Getting kids to eat healthy food is the greatest challenge we face—not only as parents but also as a nation. We live in an era when our children’s life spans may be shorter than those of their parents’, an era when cancer is the foremost cause of death of children under fifteen, an era when diabetes and obesity are rampant—three times the rate of a generation ago. It will take us all to reverse these stats.
And it will take healthy, unprocessed food.
Food literacy must be one of our most important goals in overcoming our country’s food and health crises. But where do we start? It begins by finding our kitchens again; and not only finding them but also sharing them with our families—and most especially our kids! Schools can be part of the solution, but parents also have a major role to play.
Enter The 52 New Foods Challenge by Jennifer Tyler Lee.
In this book, and the Crunch a Color game that complements it, we meet a mom, advocate, and inspiration who helps families move from bland to bountiful plates—from the freezer section to the farmers’ market. Through an ingenious and simple game, The 52 New Foods Challenge inspires kids, their parents, friends, and families to get into the kitchen to cook, taste, and eat healthy, unprocessed foods—together.
I believe that the 52 New Foods Challenge is a positive journey that every family can embark on. With it we can truly change not only our children’s relationship with food but also our own. This book may actually help families save the health of our children, our nation, and perhaps our planet as well!
—Chef Ann Cooper
The 52 New Foods Challenge is about more than the foods—it’s about the journey the foods take you on. Along the way, you will experience failures and frustrations, successes and celebrations. In the end, though, you will transform the way your family eats because of the experience you have together.
Maybe your kids refuse to eat their vegetables and you’re at your breaking point. Or you feel like you’ve done everything right, preparing wholesome meals from the start, and all of a sudden your kids no longer eat the healthy foods they once did. You may have a family that eats healthy most of the time, but you’re looking for ways to break your recipe rut and try something new. Regardless of the reason, the solution lies in taking the journey together.
I started the 52 New Foods Challenge to get my kids past pasta and peas and to encourage them to be more willing to try new foods. What I discovered was that the journey wasn’t about getting my kids to change. It was about creating a change in me. The 52 New Foods Challenge transformed me, which in turn transformed our family dinners.
The key to making a change at your family table lies in learning to see things in a new light—to change your perspective. That’s hard. This book will help you get there. Peppered throughout this book, I have included stories from my family’s adventure—what worked and what didn’t—and practical tips to help you achieve your goal. My hope is that my story will inspire your story. Meet your family where they are, and move forward from there. Everyone will start at a different place, and everyone can make lasting changes. This is your family’s adventure, and like any good recipe, the secret is to make it your own.
In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun, and snap!
The job’s a game.
Where We Began
When my daughter, Catherine, was two, she ate everything. A happy little sprout, she would bounce around the table snatching and sampling healthy bits of food until her big, round belly was satisfied. I was a beaming mom. To be sure, she had her go-to favorites like “habas” (otherwise known as strawberries) and “mum mums” (her code for mushrooms), but for the most part she had a pretty broad palate and was willing to try new foods without much fuss. Naively, I thought I had avoided picky-eater syndrome and the terrible dinner struggles that plagued most of my friends at the time.
But as we inched toward kindergarten, my proud-parent glow faded as my daughter’s interest in a colorful plate waned. How could it be that yesterday she loved broccoli and today she ran from it as if it were a dragon with fangs? Instead of a colorful rainbow of healthy, wholesome foods, her plate looked more like a tired ski run at the end of a long winter season—whitish brown with a few trampled sprigs of green peeking out here and there, longing for a taste of spring sunshine. Even worse, my diet seemed to be trailing downhill along with hers. “Why bother to cook it if she’s not going to eat it?” I reasoned, as my healthy diet was reduced to pasta and peas. Dinner was dreary.
“Don’t give her an option!”
“Picky eaters are made, not born!”
“One family, one meal.”
“If she doesn’t eat what you serve, she’ll be hungry and eat at the next meal.”
This was the advice I got from trusted doctors and family friends, but I was completely unwilling to swallow it. Forcing my kids to eat went against every single motherly instinct in my body. To me, it felt like a military deployment: Make a plan, send out your best troops, and stick to your guns with an unrelenting will to wear the enemy down. I didn’t want mealtime to become a battleground in my family.
