Over the years I have had parents stop me, wide eyed, in the middle of a sentence when I’m reviewing classroom snack time during our meetings: “she eats three helpings of rice and lentils???” I hear that, at home, these children are incredibly picky eaters and am begged for recipes. My recipes are simple, heavy on the butter, and I’ve shared a favorite below. But there’s also so much more to it than that. Yes, there are a lot of things we do that can’t necessarily be recreated at home: if there’s a bunch of kids, all eating the weird food, your kid will be way more likely to try it. But there are are also some shifts you can make in your home and in your approach to food and feeding your family to make your life easier and help your child to develop healthy eating habits and attitudes that will carry through to when they have to feed themselves.
Establishing a healthy relationship with food
We want children to develop the capacity to eat intuitively, to love food, and to use food as a way of nourishing—not punishing or rewarding or manipulating—themselves. This starts with you, their caregivers, treating it that way for them as well. Just as we discipline children in the way we want them to learn to self-discipline as they mature, so should we feed them with the attitude we want them to develop towards food. If you’re on any type of diet, try to keep it away from the dinner table. That is, try to find meals that everyone can enjoy (perhaps with some slight modifications) so you’re not modeling restrictive eating behaviors. Try not to talk about it with or around your kids, make it a part of your identity, or place values on foods as “good” or “bad.”
A great way to start creating this healthy relationship is to expose children to as wide a variety of foods as possible from an early age. Don’t be afraid to offer weird or new things! My colleague in Sag Harbor will put sunflower (or whatever’s available from the farm that day) microgreens in her class’ vegetable soup, and the children gobble them up because they think they’re noodles. Let your baby (after 6 months) sit at the table and give them whatever you’re having to taste, rather than relying on pures or special baby foods. When they’re older, don’t cook them a separate meal—that’s too much work for you, and they’ll be better off learning to eat whatever delicious dinner it is that you’re making yourself. I love this perspective on cooking for kids from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen:
“I don’t aspire to unlock the Meanest, Most Terrible Mom Ever badge for refusing to be a short-order cook or to turn dinner into a battle of wills. I take this stance because I love cooking and want to protect this love by not burning out from preparing three dinners a night. What I do instead sounds radical but shouldn’t be: I cook what I crave, then tweak as needed to convince the kids to come along for the ride.”
A Few Tweaks
As much as I believe in feeding kids regular food, their growing bodies and developing gut systems do require a bit of extra consideration. When feeding children, I try to design meals that have protein, lots of good fats, and are easily digestible. Here are a few tweaks you can integrate into your cooking to make it more kid friendly:
Cook with butter. Specifically grass fed and organic. Specifically lots. I spread butter on bread as thick as I would a nut butter—so thick you can see you teeth marks in it. Fat is necessary for all of us to metabolize many essential nutrients, and is especially important to children’s growing bodies and brains. It’s also delicious and will get them to eat most anything.
Soak your grains. This is one of the core tenants of Nourishing Traditions, which is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in further research. It helps pre-digest them, making their nutrients more bio-available.
Any sort of buffet-style, self-assembly meal is a great way to include everybody in the same meal while allowing for different needs and preferences. Try burrito bowls, loaded sweet potatoes, or grain bowls.
If you notice anything unusual in your child’s behavior, skin, or poops after eating certain things, get them allergy tested. Not eating foods you’re allergic to has such a positive impact on your life and relationship with food, especially for children whose guts are especially sensitive.
Tips for Picky Eaters
“Trying bites.” In response to pushed away food or no-thank-yous, I always say “you can have a trying bite.” even if they’ve had the food a hundred times before and always hate it. It’s a good practice, and so often they’ll try one tiny bite and then gobble the whole bowl.
Don’t bribe or negotiate around food—you’re just giving it weird emotional power it shouldn’t have. No “three more bites and then you can have desert.” Food is necessary for our bodies to function properly. When we eat well, it feels good, and that is reward enough.
If your child consistently refuses dinner, then is hungry again soon after, try just covering the plate when they clear it and then offering it again when they ask for a snack. A simple way to make sure they don’t feel like they can manipulate you into feeding them cheddar bunnies for dinner.
This is based on a few traditional recipes that have been shared with me over the years, simplified to make it easier to make it the classroom and appeal to even the pickiest of eaters. Tweak the spices as you see fit, or use your favorite curry spice bled. It makes an excellent savory breakfast, and is great for lunch or dinner with some veggies on the side!
3 Tbsp butter or ghee
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric (+ a dash of black pepper to help with absorption)
1 1/2 cups red lentils
1 1/2 cups short grain brown rice
1 can full fat, thickener-free coconut milk
4 cups water
Sea salt to taste
note: all measurements are quite approximate
Optional: soak the rice and lentils (cover them, in separate bowls, with warm water and a dash of apple cider vinegar, let sit in a warm place for about 7 hours. Drain when you’re ready to cook them.)
Add the rice and lentils and stir until they’re covered in the fat/spice mixture and slightly warmed.
Add the can of coconut milk and water.
Bring to a simmer, then turn down and cover until done. If you’re using a rice cooker, just let it keep doing it’s thing.
Add sea salt to taste, then serve! Grownups and spice-loving kids might like some hot sauce or chili flakes on top.