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You Can Raise a Savvy Eater

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Kids, as funny as this may sound, are like puppies -- you have to train them young when it comes to food.

Chef Marcela Valladolid: A few days ago, I was sitting at my favorite sushi restaurant with my 5-year-old son, Fausto. I signaled the waitress to come over so I could place my order. "Two salmon roe nigiri, two pieces of sea urchin nigiri, and one order of octopus sashimi, very thinly sliced." She wrote it all down, then looked up and asked, "And for the little boy?" "That is for the little boy," I said. "I'll just have a seaweed salad."

There was a family of three sitting at a table very close to ours, and the dad turned around and asked if I was serious, as his son bit into his ketchup-drenched fried fish stick. "He's funny like that," I said, in an attempt to downplay how hard I've worked at never having to order from the kids' menu (which is always fried food, pizza, or mac 'n' cheese), and to make him feel less guilty about his own kids' fried fish. There are things we need to work on with Fausto, like the fact that he likes to moon his cousins in public on occasion. But we've got food down at my house.

Kids, as funny as this may sound, are like puppies -- you have to train them young when it comes to food. I understand that not all moms are trained in the culinary arts, but here are a few of the tricks I used to get Fausto's palate up to par:


1. Involve your kids in the cooking process. They are far more likely to eat the food if they've helped prepare it. In making Butternut Squash - Chipotle Bisque (omit the chipotle if your kid doesn't like spice), I have Fausto hollow out acorn squash that we use as soup bowls in the fall. We've done this many times and still, he can't believe he's eating out of a pumpkin! Download the Butternut Squash - Chipotle Bisque recipe.

2. Sorry Mrs. Seinfeld, but I don't believe in hiding healthy ingredients in seemingly unhealthy foods. One, your child's palate doesn't know there's spinach in that brownie batter; all you're doing is creating a liking for sweets. And two, if you hide vegetables in brownies and don't limit the intake, what's going to stop him from eating 40 brownies at his friend's house? Try the Date and Vanilla Crème Brulee. Kids love custards, and it's a great way to introduce a somewhat exotic fruit into their diet. Plus, they get a kick out of breaking through the crunchy caramel to get to the custard. Dessert at my house is a piece of fruit, so find the ones that your kid likes.

Roasted cabbage

3. People are always asking me what my secret is. There is none. It took a while for me to be able to implement the "we're both eating what I put on the table" rule. Buy a different vegetable every week and try different cooking methods. Sometimes you have to boil and puree cauliflower with a little butter to make it to their liking. Other times, grilling zucchini and sprinkling it with freshly grated Parmesan cheese works. Fausto loves vegetables roasted at really high temperatures, which caramelizes the natural sugars, thus making them sweeter. One of his favorite dishes is Roasted Cabbage with Oregano and Oaxaca Cheese. There's no way he'll eat raw cabbage, but roasting it, and the addition of cheese, mellows out the bitterness. Also, try to buy veggies in season, when they are at their peak -- not only in vitamins and minerals, but in flavor and sweetness as well. Download the Roasted Cabbage with Oregano and Oaxaca Cheese recipe.
4. Find your kids' secret ingredient or secret sauce. My son likes salty-briny foods (as do most kids), so he'll eat anything with capers, kalamata olives, and even anchovies. Baked Cod with Anchovies and Lime is a regular at my house! Kids also LOVE soy sauce. Buy low-sodium organic soy sauce, then water it down with fresh lime juice and drizzle over fish or veggies and, guaranteed, your kid will eat it! Download the Baked Cod with Anchovies and Lime recipe.

Honestly, I could go on for days. But the fact is, my priority is to foster in Fausto a love, respect, and understanding of food. It's just him and me at my house, so he has to eat what I eat, and I have to eat what he eats. That's non-negotiable. To train his palate, yes, but also so he can come with me when I don't have a date and need to try out a fancy new restaurant. Plus, who do you think was the guinea pig when I was testing all of my recipes for my new cookbook, "Fresh Mexico"? I've got enough experience to know what grownups will find flavorful, but to get a 3-year-old (that's how old he was when I wrote the book) and an experienced foodie to agree that a dish is worth publishing ... that's a challenge!

Make food a priority at your house. It's the foundation for a healthy adult life -- and there is nothing like the look on the server's face when your 5-year-old kid orders the "spiced rack of lamb, cooked medium-well"!

next: One More Reason for My Kid to Hate Me
5 comments so far | Post a comment now
Heather September 3, 2009, 5:53 AM

My son is like yours! He actually ordered octopus sashimi just hte other day. He is 8.

We also do not typically order off the kids menu. He much prefers to get an adult entree. If we are at a restaurant where that will be expensive, him and I will split the entree. With the size of American entrees in so many restaurants, there always ends up being plenty for both of us!

HealthyMom September 3, 2009, 12:22 PM

Hmm. Yeah, here’s a thought, don’t ever feed your kid fish sticks and kids menu crap and they won’t even care or miss it. I have a 2 year old and he’s a great eater. He’s never once eaten anything from McDonalds, had fish sticks, mac & cheese or anything else gross like that, and he never will. Not on my watch.

Michele September 3, 2009, 10:35 PM

I also had a fantastic eater for my first child - lobster bisque and steamed mussels were favorites and there was nothing she wouldn’t try. My husband and I congratulated ourselves on our good modeling and how fantastic it was that she was exposed to so many different foods. Then we had another child… He wouldn’t eat a thing his sister did. There was bargaining to eat veges and cajoling for other healthy and interesting menu items. Then we had a third - who is much closer in habits to the first, but I realized…it’s not me, it’s THEM! Some kids are good eaters, some aren’t. Have another kid and see…

Jill October 7, 2009, 11:29 AM

Michele, I have four. Three are wonderful eaters and one is much more anxious. All kids are a combo of nature and nuture. Its true about eating habits as well. The trick is that we are focused on his food anxiety and limited palate and are raising him to overcome these things. He eats everything we eat. He must have at least three bites of everything on the plate and he gets nothing else if he’s still hungry after dinner. He may not love many of the meals we have, but he isn’t getting chicken nuggets and pizza. He’s healthier for it and I am happier because I am not the slave to my kids’ food tastes.

Irela Doom November 19, 2010, 12:12 PM

This story reminds me of a trip my then 4 year old and I went to Carl’s Jr. for lunch. I ordered a salad & he was not much for french fries. So, I asked if they could give me the broccoli that goes on top of the baked potato that they serve instead of the fries. The young man working the register gave me a funny look, but obliged. When we went to sit in the dining room, there was another father with his son eating the typical kids meal w/fries, etc. When he saw my son pretending to be a dinosaur and munch on his “trees”, (the broccoli), he chuckled at him and shook his head. I’ve been proud of that moment ever since. My son, who is now 19, enjoys EVERY kind of food. It’s all in how we introduce it to them and how fun we make it for them!

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