As long as there has been food, there have been picky eaters. Just as cave parents must have pleaded with their youngsters to eat a handful of grubs and roots, parents today tear their hair out trying to get their own kids to eat something besides plain hot dogs and string cheese. Most children eventually grow out of picky eating, but until then, how do you make sure they're getting all the vitamins and minerals they need? Subterfuge? Coercion? Getting kids to eat right and to love healthy food for the rest of their lives takes patience and a gentle hand. Sometimes, it takes sleight of hand. Here are a few tips for slipping some nutrient-packed ingredients into your kids' favorite meals.
Everyone likes fruit smoothies, whether they're being served for a quick breakfast on the go or as a snack. Smoothies are cold, sweet and perfect for hiding vegetables. When you get down to it, a good smoothie could probably hide the taste of sawdust (but nobody needs that much fiber). Instead, try blending raw baby spinach, a banana, blueberries, nonfat vanilla yogurt and pineapple or orange juice for a low-fat source of vitamins A, C and E, iron and fiber. The blueberries, which are an excellent source of antioxidants, will produce a rich, purple color while making the taste of spinach completely undetectable. One caveat: Be careful when you add orange juice and strawberries, which combine with the green spinach to create a much less visually appealing brown beverage.
Cold cereal is probably the easiest breakfast to prepare, but it can be difficult to choose while shopping for kids. With a stark dividing line between kid-friendly cereals and healthy ones, sometimes it feels like the only choice is between Neon Sugar Pods and Captain Blandy's Fiber Missiles. And while few kids like to look down in the morning at a bowl of plain shredded wheat, no parent likes watching his or her child eat a bowl of pink sugar pellets and then bounce off the wall for two hours. Fortunately, there's no law against mixing them. Sugary cereals, in small amounts, aren't terrible for kids, and they can go a long way toward making less appealing (but healthier) whole-grain cereals easier for them to eat.
You don't always have to hide ingredients to get kids interested in healthy eating; sometimes, cooking with your children will whet their appetite for nutritious food. According to behavioral scientists, picky eating is often a control issue. Children who have a hand in making foods tend to be much more amenable to eating what they themselves took part in, rather than something that they're served and can therefore simply accept or reject. Even kids as young as 3 or 4 years old can help with meal preparation by tearing lettuce for salads, spreading peanut butter on whole-grain bread and adding dry ingredients. Older children can cut vegetables under adult supervision, grate cheese and measure out liquids. During the meal, make a special point of acknowledging the child's help -- everyone should know that they're eating Sasha's salad or Jamie's meatballs.
Oh, butter. It's so tasty, yet so dangerous. Children do need fat while they're growing, but butter isn't exactly the best source. While it's fine in small amounts, such as a pat on whole-grain toast, too much butter will increase your child's intake of saturated fat. Instead of cutting it out completely, why not fake buttery goodness with flaxseed oil? It's got about one-seventh the saturated fat of butter. On top of that, flaxseed oil is low in cholesterol and sodium and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote cognitive functions and healing. Substitute it wherever you would use butter, such as a topping on popcorn or mashed potatoes. Just be careful not to go overboard -- flaxseed oil still has just as many calories as butter does, so about a tablespoon a day is a good limit.
One of the best and oldest methods of sneaking vitamins and minerals into kids' meals is through pureed vegetables. Standard kid fare is full of sauces just waiting to hide all kinds of purees. Marinara sauce, for instance, is a perfect camouflage for well-blended zucchini and carrots. Yogurt and white beans fold beautifully into tuna and chicken salad sandwiches to cut fat and increase protein content. What's more, vegetable purees are easy to make and then freeze for later. Just defrost and stir them in when you need them. While sneaking vegetables into kids' favorite foods is a great way to keep them well-fed, the results can be disastrous if you're caught. So, be careful out there. Finding out they've been tricked is a quick way to permanently turn kids off to healthy foods.
If you're going to sneak vegetables into your kids' meals, it's important that they match in color. White foods want white vegetables, orange foods want orange vegetables and greens like spinach and kale can really only go into foods where they can be sure of being unseen, as in blueberry smoothies. Blend steamed cauliflower into your mashed potatoes for an extra boost of vitamin C and potassium. Sweet potatoes and carrots, which are high in fiber and vitamin B6, can be steamed and then mashed and mixed in as an extra layer in grilled cheese sandwiches (made with whole-wheat bread, naturally) or folded into gooey, kid-friendly macaroni and cheese.
It may seem counterintuitive to your sweet tooth, but many fruits and vegetables bake well (and unobtrusively) into cookies and other pastries. Carrots go in carrot cake, of course, and there have always been banana-nut muffins and zucchini bread. However, vegetables -- especially carrots and zucchini -- can go in a couple of recipes that might surprise you, provided you're crafty about sneaking them in. Grated zucchini, for instance, can go into chocolate chip cookies if you add a couple of extra ingredients like flaked coconut and walnuts to hide their texture. Grated carrots can even go into chocolate brownies, where they'll not only add vitamins and fiber, but make the brownie moister, all the while remaining undetectable.
Never underestimate the power of making a meal fun to eat. Mealtime becomes more exciting when you make it into an activity. If your children are reluctant to eat fruits and vegetables, kid-friendly crudités might just entice them. Dipping, dunking and getting hands-on with food are excellent ways to get kids to gobble down fruits and vegetables. A mixture of plain yogurt, honey and cinnamon works well as a dip for bite-sized slices of apples, bananas and strawberries. Combine cottage cheese, yogurt and garlic to spice up celery sticks and raw broccoli florets. And for a healthier alternative to dessert, peanut-butter play dough is also an old classic you can tempt kids with instead of cookies. To make it, combine peanut butter, honey and corn meal or powdered milk, then store in the refrigerator and dole it out as needed. Break the rules and let them play with their food just this once.
Tuna sandwiches are a staple for most households -- and for good reason. They're an easy, tasty source of protein, and if you go light on the mayonnaise, they can be very low in fat. However, while canned tuna is low in mercury compared to other fish like swordfish and halibut, eating too much of it can still put you over the recommended levels, especially for younger children. A 40-pound child's tuna consumption shouldn't be more than a can every 11 days for chunk light and five weeks for white albacore [source: NRDC]. The solution? Blend sardines into your tuna salad. Sardines are inexpensive and high in omega-3 fatty acids, and they've got a much lower mercury content than larger fish.
The benefits of whole grains really can't be overstated. They reduce the risk of heart disease, help with weight management and provide fiber for healthy digestion, iron for healthy blood and magnesium for healthy bone growth. They're also often unbelievably boring for kids to eat. Nonetheless, there are a couple of ways to sneak some extra whole grains into their diets. Try using whole-wheat pita instead of bread for sandwiches. Wheat pasta is one of the best ways to get in a couple of servings of whole grains -- if kids balk, you can start by mixing in just a little with your regular refined white pasta. Popcorn is also, surprisingly enough, a whole grain. Finally, if worst comes to worst, you can slip a little bit of bran into your child's favorite cookies without him or her ever knowing better.
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More Great Links
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