Guess what I’ve been reading lately? I’d love to tell you I’m immersed in some great literature; sitting in my beautiful new great room or outside under a tree with a heavy, old volume that smells of book dust and history. Nope. I’m reading food blogs and cookbooks. There, now you know.
It seems to me that most food bloggers are so much younger than me!! They are having babies and raising young ones. And I notice a recurring theme (yes, it’s what I do, I’m a psychologist, I notice themes) having to do with feeding kids. How to get them to eat…healthy, well, at all? How to raise kids who have a good relationship with food? This issue is perennial, not limited to bloggers. And I’m not an expert. But as a therapist, a cook, and mama of 25 years, I just might have some wisdom to share on the subject.
So, if you’re a parent looking for guidelines, or a grandparent hoping to give some useful advice to your own frantic kids, I’m here to help. If this subject if irrelevant to you, skip right on to the recipe below. It’s a winner, a huge hit in my house for many years. You’ll love it!!!
I have a little scientific speculation regarding the feeding of young children. There seems to be some evidence that many, perhaps all little ones, may be what we call “supertasters.” Which means that the physiology of tongue, nose, and brain combine so that food tastes more intense to them. Which can mean that they might have a hard time with certain flavors. And lots of kids are very sensitive to texture, too. I remember the first time I gave Megan cottage cheese. Let’s just say I don’t think she’s eaten it in 24 ½ years.
Are you wondering why I’m telling you about brains and tongues?
I think it’s important, when trying to figure out how to manage our jobs as parents, (keep them alive, socialize them, make them happy, get through the day) to remember that they are real people with unique experiences. And it’s so helpful to be respectful of those experiences. We can never know what it feels like to be another person. This is especially true for the youngest people with limited language skills. So, I think it’s wise, within reason, to be compassionate and generous about the whole endeavor of eating when you’re dealing with children.
So, I’ll try to describe the mindset I’d like to propose: flexible, curious, collaborative, relaxed, open-minded, upbeat, forgiving, adventurous, silly, and creative. Please don’t hate me. I know you’re busy! The days are full, there are so many things to handle, and a kid who won’t eat what you put on the table can be enormously frustrating. But if you let your anxiety and frustration win, you will have problems for years. And if you find a way to take it easy, have fun, and be goofy, it’s just possible everyone will be happy instead of having a big old power struggle.
People, even tiny ones, like to have a sense of agency and choice. If you simply say, “eat your broccoli,” you are inviting your son or daughter’s sense of agency to come from simply choosing “no!” If you say, “do you think the broccoli tastes better with lemon juice or plain?” then either choice is a positive one for everybody.
I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s true: If you get your kids involved with choosing and preparing heathy food, they will be more interested in it and more likely to eat it. If you have the ability to grow some tomatoes, lettuce, raspberries, a vegetable garden, that’s a whole rich world of food experiences and memories for your kids. We have an apple picking ritual in our family that goes back more than 50 years! These days, our grand-nieces and nephews come to Warwick every fall (tune in next week) to go to a local orchard and pick apples and veggies. Last year, we dug sweet potatoes with our bare hands. Those kids have eaten things right off trees that they would never have eaten at a table. And when they get home, they are willing to eat them off a plate!
If you take your kids to the farm market or supermarket, let them help pick out food, and then get them involved in the kitchen, they will be much more likely to want to taste and experience the results. Have fun! Be playful! Create memories.
What happens if they are picky and won’t eat healthy stuff? Don’t push too hard. Gently encourage them to try new things. If you are light hearted about it, you might find that their tastes shift over time. Tell stories about your own childhood: “You know, I hated mushrooms when I was 6, but when I was 8, I tried them again and realized they were really awesome! Isn’t that funny?”
It goes without saying that if you want healthy eaters, you’ll want to be careful about going to extremes in either direction about junk and fast food. If they get too much of it, nothing else can compete. That stuff is engineered to be irresistible. But I think if you are overly rigid about forbidding “corporate poison”, you can create a mystique that makes it too seductive. Mass produced, artfully packaged, highly advertised non-food foods are in the culture and pretending they’re not doesn’t solve problems. As kids grow, teach them the complexities, but I would be careful about being too dogmatic.
OK, one last, and most controversial thought. Consider limiting after school activities and sports, especially in the younger grades. Families can get overly busy and lose touch with each other, their own emotions and bodies, and the balance that promotes good health. There’s plenty of evidence that our relationships with people, ourselves, our health, and food, are improved when we sit together at the table and enjoy food as a family. This is impossible if we spend our lives at practices, games, lessons, and in our cars. I know these are tough decisions. I wouldn’t refuse a child who has a passion for a sport and is really committed to the team. Or forbid music lessons to a budding virtuoso. But I worry about all the families who sign up all the kids as a matter of routine. Consider the costs as well as the benefits of so much busyness. Try to have supper together a few nights a week. Talk and laugh. And don’t demand that your kids put their devices away until you turn off your phone!!
