Having a child who refuses to accept new flavours can be a challenge, especially for parents concerned with the nutritional value of their children’s meals.
That’s why I like to concentrate on ideas to stimulate people’s imagination and hopefully inspire them to come up with their own personal daily solutions to challenges in the kitchen. A few simple techniques can go a long way to aid imagination when you’re put on the spot, looking in the fridge for inspiration. The important point to keep in mind is: don’t resort to commercial alternatives. Invest in a little planning in advance, some key ingredients in the cupboard and some quick & easy recipes can keep you safely away from resorting to processed foods. Start gently. Maybe chose one day a week to concentrate on ‘healthy alternatives’ and build on your own experience as you discover your inclinations.
Be armed with practical healthy alternatives for when you’re pressed for time.
Example: Frozen fish fillets are excellent sources of protein which can be stored in the freezer for long periods of time and prepared in minutes. My simplest way to prepare them in a rush is cooking them straight into butter with a little water, a pinch of sea/Himalayan salt and black pepper. It’s an uncomplicated taste likely to please a toddler’s palate and which will go well with the addition of pretty much any steamed vegetable (which is also a very quick side dish to prepare and accompany this one). This would be a meal on its own providing excellent balanced nutritional value. You can steam the fillets in water too and prepare an easy to please home-made fish pie (which will probably contain a lot more protein than commercial ones). Check recipe details here.
Use tasty food bases to hide other less favoured vegetables.
Example: soups, pulses, tomato sauce or even homemade cakes. I never waste an opportunity to hide a vegetable or two in a cake or tomato-based sauce. Add finely grated carrot and courgette to any homemade fruit cake and blend together lots of different cooked vegetables in a creamy tomato sauce.
Serve small different courses rather than one big dish/portion.
It may be daunting for a child to get through a plate full of something they’re not sure they will enjoy, especially if new/unfamiliar foods are included. With different courses children will feel like there are choices and if one particular dish is not to their taste, they might still have a chance to enjoy another one.
A very important aspect that needs to be at the forefront of your mind when preparing foods at home is the enjoyment of healthy eating. When appropriate, a little bribing with the perspective of a next course including something your child likes could help encourage them to get through the first course. Note though that this type of encouragement needs to be kept within a pleasant atmosphere to be really effective.
Example: a vegetable soup, including a variety of vegetables as a starter for a protein based dish or even a teaspoon of a different food in exchange for a ‘reward’ straight after. In time, children might just get naturally more receptive to different/new tastes. A quick ‘competition’ of ‘who finishes’ first will also help encourage a child to get through something they are not so sure about. Join them in the competition and keep it light and fun.
Involve your child in the preparation of homemade dishes.
This is a wonderful exercise that will stimulate their sense of curiosity for different tastes and textures and make them familiar with fresh ingredients. A simple way to get them familiar with ingredients is to let them make their own little mixtures in a pot. They will have the chance to explore smells, textures and appearances on their own pace. They will naturally want to add more variety to their concoctions as they watch you use different ingredients in the kitchen. Feed on their imagination and discover new combinations whilst spending a pleasant time together in the kitchen.
Example: give them ingredients which combine well and encourage them to try them separately as well as their final concoction once all is mixed in: nut butter, seeds, spices such as cinnamon, healthy and fragrant oils such as coconut oil, different colour/shape and sized seeds: from poppy to pumpkin seeds.
Invest in a water filter and only give your children filtered water from home.
Example: get a stainless steel water bottle to carry and always take it with you for your child to drink when out. This way you not only avoid developing the habit of having to buy commercial drinks (or snacks if you take them with you) but you also teach your child not to depend on drinks with added sugar. Another important advantage is you avoid giving your child drinks which have been stored in plastic bottles for a while, which has now become clearly shown to leach plastic chemicals into food. This is essentially why BPA-free bottles and plastic utensils have suddenly become available (especially for children). The problem is: there are many other plastic compounds that leach into food besides BPAs! These chemicals are known as xenobiotics and can potentially interfere with hormone metabolism hence the term ‘xenoestrogens’. As always, the best way to avoid chemicals is by sticking to old-fashioned glass or stainless steel. For more information on plastics and xenobiotics, click here. Filtering tap water is ideal to ensure children drink water in a more natural state, free from excess levels of chlorine or fluoride.
Leave some natural, unprocessed nibbles freely available laying around the place.
