Sometimes, feeding my kids reminds me of that old saying, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them eat anything other than dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets." Right? But the truth is, eating healthy as a family can be easier than you think. As a food blogger/diaper changer/begger of children to put on their own shoes, I'm constantly hunting for smart food ideas and cool recipes I can make more kid-friendly. But the holy grail is always something simple... that actually works. Here are eight of them. (Number three even surprised me!)
- Always buy eggs. Over and over again, experts say eating a home-cooked dinner together is better for family relationships and our bodies too. But when life gets too hectic for prepping a big roast beef dinner after work, try a simple pan of scrambled eggs. (Or easy baked eggs with ham and cheese, or a frittata...) Never underestimate the ease (and value) of breakfast for dinner.
- Don't forget plain fruit. All the squeeze and go fruit purees in the world will never be better than a simple piece of fruit. When the kids want a snack, pass 'em a banana, an apple, a peach. The less processed fruit is, the better it is for little bodies (How? Less sugar, more fiber and so on.).
- Shred your own cheese. Why does anything easy always have to come back to bite a busy mom in the bum? Unfortunately, this category now includes shredded cheese. I was pretty jazzed about how available this stuff is in U.S. supermarkets after spending four years in Italy, until I found out that it's only fluffy because of all the ground up wood chips in the packaging (and cheese isn't the only thing). Buy your own block of cheese -- read the label and avoid anything that says "cellulose" --and shred away.
- Serve veggies first. You know those last 20 minutes before dinner, the ones where your legs suddenly become a kid magnet and small people wrap themselves around your knees pleading for crackers? When things start to get frantic around the stove, I grab a couple small bowls and fill them with baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced zucchini, mini bell peppers or any other crunchy veggies I have on hand. And if you have die-hards at home, try a little dip too: three parts plain yogurt, one part Ranch dressing.
- Cycle through dessert night. Little kids are masters of learning the rules (and preaching them to each other). Since I have the world's worst sweet tooth, I'm trying to lead these guys toward less sugar and eating dessert every night isn't a habit I want to instill. So every night we rotate through one of three ways to finish dinner: 1. dessert night 2. fruit night 3. "no" night which means we don't end the meal with a treat. Yes, they whine sometimes and yes, we occasionally lose track but in general, it's a pretty easy cycle to start and stick with.
- Avoid serving the same food daily. The more food diversity you can get going, the better the kids' bodies will feel and the easier it'll be to introduce new foods and flavors going forward. But we're not talking extreme measures here. In her super smart book, It's Not About the Broccoli, Dina Rose suggests giving favorite foods a one-day break before serving them again and also serving beloved foods at different times of day. For example, if you have a cheese sandwich junky, serve him a cheese sandwich for lunch one day then take a break from cheese sandwiches on the next day. On the third day, try another cheese sandwich, but maybe serve it for dinner instead of lunch. Small steps toward greater flexibility mean happier, healthier meals to come.
- Stick with small servings. We have all sorts of tiny plates, bowls and cups and even when we're using regular plates, I serve small portions to all the kids. A couple of bites' worth. They can eat what they want, decide if they're full yet and get more if they want to. Less food is wasted, the kids learn about listening to their bodies and I don't have to cajole anyone into eating more of anything. (The same trick works in reverse for dessert too. I always serve ice cream in our small milk glasses. It looks festive but also works out to be about 1/4 cup, which is plenty for someone who weighs 40 pounds.)
- Just skip the chips. Don't buy them. In fact, nix the soda and cruise right past the juice section too. I know it sounds finger-waggy to say it, but if you don't have it in the house, you won't eat it and neither will the kids. I'm not suggesting sainthood, though. Try one of these: 1. Make it. Michael Pollan says you can eat anything you want... as long as you make it yourself. Potato chips and ice cream take so long to prep compared to buying in the store that if you only ate what you made, you'd cut 90 percent of your opportunities immediately. 2. Choose your splurges. Ice cream? Cookies? Pick one, but limit yourself (and your family) to one in the house at a time-then enjoy it!