjoying them.

There have been glimmers of hope, and I’ve shared those here.  There was that day in 2010, now known as the Miracle in Houston, when the Veggie-Phobe nonchalantly picked up an ear of corn as though he’d been doing it all his life (not!), and there was also the Feast of the Blessed Malfatti, when the VP learned that some dark green Italian pasta dumplings were chock full of spinach, yet he continued to eat them with gusto.

The latest news is that my son has started to like basil pesto, a favorite of his sister’s, and homemade pesto is a great way to sneak in all sorts of dark greens along with the basil, with no one the wiser.  (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m on record as being opposed to such tactics —  “To Sneak or Not to Sneak:  Hiding Healthful Ingredients in Kids Food” — but since dark leafy greens actually have a place in some pestos, I give myself a pass.)

But those are the bright spots in my son’s (mostly) veggie-free world.

Example:  the other night I served steamed, buttered haricot vert at dinner, one of my favorite vegetables.  The beans were tender and delicious and, despite the fact that I generally agree with kid-and-food expert Ellyn Satter that parental pressure usually backfires, I urged my son to just try them.  He put a single green bean into his mouth and then began to gag violently, tears streaming down his face.  And his reaction wasn’t for dramatic effect; he’d seemed open to trying the bean, or at least resigned about it, and then looked utterly distressed once it was in his mouth.

This is what I’m up against, people.

Interestingly, my son recently told me that his third-grade class did an experiment to isolate the “super-tasters” in the group.  Using a kit like this one, the students tried to detect a particular bitter flavor, an ability which is the hallmark of the super-taster.  I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that my son was able to taste it, lending anecdotal credence to the theory that super-tasters often struggle with eating vegetables.

So what’s prompting this post today?

Just a reminder to myself that parent can do everything “right” — model good eating habits, talk about healthful eating, expose kids to gardening, involve kids in shopping and cooking — and still face a long, slow road when it comes to actual food acceptance.  Which echos this comment, once left on TLT by reader Shira, blogger at Garden for Dessert:

. . . . My youngest is also terribly picky despite the fact he has been exposed to a steady stream of healthy food (I’m a vegetarian, and am pretty careful about what I eat). Tofu, legumes all sorts of veggies, he’s been exposed every day of his life, and still won’t try them (okay we are also making some slow progress on veggies).

Another argument I often hear “experts” say is if you grow your own veg, and have the kids help they’ll eat it. No dice on that one either. I’ve grown my own vegetables (March-Oct) for at least 10 years. My kids don’t know anything different than helping in the garden and my younger one continues to resist.

Thanks Bettina for sharing this and making me feel less like a bad mom! :)

So I guess that’s my point, in a nutshell.   To all of you out there in my particular boat, let’s stop labeling our kids as “picky” or ourselves as “bad moms.”  Instead, let’s take a deep, collective breath, slow down our timelines, tamp down our expectations, and agree to compare notes when our kids are in college.

I like to think that by then my son will be able to eat a buttered green bean with pleasure.

But who really knows?

 

 

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Does Parental Modeling Affect Kids’ Food Behavior? One Expert Says “No”

Not long after I started The Lunch Tray I told you about Dina Rose, the blogger behind It’s Not About Nutrition.  Dina’s a mom with a PhD in sociology from Duke University who teaches workshops and provides private counseling on kid and food issues, especially picky eating.

Dina’s latest post may raise some eyebrows.  In it, she takes on the conventional wisdom that kids will eventually grow to like vegetables (or fruits, or whatever the issue is) simply by seeing their parents eat and enjoy those foods.

Back when my second child would eat no vegetables at all (a situation that’s slowly but steadily improving), I used to cling to that notion like a life raft. And I did so in part because of my general agreement with Ellyn Satter, another kid-and-food expert, who believes that giving speeches about the healthful properties of vegetables creates pressure on kids that will inevitably backfire.  According to Satter, it’s only your modeling (along with a pressure-free environment and the passage time) that will lead to improved eating habits.

But apparently Dina thinks this idea is misguided:

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t model good eating habits—it’s definitely a good idea for your kids to see you eat an apple every now and then—but I am suggesting that modeling alone won’t get you where you want to go.

Imagine being told that the best way to teach your kids to get dressed is to let them “catch” you wearing clothes.

She then gives a lot of reasons why the modeling theory may be flawed and concludes with a most un-Satter-like proposition:   what parents say about food and food choices carries more weight than what parents do.

If you have a few minutes, take a look at Dina’s post and then leave a comment below.  I’m very curious to hear what TLT readers think about this issue.