Kid Chefs

When my son Rex was a toddler, he amazed family and friends with his adventurous eating. We’d watch with pride as he nibbled olives, relished sesame-seed crackers with goat cheese, sampled a bowl of mixed nuts, and enthusiastically dug into a platter of carrot and celery sticks.

But then he turned five, and suddenly his will-eat list shrunk to the size of a typical kids’ menu. Luckily he didn’t shun all vegetables, but he rejected some of his former favorites such as spinach and bell peppers.

A lot of it was the result of pure peer pressure, which I see in action every time Rex’s best friend Nash comes to dinner. He has been known to declare meals I feed Rex “disgusting,” and I can tell that Nash’s declarations chip away at Rex’s shaky appreciation of certain foods. And if it’s happening in my own kitchen, I can only imagine what’s going on in the school cafeteria.

Then I inadvertently stumbled upon the best way to interest Rex, now age seven, in eating a wider range of dishes. Whenever I made something that involved getting my hands dirty, say, a bowl of meatloaf ingredients, I’d invite Rex to cook with me. He’d happily pull up a step-stool and dig right in, and I began to notice that he’d later consume with gusto whatever it was that he’d taken part in creating.

“If kids touch and feel and smell a variety of foods, they’re going to be more apt to eat them,” says Sandra K. Nissenberg, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist and the author of books including The Everything Kids Cookbook and Quick Meals for Healthy Kids and Busy Parents. “If it just shows up mysteriously on the dinner table, it’s not as desirable as if they picked it out at the grocery store, cut it up, and made it part of a pizza face.”

I found that if we shopped for food together, Rex’s interest level grew even more. I decided to get him involved in meal-planning as well, so we could present an organized front at the store. Soon he was enthusiastically offering his input when I put together the grocery list and lending ideas for what to make for dinner.

You can get the same results by following this step-by-step guide to meal planning, shopping, and cooking healthful meals with your kids. I’ve included tips and tricks I learned along the way, as well as four kid-friendly recipes.

Get With the Meal Plan

Meal planning doesn’t have to take a lot of time or energy if you tackle a whole week, or even a month, at once. Sit down regularly and decide what you’ll be eating for dinner each night. And if your new meal calendar is a hit, Nissenberg suggests that you consider sticking with it for the long haul.

“Busy parents should consider cooking on a cycle menu,” she advises. “Monday’s always fish night, Tuesday’s always spaghetti. Then you’re not looking in your refrigerator on Tuesday night going, ‘What am I going to cook?'” Let kids have at least one evening a week when they decide what’s for dinner. “The side dishes can be mom’s choice,” says Nissenberg. “There’s nothing wrong with serving your child’s favorite foods, but build on them to balance out the meals so they’re more nutritious.”

Start with a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator that includes more wholesome ingredients, fruits and vegetables, and you’ll be more than half-way to dinner every night. In the fridge, keep milk, juice, bread, butter, eggs, lettuce, celery, carrots and Parmesan cheese. And in the pantry, always have:

Kitchen Staples

  • olive and canola oil
  • assorted spices
  • rice
  • wheat flour
  • pasta in several shapes and colors
  • chicken, beef, and vegetable broth and/or bouillon cubes
  • mustard
  • honey
  • canned tuna fish
  • canned tomatoes
  • canned fruit
  • several varieties of canned beans (such as kidney, black, and garbanzo)
  • marinara sauce
  • potatoes
  • unsalted nuts
  • ketchup

Shopping Smarts

The trick to shopping with kids is to get them involved without extending your usual half-hour trip to an hour and a half. To spark their interest, enlist their help in finding certain foods in each aisle. If you can come up with one or two “assignments” for each area of the store, you may be able to keep your little one interested for the entire shopping trip.

When you’re checking out, ask for your kids’ help again. Let them place items on the moving belt as a way of helping with the process. While many children balk at being asked to carry random bags, most will be pleased to hold their own purchases. So ask the store clerk to put a few light items-the cereal box and strawberries your child chose, for example-into a separate bag.

Ready, Set, Cook

The final step is to get your kids in the kitchen. Once they are more involved in the actual cooking, they will be more apt to try things “because they’re going to be so proud of their accomplishment that they’re going to want to eat it and get the whole family to eat it,” says Nissenberg.

It’s fun to plan special “project” meals, like make-your-own pizza or taco nights. But there are also plenty of everyday tasks that children can perform, which will give them a sense of “ownership” over the foods they’re eating, equip them with useful skills, and make them comfortable in the kitchen.

Here are some top tips to get your little chefs more involved in mealtime:

  • For a quick, fun way to organize meal planning, construct a cooking calendar with your child. Choose a cycle calendar, with chicken on the same night each week, for example, or mix up your options. For each meal, remember to include a combination of old favorites and new additions to help your child keep an open mind.
  • Don’t forget about taste. “It’s only going to be healthy if your child eats it,” says Nissenberg. You can plan the most nutritious meal, but if it’s not eaten, it won’t matter.
  • Try and try again. Very often, a kid will spit something out if it tastes or feels unfamiliar. However, the second time might be the charm.
  • Offer a change of pace. Put meatballs on Popsicle® sticks instead of spaghetti, for example, to keep them interested.