When it comes to children and eating a varied diet, parents often are busy thinking about health — but kids only care about flavor. In my experience, little ones will eat good-for-you food…if they enjoy it. And they will reject it if they do not like the taste of it.
Nutritional benefits of foods become more important for children as they grow older. Older preschoolers and young school-age children may try new foods if they know that they will help them grow and give them energy. From ages 11 and up, children also become able to understand the important job different vitamins and minerals play in our health. That is why a 3-year-old will probably not understand what exactly vitamin A is, but he may try a carrot in order to see well in the dark.
But what is common among children of all ages is that they deeply care about what their food tastes like. Whether you are a parent, nutrition educator, or both, helping children to learn to truly enjoy healthy foods is a universal way of teaching them about good nutrition.
Here are two examples from my own experience. My 7-year-old did not like spinach, although she knew all about its nutrition impact. Every time I served it in a salad she would diligently pick out every leaf. One day she decided to change things around and started dipping the leaves into olive oil with a sprinkle of salt. And bingo — she finished the whole bowl and declared that she love spinach! She discovered the flavor factor and found a way to eat spinach that was more enjoyable for her.
Sometimes preparing a vegetable in a new way makes all the difference between “thumbs up” and “thumbs down.”. Until recently, my kids would eat kale only if I baked it into chips. This was more work than I typically put in a dinner preparation, so I did not make them very often. But then, one day, I prepared this one-skillet recipe and kale turned out to be the most favorite of all the ingredients before they even realized what they were eating. The secret — some extra flavor from added bacon and soy sauce — helped kale really stand out in this dish.
Family-Friendly Kale, Potato and Bacon Dinner
Recipe by Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, CDN
1 big bunch or 2 small bunches of kale
5 medium organic potatoes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 slices bacon
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
½ tsp. salt
- Wash the kale and rip off the leaves. Kids love doing this part and it helps them experience the vegetable in its raw form. Steam or boil the kale until soft, for 4 to 5 minutes.
- If you used the boiling method, make sure to squeeze out as much water as possible after draining the kale.
- Chop the kale roughly.
- Cut the potatoes. If you use the organic variety, you do not need to peel them, just scrub thoroughly to remove dirt.
- Brown the bacon in a large frying pan until crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Drain most of the fat or wipe it with a kitchen towel.
- Add the potatoes and brown them on all sides. Add the garlic, saute it with the potatoes for a couple of minutes until slightly brown and aromatic. Season with salt.
- Add 1 cup of water, put the lid on, lower the heat and cook for 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender and the water evaporated. If the potatoes are still tough, add a couple of tablespoons of water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more.
- Add the chopped kale, bacon and soy sauce. Put the lid back on and let everything warm through over a low heat for a few minutes.
I encourage all parents to capitalize on the flavor factor when serving healthy foods to children. There are two ways to go about it:
- Work on developing acquired tastes. Children are able to learn to appreciate wholesome flavors and even tolerate spicy and bitter foods if they get enough chances to try them in different forms. Just make sure to limit the competition with the sweet/salty/crunchy processed snacks. This way, children’s taste buds will be more responsive to the subtler flavors of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. To motivate cautious eaters to try something new, run a taste test and get them to vote on their favorite. We recently test-tasted gourmet cheeses, including some pretty strong ones and the kids loved it!
- Make healthy fare taste good. Adding small amounts of salt and fat is a great way to improve the flavor profile of foods like vegetables and whole grains. Butter is fine from time to time, but make sure to use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats like olive, avocado or canola oil more often. And cut down on processed foods and prepared meals in order to feel good about adding an extra sprinkle of salt or a splash of soy sauce to your healthy home-made meals. Parents are often surprised to see that the biggest sources of added salt in diet are not only "common suspects" like chips and TV dinners but also bread, cookies and other commercially baked goods.
My family’s weekly “taste tests” and the voting results are posted every Saturday on my Facebook page.
How do you teach your children to like healthy foods?