Healthy Cooking for Kids: Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Good Nutrition
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Healthy Cooking for Kids: Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Good Nutrition

by Shelly Null

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Our children are overfed and undernourished. Even if they are not living on pizza and ice cream, they may be eating foods that can have serious long-term effects on their health. An ever-growing body of research is revealing that the major diseases Americans suffer and die from are lifestyle related and to an extent preventable in that some of the root causes begin


Our children are overfed and undernourished. Even if they are not living on pizza and ice cream, they may be eating foods that can have serious long-term effects on their health. An ever-growing body of research is revealing that the major diseases Americans suffer and die from are lifestyle related and to an extent preventable in that some of the root causes begin in childhood. Many cases of childhood imbalances, such as obesity, hyperactivity, dental problems, and learning disabilities can be aggravated by poor eating habits. Shelly Null has written a comprehensive guide to feeding children better, from the crib to young adulthood, without sacrificing flavor or fun.

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From the Publisher

“I set very high standards for myself, and my daughter has set equally high standards for herself. I'm very proud of her achievements. This book is sure to have a positive impact and will be around for a long time.” —Gary Null, author of The Vegetarian Handbook and Good Food Good Mood
author of The Vegetarian Handbook and Good Food Go Gary Null
I set very high standards for myself, and my daughter has set equally high standards for herself. I'm very proud of her achievements. This book is sure to have a positive impact and will be around for a long time.

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St. Martin's Press
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First Edition
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7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.60(d)

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Healthy Cooking for Kids

Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Good Nutrition

By Shelly Null

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Shelly Null
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6815-1



Imagine letting your kids eat anything in your kitchen that they wanted. That's essentially what I do. I believe that one of the most important steps a parent can take toward having a healthy child is to have a healthy kitchen. So I keep only health-giving foods in my kitchen. And not only is my kitchen healthy — it's kid-friendly too. Snacks and goodies are left where they're easily grabbable by little hands. I can afford to do this because all the goodies are the good-for-you kind.

Kids who come over to my house can't believe it! Their eyes pop at the sight of so much food that's just there for the taking, much of it on racks that are at their eye level. Of course, it's all good stuff. I have large, wide-mouthed jars full of healthily prepared popcorn, nutritious cookies, granola bars, dried organic fruits, nuts, and seeds. On countertops I always have bowls of appealing fresh fruit. Also readily available are refrigerated fresh fruits and vegetables in easy-to-get-at bowls, healthy fruit spreads, and nut butters.

It's liberating to have a healthy, kid-friendly kitchen. There's no junk food to hide. On the contrary, you're showing everything off. You can feel good about your kitchen, and about what you're doing for your kids and their guests. Once you do this, you'll know exactly what I mean.


I always stress that one aspect of having a healthy, kid-friendly kitchen is maintaining a kid-safe kitchen. If you're at all interested in the art of cooking, your child is at some point going to catch your enthusiasm and want to participate in the process. This is all for the good because when your junior chef helps you prepare a meal, it can be an enjoyable and educational experience for both of you. Plus kids really can contribute, lightening your work load. (Well, perhaps that depends upon their age!) But the point is, you always have to give safety your top priority. Although I'm quite adventurous when it comes to experimenting with a recipe or creating a new dish, I am a real conservative on the issue of safety. As a result of experience and observation, and after talking with a lot of people, there are three recommendations I can share in this area.

First, have your young chef or chefs help you only at those times when you're not rushed or distracted, so that you can supervise them fully.

Second, cutting vegetables and fruits is a job best done with properly sharpened knives. But kids and knives don't mix. I've seen bad accidents happen even with blunt knives, so please reserve kitchen cutting jobs for adults. There are so many other cooking chores children can do — getting ingredients, measuring, pouring, mixing, rolling, molding, etc. — that you can reserve cutting for yourself and still keep them busy and helpful.

Third, respect the danger potential of your stove. I believe working directly at the stove is something to be done by people aged 12 and over only. And your preteen or teenager should be carefully supervised when he or she is doing so. Also, kids who are going to be anywhere near a stove should have their long hair securely fastened. Kids are short; their loose hair is closer to the stove's flame than an adult's is; and therefore it can catch fire. Tragically, it's happened.

I offer you these ideas because I want your kitchen to be a happy, accident-free place.


Providing a good nutritional foundation for young children consists of more than monitoring the types of foods they eat. Sure, we want our children to avoid eating anything unhealthy; that way they'll have the strongest immune systems possible and be able to combat the germs that always seem to be attacking kids. But we also want our children to enjoy eating healthfully. We want them to feel good about mealtime, so they can develop good eating habits that will stay with them throughout their lives. How best can we encourage good eating habits in children? It's easy — if you think like a child!