I tried to understand why Catherine was becoming pickier, but her fickleness made no sense to me. “What child doesn’t like bananas?” I would ask rhetorically. I was immensely frustrated. All of that frustration spilled over onto the dinner table, and though I’d vowed not to let it happen, mealtime became an experience that we all wanted to avoid. I bargained and bribed. I begged and badgered. At my lowest point, I heard myself screaming, “Why won’t you eat your vegetables?” What I hadn’t realized was that I was asking the wrong question.
I needed to be asking myself, “Why will my kids eat their vegetables?” It’s a subtle difference, but that change invited a playful challenge to be taken on together as opposed to setting up a challenge against me.
I was desperate for a solution and equally determined not to give up. I wanted the dinner table to be a place where we gathered for wholesome food, good fun, and treasured time together. I knew there was a better way, I just didn’t know how to get there—yet.
A surprise moment during a typical Monday morning routine gave me the inspiration. My husband, Anthony, was getting the kids washed, brushed, dressed, and ready for school. On the days when I was in charge of getting everyone out the door, there was usually rushing and barking involved (and I’m not talking about our family dog). But Anthony has a magical way of making just about anything fun. That morning, after they worked on a Lego project in the living room, he started to get the kids ready for school. “Race ya!” he yelled as he charged up the stairs to brush his teeth. “Let’s see if we can beat our record getting to school this morning!” he challenged. Giggling and skipping, my kids happily got themselves organized and were out the door, backpacks and lunches in tow, without any screaming or cajoling required. I watched the whole thing unfold as if I were watching a movie—with awe and disbelief. As the car door slammed and they cruised down the street, an idea popped into my head: “Why don’t I make healthy eating a game?”
Making It a Game
That night, I made up a dinner game based on earning points by eating different colors. The premise was simple—more colorful vegetables and fruits meant a healthier meal. The more challenging the food, the more points you could earn: 5 for apples, 10 for broccoli, and 15 for kale. Bonus points for trying a new food.
Kale becomes cool when it’s worth 15 points, and the race for bonus points suddenly had my kids begging for new foods to try. Beans, broccoli, and even Brussels sprouts started showing up regularly at our family dinners. Not every food was met with a joyously warm welcome, but we were heading down the right path. With care and time, our simple mealtime game grew organically around our family table, rooting its way into the fabric of our meals, until counting colors became second nature. When a nutritionist I met with said, “This is exactly how we teach about nutrition, but it’s way more fun!” I realized that I might be onto something.
My kids embraced the idea and helped me to create Crunch a Color, an award-winning healthy-eating game that is now sold nationwide. Suddenly, my in-box was filled with messages from parents around the country sharing stories about how this simple game was changing the way their kids looked at vegetables—as a fun challenge rather than a forced mandate. Making healthy eating a game not only worked at our table, it was also working at tables across the country.
52 New Foods
In my family, Crunch a Color was the start of our new, healthier relationship with food. It got us out of an intractable place. It made food fun and reduced stress at our family table. More important, making healthy eating a game opened the door to even bigger changes for our family, the kind that would establish a lifetime of healthy eating habits—for all of us.
My kids were now counting their colors without much prompting from me. They knew what a balanced plate looked like. Their favorite part of the game was to earn a card that would double all of their points by trying something new. That simple challenge helped pique a willingness to try new foods. So at the beginning of the new year, we decided to take on a family challenge: 52 weeks, 52 new foods.
I knew that for any change to stick, it had to be simple. Saying that we were going to “eat healthy” was too broad (and overwhelming). On the other hand, saying we were going to try one new food each week, and cook it together as a family, felt tangible. I knew what that meant, and so did my kids. It also felt like something I could handle—once a week was doable, but anything more felt like way too much for our busy lives. I certainly couldn’t commit to cooking at home every night of the week, or going cold turkey on things like canned soups and packaged granola bars, but making a commitment to cook together with my kids once a week felt manageable. We all agreed that this was something fun for us to do as a family. Taking on this challenge together was another essential ingredient to success—that way everyone was working toward the same goal.
