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Encouraging Your Child to Appreciate Food

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FAMILY DINNER
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We all want our children to eat healthful meals but do you strive to raise your children so that they appreciate food? It seems, as a society we have lost touch with this concept. We have lost touch with our food a bit (maybe a lot) -- where it comes from, how it grows, even what real food is or isn't. We want our kids to love asparagus and lima beans as much as they love mac and cheese. As parents, fostering a genuine appreciation for food may be the answer.

As a dietitian, I have been trained to impress the importance of nutrition, and I do, regularly. I impress the fact that we eat to nourish our bodies -- that we need to eat to live. But I've learned (over and over) that nutrients and calories are far from seductive and bombarding a child with too much "it's good-for-you" is not going to create a vegetable lover. As a chef, I understand that first food has to taste good. The taste is what we crave, adults and children alike -- soulful, satisfying meals that are as good to eat as they are good for us. But, there is more to what we choose to eat than how it tastes. Having a connection with food is relative to the food choices we make.

Appreciating the food we eat is the first step in bridging the gap between "tastes good" and "does a body good," and here are five tips for teaching ourselves and our children this important lesson.

1. Eat real food. It is hard to appreciate the food we are eating if it isn't really, well, food. Get rid of the junk! It's so common to hear parents say, "My kid loves to snack but doesn't want to eat dinner." Well, if the snacks are not available this will be less of an issue. Don't get me wrong --I'm not suggesting you prevent your kids from snacking, but I am suggesting you consider what types of foods you make available to your kids. Keep it simple and eat whole foods in their natural state and appreciate all of their yummy goodness. Fresh is best. Biting into a local peach is quite magical. The sweetness of a fresh, in-season tomato? Spiritual. Celebrate real food. Teach your children about the genesis of their food. Teach them that the milk they are drinking comes from a cow or a goat or make almond mild from scratch at home to demonstrate the process. Explain the difference between a whole food and the products they eat from a box. Make it fun. Teach them to ask questions, and to seek understanding.

2. Grow something. Few things are more powerful than the act of planting a seed, watching it sprout and then grow into something edible. This somewhat simple act is one of the best ways to teach food appreciation as your child will be connected to the entire process -- including caring for the plant on a daily basis. My 3-year-old, Hudson, is captivated by our city garden, a cluster of pots in our backyard (it doesn't have to be fancy). He loves helping to water the plants and, in the early months, he could be found literally cheering on the seedlings as they sprouted up through the soil. He, almost impatiently, waits for the tomatoes and blackberries to ripen so he can pluck them off and eat them before they even make it into the house.

3. Take your kids shopping. I know, the act of grocery shopping with your kids can be a bit chaotic, but there is a lot to be gained from giving it a go once in a while. For starters, a trip to the store or farmers market can help overcome the disconnected thinking that food magically appears in grocery stores. You can talk about seasonality and reiterate the lessons about where food comes from. You can involve your kids in the shopping and make it fun. Have them pick out a piece of produce from each color of the rainbow or choose a new and unusual ingredient they are excited to try.

4. Get cooking. Cooking a meal from scratch is so rewarding. It pains me that so many people have lost touch with their kitchens and that their ovens are used as back-up cabinets instead of cooking vessels. These days, many a meal comes from a box or a take-out container instead of our stoves. Cooking a meal for your family is a great way to control the ingredients you consume. Cooking a meal with your family is an amazing way to spend time together, to learn about ingredients and flavors, and to encourage experimentation with new foods. It is a well know fact that children are more incentivized to try a new food if they are involved in the preparation.

True story: One night, Hudson and I were "cooking" dinner. He had his own pot on the counter into which he added the array of ingredients: raw potatoes, stock, navy beans, and, in typical toddler fashion, an entire jar of fennel seeds. He proudly stirred it around and went in for a huge bite. I (in disgust) almost stopped him. Then, I paused and let him have his experience. He put a spoonful of fennel laden raw potato into his mouth and chewed it up. He then looked at me with a huge, accomplished smile on his face and said, "Mmm, yummy," and then went back for seconds.

5. Take time to taste. First and foremost, eat with your kids. Enjoy the same foods, together. When is the last time you sat around the dinner table and discussed with your kids what they were eating and how is tasted? We eat foods that we enjoy, yet take for granted why we enjoy them and how they actually taste. Ask your child to describe the flavor and texture of their meal or the individual ingredients. Ask them to talk about the colors on their plate. At home, we make it fun by having Hudson taste an ingredient with his eyes closed and guess what it is. (I give credit to my nanny here as she "created" this game.) He thinks it is a blast and I love that he is engaged with what he is eating and how it tastes and feels in his mouth.

I don't have the perfect diet, I promise -- and neither does Hudson. We love and enjoy a variety of foods and focus on keeping it real instead of thinking of food as "good" and "bad" choices. I am mindful of our food choices and focus on ways we can nourish our bodies all the while satisfying our taste buds. We have fun with food--growing it, shopping for it, cooking it and, of course, eating it. We savor each bite -- be it ice cream or a bowl of broccoli.

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