Cheatin' Wheat Gluten Free Baking Blog

Building a Relationship between Kids and Food

Today I had a very long conversation with a friend about kids and food. It was about the same old conundrums. How do you get kids to eat a better variety of foods? How do you get kids to eat at meal times instead of asking for sugary snacks all day? And most importantly, can you minimize the food battles? Obviously there are no easy answers. If there were, I think we would all stop having the conversation…. 

To understand our household, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, we have multiple food allergies spread out between us. Honestly, it is a bit of a challenge trying to keep it all straight. It is becoming especially tricky as the kids get older and we all get busier. Food is rarely just mindless, and “grab and go” meals have to be planned ahead of time. In many ways this is better for our overall health. The days of the fast food drive-through or ordering pizza are gone.

Second, my husband and I come from completely different cultural food backgrounds. I was raised by an Irish Catholic mom and a German dad. Initially we lived in the mid-west surrounded by friends and family from the same cultural background. It was definitely a “meat and potatoes” mindset, and there was very little “zing” or “heat” to the food. For example, when we moved to Colorado, we thought nachos (truly just the chips and cheese sauce in a can) were exotic food. My parents have come a long way since then, branching out to eating lots of different ethnic food, and my mom is really starting to get adventuresome in the kitchen.  Even so, these are my culinary roots. My husband was raised in Hawaii in a Portuguese family, and had close friends from several different cultures (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, etc).  Early on he was exposed to strong flavors from spicy to bitter to salty to pungent. He loves them all!  Besides flavor, he grew up eating uniquely textured food. Combining both of these food backgrounds means we actually have a lot of food to choose from for our daily meals.

Now, getting back to the kids….. Overall, I think our kids are “good eaters”. However, that does not mean we don't struggle on occasion. Here are the things that have become my personal family food strategy (maybe I should call it philosophy?), and have helped us through.

There are no “bad” foods.

As a culture, we have the traditional bad food scapegoats, fat, sugar, salt, caffeine, etc. These are not my enemy. I work in a bakery where sugar and butter are my culinary friends. I cannot then come home and tell my kids that cookies and dessert are bad for you. However, we do talk a lot about moderation, and eating a good meal  before a treat. As the mom I also get to pull the “because I said so” card occasionally. It is followed by “____is not bad when you are older, but for now I get to make this decision”.

Then there are the unique foods that may be labeled bad by sheer unfamiliarity or smell alone. Some examples that exist in our house are dried squid, kim chee and pickled radishes. Here, the rule of thumb is that we can’t make faces when someone else eats something we don’t like (rude!), and that there are all kinds of new foods to explore. It doesn’t mean everyone has to like dried squid, but it is not off the table just because it is different.

You never have to finish everything on your plate, but.......

We are not big into the “do not leave the table until your plate is clean”. I typically place the first serving of food on the plate for my kids. This ensures they try a little of everything, but I am not heavy-handed with the portions. The amount of food that first hits the plate is completely reasonable, especially to have a little dessert later.  However, if they are “too full” to finish a meal, it is a natural consequence to not get dessert 20 minutes later. 

Explain where food comes from and how.

I think as adults we assume kids will be grossed out and repelled by food if they actually knew that bacon comes from pigs, steak from cows, etc. As it turns out, at least with my kids, they are fascinated by this information. Kids love the facts much more than the average adult, and it typically makes the food more appealing. Since my husband has such a unique culinary background, he can regale them with tales of food with exotic origins. The kids crack up over all the harrowing details of spear fishing for squid or picking tiny shells off rocks and eating the creature on the inside, wiggling legs and all. Anything that makes the food on their plates a little more exciting goes a long way. And if we are being honest, which is more difficult and disgusting, explaining we eat chicken or explaining how labs have produced some foods?   

Besides the excitement factor, educating kids about food can help stop the ever growing separation between food growers and food consumers. Since many kids may never even visit a farm, or grow their own garden, their chances to learn about food are lessening. Chef Lexie, my business partner, had a colleague in food that took a group of kids to a farm. When he pulled a carrot out of the earth, one of the kids screamed because she had no idea food was actually buried in the ground sometimes. How do we expect kids to make good food choices with so little actual food information? Now with several food allergies/intolerances becoming a reality for many kids, their understanding of the origin of foods becomes even more important in their lives.

Encourage participation in meal prep and clean-up.

As much as possible, we let our kids wash the vegetables, top the pizzas and scoop the cookie dough. My daughter’s favorite job is “taster”, but she also does a great job (for a 6 year old) cracking the eggs, mixing the dry ingredients together, etc. Does it take longer? Sure! Is it possible for every meal? No! But working it into the schedule really goes a long way to making them better cooks and better eaters. My other motivation for having my kids learn about cooking is to make them more independent.  Especially when a child has food allergies, they have to understand food and be able to at least identify what they can eat. Better still, and with age, they should be able to whip up a few easy meals for themselves. I love food to be a group activity, but sometimes it is also ok to say “go make yourself a snack”. The art of cooking takes practice, and it is good to start the process young to give them the rest of their lives to develop their love of food.

I am no way an expert in food, or raising kids for that matter, but I thought sharing how our family works with young kids and food allergies might be helpful.  If you have any great kid food tips, please write to us!  Thanks!