Each week, we would head to the farmers’ market or local grocery store, and my kids would choose a new, healthy food to try. Like players in a scavenger hunt, my new-food adventurers would race from stall to stall, scouting out our new food of the week. Sometimes it was a vegetable that we had yet to try together, like artichoke or zucchini. Other times it was a seasonal favorite that we decided to try in a new way, like cherries or plums. This simple activity kept us focused on local, seasonal produce (and away from anything that arrived in a box, bag, or can). Then together, we would cook. “Easy enough for a five-year-old to make!” was our mantra. Cooking together as a family, we learned to make easy, healthy recipes that we could all enjoy. We chronicled the entire journey, keeping track of favorite ingredients, quick tips, and easy recipes, making it simple to stay on track. Unusual new foods like Romanesco and quinoa joined us for dinner, along with familiar favorites prepared in new ways. But the change to healthier eating wasn’t because I was dictating the menu with a tiger mom’s iron fist. Our 52 New Foods Challenge worked because it was easy and fun for the whole family—it engaged all of us.
At the time I thought this challenge would simply be a way to get my kids to try a few new foods—to add variety to our table beyond broccoli, beans, and blueberries. What I discovered was that the 52 New Foods Challenge was the catalyst for much deeper and longer-lasting changes in the way that we were eating—not just for my kids but for our whole family. The 52 New Foods Challenge laid the foundation for a lifetime of positive and healthy eating habits centered on whole, nutritious foods. It brought us together to cook and enjoy healthy food as a family.
Small steps. Big changes.
If I had tried to make all of the changes in this book in one fell swoop, I would have failed. My kids would have thrown up their arms in protest and outright refused to make the changes we needed to make. I can hear it now: “I don’t like brown rice!” or “Those vegetables taste too bitter!” or the crowning glory of all comments, “Ew! What’s that green stuff?” What’s more, I never would have been able to sustain the changes—in the way that I shopped, or cooked, or engaged my kids in the whole process. It’s the same reason why most diet plans fail—they are impossible to maintain for most people because they don’t effect a true change in your lifestyle. The best way to make healthy changes is with small, simple steps taken consistently each week.
The bad news: There isn’t a quick fix. Your kids won’t go from eating pizza and chicken nuggets to pesto and quinoa in a month, or even three months.
The good news: This plan will work because it changes your family’s behavior the slow and sustainable way. The 52 New Foods Challenge helps you make a change at the core of how your family approaches food. You will establish a lifetime of healthy habits by learning to explore and enjoy healthy foods together as a family. And establishing healthy habits at an early age has a dramatic, positive impact on the health of your child throughout his or her life. As noted by Dr. Walter Willett, the head of nutrition at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, “This has a direct effect because we have seen diets of children being related to risks of cancer and other conditions later in life.”
And it takes only an hour each week, so that even the busiest of parents can help their families make positive changes that will stick.
It was the small steps we took together each week that resulted in a change that could really take hold in our family. It allowed healthy habits to sink in and take root. It took time for me to learn how to cook with my kids (not for my kids), and for my kids to learn how to cook! Allowing time to explore new foods gave us the opportunity to try lots of different recipes, to experiment with different textures and tastes, and to uncover each person’s preferences as opposed to forcing a “one size fits all” approach to food. Just like eating our colors, these healthy habits became second nature because we stuck with them for the long haul. It was the culmination of a series of small steps that resulted in the big, lasting change for our family.
The 52 New Foods Challenge inspired everyone in our family to try something new each week, it encouraged us to start a garden, it brought us together to cook and enjoy healthy food as a family, and it connected us with fellow food lovers in our community. We learned about where our food comes from, the people who work tirelessly to grow it, and how the food choices we make impact our bodies, our neighborhood, and the bigger world around us. We gathered treasured recipes and tips from local farmers, chefs, friends, and family, and together we planted, picked, cooked, and tasted our way through the year. Most important, the 52 New Foods Challenge planted the seeds of change at our family table.
It has the power to seed change at your table, too.
Start Your Challenge
It is better to take many small steps in the right direction
than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.
