Sunday, November 16, 2008

Feeding Children Something Other Than Chicken Nuggets

I can't tell you how many times I've heard parents moan about how their children will only eat chicken nuggets and Kraft mac n cheese. There's a very simple solution for this: don't give them chicken nuggets and Kraft mac n cheese! Really, that's it. If you don't serve it, they won't eat it.

OK, so maybe that's oversimplifying a bit. There are lots of complications that can throw off a child's healthy diet, and, as parents, we need to do our best to anticipate problems and find solutions that will keep everyone healthy and happy. No easy challenge.

It's true, however, that what we serve children is generally what they will eat. So, we need to serve them healthy things ... the same kinds of healthy things that we eat ourselves (you do eat healthy things, right?). So, here is one part of the solution that will help your child eat better foods, while also saving you time and money: make one meal for the whole family. No substitutions!!!

One of the mistakes parents make in feeding their children is giving into their tastes. A 2-or-3-year-old child does not have developed tastes yet, so giving them bread, bread and more bread will only keep them from developing their tastes, even if bread is all they want. It can be very tough to avoid giving into children's requests (and tantrums) because, after all, we don't want them to starve. But the fact is that they will not starve. If we offer them food, whatever the food, they will eat it ... eventually. They may not eat it tonight, they may only sample it tomorrow, and they may take two bites the next day, but ultimately, they will eat it.

Once you have a 6-or-7-year-old child who has been raised on eating whatever he demands, you have a tougher problem on your hands, and it will take some persistence and explanation to the child to help him accept a change in his diet. Still, give him food, and he will eventually eat it. Rest assured, despite how your children may object, serving them healthy food is not, in fact, a form of torture!

Let's talk a bit about what sort of food you're preparing. Apart from chicken nuggets being a child-specific food that lacks nutrition, I also think parents who feed their kids chicken nuggets (and the like) are often parents who just don't put much effort into cooking altogether. Maybe that's because they feel they lack the skill, or maybe because they think they lack the time. Regarding skill, I think cutting yourself some slack is a good idea. You're feeding a family, not running a restaurant, so don't worry about perfection. Just make simple recipes, and you'll do fine. Regarding time, as an old professor of mine said, "Don't tell me you didn't have time! Everyone has the same amount of time! You fill your time with your priorities." So, I ask you, what are your priorities? If you're reading this blog, which it seems you are, I can only assume that on an intellectual level, at least, you think healthy food is a priority. So, now it's time to walk the walk.

Effort in the kitchen does not always equal nutritionally sound food on the table (let's face it ... you can spend all day making cinnamon buns!), but it sure helps. The more help you get with your food prep (take-out, frozen meals, boxed meals, other processed foods, deli prepared foods) the lower the nutritional value of that food, and also the more it will cost you! Raw ingredients are substantially cheaper than prepared foods. In general, these foods are also high in fat, salt, sugar, simple carbs, and possibly some of the real no-nos (See my post about Keeping Up a Pantry for a list of Must NOT Haves), and they tend to be low in whole grains, lean proteins and vegetables (no, ketchup is not a vegetable!).

So, now you're thinking ... wait a minute! I was promised a time-SAVING solution, and now I'm spending MORE time in the kitchen! OK, calm down. The time savings is this -- if you were to make healthy meals for the whole family, but make different versions to satisfy everyone, you would be cooking for a very long time. I don't think you should spend more than an hour cooking dinner (and remember, in my family, we cook for an hour every other day, in general). So, cook a simple, healthy meal that everyone will eat, sit down and eat with your family, and don't make yourself crazy trying to cater to the disgruntled.

Making one healthy, from scratch meal for the whole family makes it possible for everyone to have good food, for children to broaden their palates, and for you to save money. I can't imagine why anyone would do it any other way.

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