Frozen chicken tenders. Mac-and-cheese from a box. Hot dogs. Rare is the parent who doesn’t at least occasionally resort to such “kid-friendly” foods even though we all know there’s nothing kid-friendly about their nutritional impact.
So what’s the alternative? How else can we achieve that elusive dinner-table harmony? Below are some strategies that have worked in our homes. Granted, none of them are as easy or foolproof as opening a box; you’ll have to experiment to see what works with your kids. But you’ll feel better about what you’re helping them put in their bodies. And, hey, feel free to keep a box of chicken tenders or mac ’n’ cheese around for those days when everything is falling apart.
- Layer it. Introduce a thin “stripe” of colorful mashed vegetables between thick layers of mashed potatoes. Bake slices of pre-cooked root vegetables in a casserole dish between layers of apple slices.
- Separate it. Many kids reject combinations of things that they don’t mind individually. If you’re cooking a stew or casserole, leave aside some of the components, so that you can offer them as an alternative if the finished dish doesn’t go over well.
- Wrap it. Crepes, tacos, spring roll papers, pitas and tortillas are great for presenting new flavor combinations in a fun yet familiar way. Kids may be more likely to try guacamole, salsa or lettuce if it’s in a taco, for example.
- Include favorite ingredients. Zucchini bread may go over better with a modest topping of nuts or chocolate morsels. Vegetable soups are more fun with alphabet pasta. Salads taste great when tossed with fruit sections or shredded cheese. Cooked greens can be tossed with warm pasta.
- Go easy on onions, vinegar, and other strong flavors. Reduce the quantity or leave them out. Smooth the edges of a spicy sauce with a little yogurt, butter or cream.
- Add a dipping sauce. Remember that applesauce is a sauce that pairs well with a wide range of meats and vegetables. Letting young eaters dip their food in ketchup, honey, nut butters, honey mustard or salad dressing also gives them a little more control.
- Pay attention to texture. If your child wrinkles his nose at the sight of chunky vegetables floating in his soup, puree the soup. Likewise, some kids prefer fruits and vegetables to be raw and crunchy. If the soft texture of pit fruit is an issue, try cooking them down into a sauce or compote.
- Introduce whole grains gradually. When baking, increase the proportion of whole grains to white flour gradually over time, to develop a taste for the earthier flavors. Try using white whole wheat flour, which has a lighter color and milder flavor than regular whole wheat. For a quick weeknight option, buy whole wheat pizza dough as well as regular pizza dough, and have kids knead them together to make “marbled” pizza crust.
- Always pair unfamiliar food with a side that the child likes. If you are trying a new curry, for example, prepare extra rice or noodles.
- Try smoothies. They can work as a drink to accompany a meal or as a snack. Hopefully your child will like a brightly colored smoothie — i.e., bright green from the addition of kale and/or spinach.