A primary thing to remember is that a child doesn't want to be scolded, prodded, or nagged at mealtimes. Neither does anyone else, for that matter, so a relaxing, peaceful atmosphere is the best idea for the entire family. So, as much as possible, try to avoid mixing negativity with food consumption.

Something else you should keep in mind is that children are small — so please offer them small portions. Young children can deal best with ½- to 1-cup portions of food; they can always ask for seconds if they want more. When given a very large portion, often a child is overwhelmed and, as a result, becomes uninterested. Then, she'll just pick, or not eat at all. Also, if you're introducing a new item to your child, it's often best to let him have a mini introductory portion to get acquainted with the new food and see if it's to his liking.

Many parents are faced with small children who will not eat much at all. This problem may stem from a lack of variety in meals or from a limited number of choices presented, leading the child to become bored. Put yourself in the place of a child receiving peanut butter and jelly or pasta day after day. Don't you think you might get bored? But you wouldn't necessarily know how to say so, or that other culinary possibilities existed. So you might just lose your enthusiasm for eating.

My experience has convinced me to present a varied diet with numerous choices, for both meals and snacks. Lunches can be a little tricky since many children are not home at this hour, and you may have to pack a cold lunch. Still, you should be able to come up with a different lunch for each weekday. Breakfasts and dinners should present no problem at all since the children are home and hot meals can be prepared, offering so many different options.

Anyone cooking for children should keep plenty of cookbooks handy for inspiration so that neither you nor the children become bored. Remember — recipes do not have to be followed exactly. Some people seem to think that recipes are carved in stone, but really they're nothing more than suggestions, and as such they can be jumping-off points for endless variations. Develop a recipe repertoire, of both recipes you follow exactly and adaptations you've come up with. Soon you'll be able to place a list of recipes your child likes on the front of the refrigerator and only serve any one item on that list once every 2–3 weeks. This way your child will experience a varied diet and not get bored with any one meal. Once you think in terms of variety, you'll probably find yourself adding new options to the list all the time. Fresh ideas are the key to continued success when feeding kids.

So are fresh fruits and vegetables. I stock many in-season fruits and vegetables, since they make for more varied eating as the seasons progress. Fruits should be washed after you take them home and put out in a bowl, while some fruits, such as grapes, need to refrigerated. When the children open the refrigerator, healthful items will be right at their fingertips. In the summer months I will prepare fresh fruit like blueberries, strawberries, or cherries for snacks, always keeping them readily available to the children. Remember that any pure fresh fruit contains water, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, and is better for your children than sweetened snacks. And remember too that many fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally sweet or flavorful and will appeal to most children whose tastes have not yet been spoiled. Many times people will overly sweeten or salt foods, which leads children to acquire unnatural and unhealthy tastes. If you guard, early-on, against this kind of taste subversion, it's much easier than trying to correct it later.

Seasonal eating of different foods will result in a naturally varied diet, since certain items will be eaten only in certain months, preventing children from becoming too bored with the same foods. Enjoy the flow of the year by including your children in the seasonal activities of gathering foods. Children love to be involved in the picking of berries, tomatoes, pumpkins, apples, and other foods from their actual origins. Spring, summer, and fall are the best for this, while in winter we get a little boost by opening our canned treasures from other seasons.


This last idea — canning or freezing produce — is something you can do to make life in the kitchen easier for yourself. A variety of foods, such as tomatoes, beans, apples, peaches, and berries, can be canned when they're in season to provide great eating during the off-season. Another thing you can do to save time and energy is, when you're cooking a special dish, to prepare a larger quantity than you need and freeze some of the portions.

Have you tried this freezing strategy before, only to fall prey to the UFO syndrome? I'm talking about the unidentified frozen object syndrome, when you clean out your freezer and find all sorts of mysterious parcels of undertermined origin that have been buried in there for who knows how long. So much for saving time and energy, you've thought, as you've thrown these UFO's out.

Life doesn't have to be like this, however. You can identify and date everything you freeze. But, more important, you can, as you freeze each item, enter it on a list that you keep outside the freezer; on the refrigerator door is a good place. You'll be surprised how such a list will help you when you're running short on cooking time or supplies. You'll know instantly what's available without having to explore through the Arctic realms, and you'll be able to use the oldest items first. As you defrost any item, remember to cross it off your list, and you'll have an ever-updated menu-planning aid. It's amazing what modern technology (in this case, pencil and paper!) can do.

Something parents might like to make large quantities of is cookie dough. You can freeze several portions of a healthy cookie dough, and then, if you're having kids over, you can pull out a batch of dough that morning and — presto — you have an activity to occupy the children, as well as a treat.

One other kitchen efficiency idea: Do you find yourself with good intentions buying a lot of fresh produce, only to throw it out as it goes bad in your refrigerator? Maybe you're storing it in plastic bags. Don't. Just because in many stores you use plastic bags to gather your produce and get it weighed, doesn't mean you have to keep it in these when you get home. The problem is that moisture accumulates in the plastic and hastens the degradation of the produce. So transfer what you've bought to crisper bins or store it open in the refrigerator. Why waste food, not to mention money and time?


