Why Kids Should Play With Their Food
It’s Wednesday afternoon. You pick up the kids from school or soccer practice, help them start their homework, and head into the kitchen. It’s your night to host, so you tap into your inner chef and prepare a feast for your friends that are coming over later. After all the love and labor that went into cooking, tidying up, and setting the table, there’s just one thing left to do: figure out what the kids will eat.
All of us have those foods that we detested when we were little. Whether it was broccoli, mushrooms, fish, or some other adult fare, it seemed like poison to us at the time. But it makes sense. A kid’s palate isn’t developed enough to like bitter or pungent foods because, in the wild, those foods are usually dangerous. For kids, every flavor is magnified, which is why they like the starchy and sweet stuff that is generally pretty bland (and no fun for parents).
Many parents won’t accept the fact that kids are picky eaters, plain and simple. They expect their kids to eat adult foods, which they learn to hate. Or, they’ll cook a whole separate meal which doubles the time spent in the kitchen.
Instead, why not meet your kids in the middle? Encourage them to play with their food, learn about it, and (hopefully) learn to love it! Here’s how:
Get Them Involved
Kids are picky because they are wary of what they don’t know. Take the time to teach your kids about the food they eat — where it comes from, why it’s good for you, and any fun facts you can find. If you have a garden, even better! You can also visit a local farm. Research shows that kids who have hands-on experience growing and cooking produce are more likely to eat it.
And don’t be afraid to invite your kids into the kitchen. Meal kits are an easy way to get the whole family cooking since ingredients are pre-measured, and simple instructions walk you and your little ones through each step. When kids feel like they’ve contributed to the meal, they’re going to want to taste the results.
Let Them Play with Their Food!
This may seem counterintuitive. We’ve always learned that “playing with our food” is a big no-no, but playing can be a great way for kids to familiarize themselves with new foods. Even if your child is pushing their broccoli around the plate, or tearing it up to make trees for an imaginary forest, at least they’re getting used to the smell, touch, and feel of it.
While you don’t want a food fight on your hands, try encouraging less messy play by building log cabins out of celery and carrot sticks, or cutting out grilled cheese “boats” to float in their tomato soup. By inviting this sense of imagination into their eating, you are encouraging your kids to open their minds to new things.
Rotate, Repeat, and Don’t Give Up
If you serve the same thing too many nights in a row, kids will get accustomed to it and are more likely to want what they know than something new. Try to switch up the menu as much as possible. Even if you’re using the same ingredient, try different preparations. If you puréed carrots last night, try roasting them.
If you’re cooking with your kids, make a game of transforming the ingredient into as many different shapes and textures as possible. Remember, it can take a while for kids to get used to a new food (they usually need to encounter it around a dozen times before they will consider “liking” it). Rotate your dishes and keep trying!
Treat Them Like Adults
You want to make sure that your kids have a nutritious diet, but you don’t want dinner to turn into a power struggle. Oftentimes, pickiness isn’t about the food at all but about the child wanting to assert their independence. So don’t bargain (“If you finish your green beans, you can have a cookie.”) or threaten (“If you don’t finish your green beans, no dessert for you.”), and don’t try to hide ingredients they don’t like inside something they do.
Instead, give your children honest options and let them make their own choices. If they don’t like what’s for dinner, have healthy snacks or prepared foods on hand. Try to avoid making them a special meal if you can. Ask what it is about the ingredient that they don’t like, and show them just how much you enjoy it.
Invite Kids to the Table
Most importantly, eat together whenever you can. Make time to eat with your kids, even if it’s absurdly early for adult dinner and you just snack. Show them how eating is fun, and encourage conversation. When you do, dinner becomes less about the broccoli and more about their chance to bask in their parents’ (positive) attention. Make dinner time playtime and happier kids will eat healthier.
We’re curious how you get your kids to try new ingredients, eat healthier, and finish all their food? Does this approach work for you, or do you have your own tricks? Let us know by leaving a comment below.