Want Your Kids to Eat Healthy? Get Them Into the Kitchen

March 8, 2013 10:39 pm Last Updated: April 3, 2013 9:40 pm

Danny Boome, celebrity chef, asked two young children onstage: “What’s your favorite food?”

“Edamame!” said one. “Carrots,” said the other.

Boome paused. “Only in New York,” adding, “Do you live in Park Slope?”

Boome, ABC’s “Recipe Rehab” chef, was at the recent Kids Food Festival in Bryant Park—which was bursting with young foodies and parents who hoped their young charges would grow to like healthy food—if they don’t already have a penchant for edamame or carrots.

Healthy Swaps

On the home front, busy parents face the often-difficult task of enticing their children to eat healthy foods.

Healthy swaps, a premise on “Recipe Rehab,” is one solution. The idea is to cut back the calories, cut the fat, and make something that tastes good while being healthy.

Chef Mareya Ibrahim took a children’s classic—spaghetti and meatballs—and made swaps to get a healthier result: ground turkey and flaxseed meal for the meatballs, and as an unexpected replacement for the spaghetti, thinly peeled zucchini.

Ibrahim, known as “The Fit Foody” and also on “Recipe Rehab,” is a mom of two. Her own struggle with a food disorder years ago prompted her to embrace a healthy lifestyle, for both herself and her family.

Getting Children Into the Kitchen

The more parents can involve children in the cooking process, the better, Ibrahim says. Children are inherently creative and take pride in being involved.

“If the kids are involved in selecting the food and cooking the food, they’re 80 to 90 percent more likely to try new flavors. So, introducing them at a young age, that’s the best education you can give them—even if it’s having them just press the on button on the blender, that engages them.”

She says it’s also important to associate food with benefits. A parent might say, “You want to play football, you want to be strong, don’t you? This will make you strong.”

Cricket Azima, founder of Creative Kitchen, which offers popular children’s cooking classes in New York City, and organizer of the festival, harbors a love for both food and working with children. She is mom to a 5-year-old boy.

Food should be fun, especially if you’re wanting to get your children to eat more nutritious food,” she said. “Fruits, vegetables are fun. They’re fun colors, fun shapes.”

When cooking, parents can set goals that are fun for kids. While making a whole wheat pizza, for example, children can create a mosaic pattern with the vegetables, or be challenged to cover every piece of vegetable with cheese.

Incorporating New Foods

Azima recommends giving a child choices, while still setting boundaries.

“I’d recommend starting with the food they know their kids love and adding an ingredient at a time. Mac and cheese, for example. Let the child choose. Give them a choice between peas and broccoli to add to the mac and cheese. Next time, offer another choice in addition to the broccoli—yellow pepper or red pepper? You’ve set boundaries, and you’re comfortable with either choice. I’ve seen that work really well.”

Changing Parents’ Attitudes

“Parents often have the idea that kids like particular foods, and they’re amazed when they see their kids eat other foods.”

“A parent might say, ‘Oh he’ll never eat that tomato.’ I’ll slide in between and say ‘Isn’t it a neat color? And talk about the shape and try to engage the child. The first time, they may not be exactly excited about it, but they’re getting comfortable with it. I’ll try to look at it through the kids’ lens. … How are we going to become friends with this piece of broccoli together?”

Persistence is also key. Ibrahim says statistics bear out you have to offer a particular food to a child 8 to 10 times before they’ll try it.

Still, while parents play a large role in conditioning their children’s palates, kids are kids, and it’s important to not be rigid.

Ibrahim says, “It’s not a militia attitude, ‘You can never, ever’ but it’s more a rarity than the every day. My kids will confess, ‘Mommy, I had a cookie today at school. … They were passing them out’ and ‘I’ll say, it’s OK, as long it’s not something you have every day.’ I’m not going to say, have it in moderation. … It’s more of a rarity.”

Inside the Creative Kitchen

The Creative Kitchen’s classes for children are popular, especially for toddlers, the stereotypical picky-eater age group.

When Azima started her work with children years ago, she says it was girls who showed the most interest in cooking. But with the rise of TV food programs featuring male chefs that has been changing.

“A lot of parents are surprised by their boys who want to get into the kitchen. I’ll ask, ‘What are you watching at home?’ They’re watching all the cooking shows. It’s a neat phenomenon I’ve seen. Now I have a majority of boys in my classes.”

In some cases, it’s the children who will challenge their parents’ taste buds. “One father went to pick up his child … and was surprised to hear his child likes eggplant. The father asked me, while squishing his nose, “You made something with eggplant?”  

Azima adds, “I sent them home with the recipe and the next time I saw them the father told me that, at age 40, he now likes eggplant!”

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