Jessie Erwin, RD, LDN, is the on-site nutritionist at Strawberry Fields. She offers her expertise to Strawberry Fields’ customers through counseling and open hours every other Saturday from 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. in the store. You can find her on her website and on Twitter (@JessieHealthRD). Today, we ask her some commonly asked questions regarding eating and our children.
Thank you to Strawberry Fields for sponsoring this article!
1. Something I hear from parents is that they often make two meals: one for grownups and one for kids (I’ve been guilty of that too). What strategies do you have to help combat this?
It happens: Your kids don’t want what you’ve made for dinner, so you ask them what they want, and surprise! They want mac ‘n’ cheese, or chicken nuggets, or whatever is their latest acceptable food. Before you know it, you’ve become a short-order cook. Not ideal. Most of us want to raise kids willing to eat a wide variety of foods, which may seem impossible during the picky-eating years. How do we do it?
There are a number of strategies I recommend for working with picky eaters. The first tip is the most important: Keep mealtime a positive experience. That means presenting food without pressure. Forcing kids to eat or rewarding a bite of vegetable with dessert will only create harmful emotional associations with food. Patience and positivity will go a long way toward helping kids explore new foods. Of course, there will be meals where we’ll want to tear our hair out rather than focus on being positive, and that’s okay. Acknowledging the feeling and moving on is one of the best strategies we can use to help our kids develop positive relationships with food.
A few other tips:
The more involved your kids are with the shopping and food preparation, the more interested they’ll be at mealtime. Have your kids help you make a shopping list and participate in the kitchen in age appropriate ways.
Allow kids to explore foods at their own pace. You set the menu, they control what parts of the meal they eat and how much.
Have two or three items on the table that are familiar. Having a side or two that you know your kids will eat will encourage a positive mealtime experience.
Eating meals together is far more important than who is eating what.
One of the main concerns parents have with making one meal for their family is the fear that kids won’t get enough to eat. That concern is completely understandable. We want what’s best for our kids, and the short-term anxiety of seeing them not eating is hard. Fortunately, kids are great regulators of their own hunger. They eat when they’re hungry and skip meals and snacks when they’re not. That behavior is normal. Erratic eating habits are easier to understand when you remember kids go through periods of fast growth (“growth spurts”) and slow growth. And remember: Kids need less food than we do. A few bites may be all they need in a meal, particularly if they’ve eaten snacks during the day.
2. You did a great article for us on healthy back-to-school lunches. Now that school has been in session for a few weeks, I’ve fallen off the wagon. What is the general rule of thumb we should be thinking about when making school lunches for our kids, when it comes to making it both healthy and edible?
A lot of the tips from the previous question apply here as well. Aim to include foods from each of the five categories (protein, grain, vegetable, fruit, and dairy). Planning ahead will help. For example, setting up a two- or three-week rotation of lunches that your kids like will make it easier to pick up everything you need for the week at the grocery store.
3. Many of us have different dietary restrictions within our own households. Can you work with households facing this challenge and how do you do that?
Absolutely! Having several foods at a meal will ensure everyone gets something to eat. A completely gluten-free or lactose-free (or whatever the dietary restriction) meal can encourage creativity in the kitchen. It can be a juggling act, but with some planning, it’s possible to accommodate multiple dietary restrictions. Talking with a registered dietitian can help you pinpoint strategies for your family’s particular dietary restrictions.
4. What fall foods are you looking forward to — and how can we make squash appealing to kids?
I love pumpkin and apples and warm baked goods – sometimes all three at once!
A common strategy with vegetables like winter squash is to hide them in other foods. I don’t recommend this practice, at least not regularly. Kids who eat vegetables only when they’re hidden in other foods never learn to appreciate the flavor of vegetables on their own and may struggle with vegetables as adults.
As with any vegetable, winter squash that is appealing to one kid may not be to another. The trick is to try different textures and flavors. Some kids may like whipped squash (like mashed potatoes), while other kids may like it in spaghetti sauce. Adding a little brown sugar and cinnamon may also make squash more appealing. Finally, it’s important to remember that, like adults, kids eat with their eyes. Freshly whipped squash shaped into a star and sprinkled with cinnamon will look more appealing than chunks of plain squash.
5. My kids constantly want dessert after dinner, but I’m not so keen on constantly offering sweets so close to bedtime. Do you have any creative ideas (besides just cut/whole fruit) to solve our dessert dilemma?
Instead of serving dessert as an after-dinner treat, serve a small portion of dessert with dinner (and no seconds on dessert). This practice prevents dessert from becoming a struggle or something “bad” that you don’t want them to eat. It’s okay if your kids eat dessert first for a while. They’ll eventually get the idea that the meal is a complete package without tying emotions to or holding out for dessert.
6. What is your go-to resource for easy weeknight dinner menus?
I have two: A dry-erase board and a collection of recipes that I know are fast and easy. Search your favorite recipe websites, like Cooking Light, Allrecipes, or The Food Network, for “quick and easy recipes.” Having a dry erase board makes planning out meals easier and ensures you buy everything you need at the grocery store. Twenty minutes of planning during the weekend can prevent stress during the week.
Reminder: Jessie Erwin, RD, LDN, is the on-site nutritionist at Strawberry Fields. She offers her expertise to Strawberry Fields’ customers through counseling and open hours every other Saturday from 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. in the store. You can find her on her website and on Twitter (@JessieHealthRD). Thank you to Strawberry Fields for sponsoring this article!