What if you've stocked your kitchen with only nutritious foods, you're feeding your child 3 healthful meals a day, and you're still hearing the most frequent of childhood complaints — he's getting stomachaches. What can you do?

There are several things you can try. First, don't give him those 3 healthful meals a day! Instead, try giving him many small, healthful meals during the day. Eating the standard 3 meals can cause indigestion since the body is presented with large amounts of food at once, causing the digestive system to overwork. So if your child is stomachache-prone, try the small-meal approach; it's a better one for proper weight maintenance too, so it could be a good lifetime habit to get into.

Also, pay attention to the mood of your child's meals, and especially to the pace. Hectic pacing adds to stress, which can cause stomach upset in the susceptible child. Plus speed-eating means inadequate chewing, which results in foods passing through the digestive tract with their nutrients being less than fully assimilated. That's why I recommend investing time when your kids are young in teaching them to eat slowly and chew their food thoroughly. The payoff will be fewer stomachaches, better nutrition, and probably a lifetime of being better able to relax and enjoy the eating experience.

Something else you should be aware of is that drinking beverages during meals interferes with digestion because it dilutes the saliva's digestive enzymes, as well as digestive acids in the stomach. Thus you might want to help your kids break the habit of washing food down with excess liquid. Liquids should be consumed 15 minutes before the meal to hydrate the system, with only an occasional sip during the meal to moisten the palate.

Other ideas for avoiding stomachache:

• Watch portion size — large could mean tummy trouble.

• Children's after-dinner eating should be limited to easily digestible snacks.

• Some foods are hard to digest raw unless they're in small bits; these include carrots, broccoli, daikon, and radishes. To ease digestion, think in terms of carrot strings and similar tiny pieces.

• Is allergy a problem? Mucus from allergic reactions to foods can cause digestive upset. Be careful of the frequency and proportions of suspected allergenic foods ingested. For instance, a small amount of wheat once in a while may be fine, but a few meals of it over a couple of days may cause problems with your child's digestive system.

For more information on easing digestion, see the section on optimal food combinations in the Appendix.


A problem that all health-conscious parents eventually face is that most of the rest of the world isn't health- conscious. So you could be going along very nicely, setting up your kitchen with only healthy choices and laying the foundation for good nutrition, when — boom! — your child becomes more independent and ventures into school and other households and a monkey wrench is thrown into the machinery. Your child now wants the same commercially packaged devil's food snack cakes and fruit rolls that everyone else has! What do you do?

I had this problem myself recently, and I started out being quite disheartened about it. Here I was, writing a book about good food for kids, and my own children were coming home from school crying for these sugar-and preservative-laden goodies.

I spoke to a friend about this, telling him I felt I was losing the nutrition battle with my own children. His response was that I was not losing but, on the contrary, winning with flying colors. My children had been instilled with basic facts on nutrition that went beyond the knowledge of most adults. They knew which foods were richest in nutrients and what happens to our bodies if we don't eat well and nourish them. I was then inspired and ready for one more round of Mom versus junk food at school. That day we came up with recipes for more healthful fruit rolls and for blueberry muffins. And the next day at school, the other children wanted some of what my kids were having. Victory!

I'm not saying it's easy when your child meets the world. It can be quite difficult. My victory was for 1 day only, and each day presents me, and parents everywhere, with new challenges. Here are some ideas for meeting them.

Education, as my friend pointed out, is vital, both for the present and for the long run. So talk with your child about the food choices you make and the reasons you make them. Part of this health education is giving your child positive reinforcement when he makes good choices on his own. This positive reinforcement is so important in that it will carry your children through some of their most difficult times with a sense of self-worth, respect for their bodies, and high self-esteem. Their later lives will be so enriched for it.


These thoughts about adolescents are intended mainly for those who don't yet have one. Why? Because that's when you've got to lay the groundwork — before your children reach their teens. If there's one phrase that's associated with the teenage years in American culture, it's peer pressure, and if you have any hope of countering peer pressure's strong effects on your children, it will be that you've taught them — early on and by example — your values and your ways of doing things. In the area of nutrition this will mean that you've lived by your belief that nourishing the body in a healthful way is important, and that you've demonstrated, perhaps with aids like this book, that it's easy and fun to do so. If you have, then, hopefully, your healthy approach to eating will now be theirs as well.


Excerpted from Healthy Cooking for Kids by Shelly Null. Copyright © 1999 Shelly Null. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shelly Null is the daughter of author and health expert Gary Null. She is a chef, and a nutritional food educator and has been cooking professionally for twenty years. She lives in High Falls, New York.

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