I bet you’re wondering about the recipe by now! Meg is home for her 25th birthday (!!!) and I wanted to make a family favorite. Both of my kids have always loved it. This is the one that came to mind when I think back on all the years we’ve spent as a family, enjoying meals together. I hope your family feels the same way!!!
This is great warm or cold. It’s best when you throw together the “sauce,” a couple of hours ahead and then add the hot pasta right before it’s time to eat.
Use gluten free pasta if you or a family member are GF.
Make it vegan: skip the cheese or use vegan cheese.
This makes a great low carb salad if you skip the pasta! Or use zoodles!
1 lb. pasta, any shape*
1 lb. tomatoes, diced (you can use cherry or grape tomatoes)
6 oz. mozzarella cheese**, diced
3 tbs. XV olive oil
handful fresh basil, minced
juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
optional: hot red pepper flakes, grated parm, extra olive oil
*I love whole wheat pasta in this dish, but no one else in the family likes it; the noodles you see here are called Mafalde, and we all love them!
**If you can get really good homemade cow or buffalo mozz, use it here. If not, this dish is good even with the prewrapped blocks.
Toss together all the ingredients except the pasta. Let the sauce stand for at least a half hour and up to two hours.
Cook the pasta in well salted water until just al dente. Before you drain the pasta, scoop out a cup or so of the cooking water. Drain well.
Toss the hot pasta with the sauce. If everything is nicely coated and slippery, you’re good to go. If it seems dry, add pasta water until you have a nice slidey texture. Garnish with extra basil, olive oil, and parm. Serve. Talk and laugh together while you eat.
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This is a great post and such an issue/topic/debate in our house!! My daughter will eat curry, sushi, oysters on the half…you name it, she’ll eat it. My son is picky picky picky. I try to stay positive, get creative, get him involve to no avail. Same mom, same parenting…different little person. I keep hoping he’ll grow out of it. Cross your fingers for me!! xox
My nephew was like that; my sister was sure he would starve to death. He is now a healthy 24 year old grad student who is a great cook and adventurous eater. It’s likely all your efforts will be rewarded in time! Hang in!!💙💕💙
A darling, delicious, delight. I’d eat that all day. So good and I’m hungry now. Might try this one later, with quinoa or brown rice instead. x
Ooh, please let me know how you like it that way! 💙💜💙
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I will, thank you.
It’s interesting how Finn’s recent vegetarianism has given me more license to be creative. I mean, I have always played in the kitchen and tried to serve interesting dishes, but there were some things that I knew would be a stretch for the littlest kids (and was usually right). But now that he knows I am making some changes to accommodate him he somehow seems more willing to try different things. Kinda like “well, I’m committed to this, so I guess I’d better eat what Mom made” (surely not with that exact thought bubble though, lol).
When and where are you apple picking? I will be doing a tasting at Pennings on Wednesday afternoon. 😉
I love how you take the opportunity to open and to be shaped by your son’s choices! We pick at Ochs Wednesday, but I’ve had pots at my old neighbors, Pennings, for years. Will you be inside the market?
Thanks for such a thoughtful post. My kids are grown and out of the house and I’ve seen how their food tastes have evolved over the years. I’m happy to say they make some good healthy choices in their own kitchens now. The recipe looks delicious — I’ll add to to my recipe ‘repertoire ‘ and plan to serve it when the kids come over for dinner next time!
Laura, what a pleasure to hear about your wonderful family! Let me know how the kids like the pasta!! 💙💙
I wish things were different when I was growing up.We had to clean our plates.No one was laid back and goofy.I broke many cycles and one of them was the food cycle.My daughter has a healthy appetite and likes and tries all foods.She is eager to try new things even at 25.The cooking she is learning about just now.A work in progress.
Sandy, you have done such a great job as a mama! 💙💜💙
One of the biggest issues in my house when I was growing up was food: my brother and I were SKINNY and my parents DIDN’T LIKE THAT! (See “sbgrdh” above.) So I vowed I wouldn’t make food a big issue when my daughter was born. I didn’t and it turned out fine. Now she has children and is so creative and diligent about encouraging them to be healthy eaters, while not being puritanical about it. Great piece — I’m forwarding the recipe to her, plus keeping it to make for the grandchildren myself.
Carol, I so admire everything about you! Let me know how everyone likes the pasta.
Great post and all so true. We have a garden and I think it is the best thing we could have done for our boys. They see where the food comes from and eat it straight from the garden. Granted they be eating weeds sometimes thinking it’s lettuce but it’s all good! We talk about what nutrients are in foods and why they should eat them. They help in the kitchen and pick veggies out at the market. Nothing is is bad, just less healthy and only for “treats”. We have the best eaters even at 4,6 and 7 years old. It’s. It perfect obviously, my oldest still doesn’t like any kind of squash he’s tried but we keep experimenting.
Gretchen, I love your adorable family! I hope you will find some boy-friendly recipes here. I bet they would love Crispy Chicken!