August 6, 2013

Mollie Katzen's advice on kids and healthy eating

Recently a colleague contacted me asking for advice about how to get her children to eat healthier food. I rapidly determined I had little useful to offer. But I knew who did. Mollie Katzen is a great resource---cookbook author, great cook, inspirational speaker, and she has written cookbooks for children. I asked Mollie if she had any advice for my colleague and she offered this. I thought it be good to share it with my readers.  Thank you, Mollie.

And, check out her new cookbook, The Heart of the Plate.

Photo credit: Lisa Keating

Words of wisdom from Mollie:

I should establish right away that I am not an official expert on children's eating habits (good, bad, and "creative").  However, I have taught many cooking classes to preschoolers over the years, and have written three children's cookbooks in collaboration with a number of juvenile colleagues. Plus I raised two children who survived their early fussiness to become tremendous appreciators of good food as adults. So with all of that in mind, here are some suggestions.

I think it might be a good idea to take the focus off food for awhile, and let it be a kind of pleasantly neutral backdrop, rather than the main subject matter, of your family dinners, strange though this may sound. It seems like the subject of who eats  - or rejects -  what, has become very charged, which is common among parents and young kids. To take the emphasis down a few notches, I suggest putting out a variety of healthy choices on the dinner table and/or on a child snack table, and letting your children graze per their own selections. This is not so much to go against "mindful eating," but more to defuse the intensity of what could be a struggle for control. I used to put out what I called a "supper snack" for my kids after school when they were little: whole grain crackers, cut up cheese, nuts, raisins, sliced apple, baby carrots, steamed broccoli with a dipping sauce (spaghetti sauce or a non-spicy Thai peanut sauce, or even some homemade ranch dressing, made with buttermilk). They enjoyed this, as it allowed autonomy (they chose and ate on their own terms) and it also kept them from getting too hungry before dinner (which we ate rather late).

Then, at the dinner table, I gave them a choice: eat what we were eating, or have a bowl of whole-grain cereal with milk and fruit - always available as an alternative. There was no judgment and no comment if they chose the cereal. I assumed they'd get tired of it, and want some "real food" sooner rather than later. Well, with my son, it was later, rather than sooner. I think he ate whole-grain cereal for dinner for close to a year before joining in and having what we were having. My daughter saw the light sooner. But in each case, it was their own choice, and they followed their own lead, preserving their autonomy around food choices and hunger management.  The important thing was that we sat down together, not the food itself. Plus, they'd had a nutritious "supper snack" of their own free will earlier, so vegetables (and a few other good items) had been consumed, allowing me to relax. My relaxation was key to defusing the battle aspect, and everything calmed down. I know many people disagree with the idea of giving children their own food (or the option of their own food) but in our case, it really worked. It did take some time, though. I can't pretend the nightly cereal wasn't painful (for me) but at least it was whole grain.

In my kids' cookbooks, I give healthy recipes that children can make - mostly on their own, but with adult help and supervision. Not to blow my own horn, but I did get a lot of kids eating whole grains, vegetables, their own soups, salads, etc. The projects worked because the kids felt pride of ownership. And, of course, the recipe test sessions worked largely because I was not their mother, and they had no incentive to torture me.

I hope the above has been helpful.

"This, too, shall pass." - Someone (not sure who....)

With best wishes,

Mollie Katzen