Seeing the nibbles ready to be picked will give children the impulse to try them and you won’t even have to prompt them if you time it well (i.e. When children arrive hungry from school). If they’re hungry, there is every chance to please their palate with the natural alternatives.
Example: dried fruit pieces (always check labels to ensure ingredients are pure fruit pieces with no added sugar) such as banana coins, golden berries, goji berries, mango pieces, pineapple slices, unsulphured (dark) apricots, raisins, coconut flakes (again, unsweetened) etc; nuts & seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, macadamias etc (note: ensure nuts & seeds are unprocessed, unsalted and raw. If you prefer them roasted, dry roast at home and add natural Himalayan salt if preferred). Processed nuts are soaked in vegetable oil and added with refined salt so avoid them. See picture in this post made entirely of natural nibbles as described.
Cook treats yourself and avoid unnecessary added ingredients.
Even if you make something ‘naughty’ and sweet, the fact that you prepared it at home will be a sure improvement in nutritional value (providing you make some small, key substitutions). But even if you stick to the recipe and don’t replace items such as sugar by natural dried fruit /molasses or white flour by wholemeal spelt flour, your homemade treat will still beat the shelved cakes for its freshness. Avoiding added artificial shelf-life enhancers and artificial colours will make any naughty homemade cakes better than shop-bought ones. But as you become more adventurous in your substitutions, you can start to experiment with wholesome foods to add colour and flavour to your dishes. It is also possible to cut down on the sugar content of homemade cakes etc.
Example: make a fruit juice jelly at home using any fruit juice and adding pure pork gelatine (or guar gum). No added sugar is needed and this will be a perfectly nice jelly to serve your children with much improved nutritional profile when compared to the commercial ones full of artificial ingredients and an excessive amounts of sugar (sometimes labeled glucose or fructose syrup). Adding pieces of fresh soft fruit such as raspberries will further enhance the nutritional value of the jelly and add interest. Have your child help you prepare it at home to enjoy homemade food as a form of time spent together. Try this homemade brownie for a start.
Make a range of healthy items available for your child to play and experiment with.
Encourage your child to build faces and structures out of little bits of edible healthy items or let them show you how they’d like to use the foods with their own imagination.
Examples: dried seaweed sheets which can be cut into shapes with scissors (i.e. Nori sheets as used in sushi), little vegetable items such as peas, sweetcorn, carrot squares, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes or tomberries, thin slices of ginger, spring onions, seeds of all sorts: black nigela/onion seeds (which are great for making ‘eye’s on vegetable faces), fennel seeds (which are fragrant and almost slightly sweet), cinnamon sticks (with an attractive smell), pumpkin and sunflower seeds mixed with raisins, dried (unsulphured) apricots and prunes, cloves (also great for decorating vegetables as ‘eyes’), fresh fruit slices, boiled eggs (shaped into stars or little chicks or even as mushroom stalks – which you can finish with a half tomato on top dotted with nigela seeds!), spices of all sorts (let them create their own spice mixture and add to little pots with sauce or soup). Creating ‘cake’ mixtures at home is also a great way to encourage children to try a range of ingredients. Make seeds, spices such as cloves, cinnamon, mixed spice etc available for them to choose, use alternative flours such as gram flour, rice flour, almond flour (or even better, make your own flour at home out of brown rice or almonds – by using a coffee grinder, for example); the least your dependence on commercial ingredients, the better the value of the experience. Use dried/fresh fruit or natural fruit juice for sweetness and encourage children to create their own mixtures. It doesn’t matter how mad the combination of ingredients turns out, honour your child’s creativity and encourage them to ‘bake’ and taste it (and lead the way by tasting it yourself!).
My son once made a cake mixture to which he added raw rice grains. I suggested it might have been better to grind the rice first… But he was convinced he’d like the whole grains of raw rice inside it. Well we baked his concoction with much excitement. To his grandad’s misfortune, he happened to show up at the door right as the ‘cake’ was coming out of the oven. My son was elated with the visit saying grandad was just in time to have some of his cake that he baked! Grandad found the crunchy bits inside the cake but ate it all the same with his cup of tea 🙂
If you need more inspiration, look for fun recipes on internet and I’m sure you’ll find an endless range of ideas and pictures for inspiration. It won’t cost you hardly any money in terms of ingredients but the fun you’ll have with your child will be priceless. With the added advantage of fostering a wider range of tastes to develop in your child, you will be also promoting a future of better and safer food choices for your child.