—AN OLD CHINESE PROVERB
Your goal is to try one new food each week for a year. Small steps taken consistently will get you there. Remember that the keys to creating a deep and lasting change in the way that your family eats are to take it slow and to be consistent.
This challenge can feel overwhelming if you don’t break it down into manageable parts. The seasons offer a natural cadence to your 52 New Foods Challenge, making them a great framework in which to set your goals. Start by committing to try one season’s worth of foods. That’s just thirteen weeks—a baker’s dozen. Don’t worry about how you’re going to tackle all 52 weeks. When we started our 52 New Foods Challenge, I remember thinking at week nine, “How are we going to get through this?” Take it week by week, one season at a time. Each week I offer a simple activity to work on and easy recipes to try, to keep you moving forward and having fun. When you complete your first thirteen foods, celebrate your milestone. Use the momentum from the first season to roll into the next.
Where to Begin
The 52 foods are grouped by season so it’s easy for you and your family to choose one each week that works best for you and is easily accessible at the market or in your garden. You may already enjoy some of the foods on the list, and that’s okay. The point is for you to be cooking together as a family, and a few familiar foods are offered as a bridge to help you get there. Healthy grains and proteins are also offered to help round out your meals.
You can dive right into The 52 New Foods Challenge by starting with the season you’re in when you opened this book. Commit to trying thirteen new foods together.
52 New Foods
1. Sweet Potatoes
4. Brussels Sprouts
6. Rainbow Carrots
8. Butternut Squash
13. Whole Wheat Flour
16. Bok Choy
21. Satsuma Mandarin Oranges
24. Asian Pears
26. Black Beans
30. Green Beans
31. Portobello Mushrooms
38. Sunflower Butter
41. Butter Lettuce
43. Green Onions
45. Cherry Tomatoes
Your Goal: Try One New Food Each Week with Your Kids
What You Need to Do:
1. Together, choose any food from the list.
2. Let the seasons be your guide.
3. Make a plan and stick to it.
4. Keep score.
Many of the recipes in this book are side dishes. That’s intentional. It is a risky move to cook a main dish featuring a food that your child has been reluctant to try, only to have them outright refuse to taste it. At that point you’re left with one of three options: short-order cook, eat bread, or eat nothing. None of these is a good outcome. There is important learning in the simple act of cooking food together, which I discuss in the Cook Together chapter, but your long-term success will be built from the momentum that comes from a combination of cooking together and experiencing a series of small successes tasting and trying new foods. Introducing a new food as a side dish, alongside a few favorite foods, is much less daunting than serving it front and center as a main dish. Pair your new foods with a healthy main dish that you know your kids will eat. I’ve included our family favorites in Appendix A at the back of this book. I call them Workhorse Recipes, because although they may not be fancy, they are simple, tasty, healthy dishes that I know my kids will eat without a fuss.
Make a Plan and Stick to It
Pick one day each week and make it your New Food Day. Then stick to it. It’s easier to make a decision once than to make a decision fifty-two times. Sundays worked best for my family. Choose a day that works best for you. Build in time to shop and chop together, which probably means about two hours each week. The recipes in this book are easy, so they don’t require much time, but you’ll be more relaxed (and have more fun) if you set aside a few dedicated hours each week with your kids. When you are strapped for time, select the food you plan to try together and do the shopping in advance. Cut the schedule down to one hour each week and use it to cook together. In addition to cooking together as a family on your New Food Day, work your new ingredient into a few of your meals over the course of a month. Prepare your new food two to three different ways, so your kids don’t get bored and you can experiment with different tastes and textures. It’s important for a new food to show up at your table several times, prepared in several ways—not just one and done. The recipes in this book provide that kind of variety. Your kids might not like radicchio in a salad, but they might like it roasted. You won’t know until you try it a few different ways.
Double Duty: Prep for the Week Ahead
Your New Food Day is a great time to prepare a few vegetables for the week ahead. Invite your kids to tear and wash the kale, peel the carrots, and pack veggies in glass containers to make them easy to grab on busy weekdays when time is tight. Whip up a batch of brown rice and keep it the fridge for mixing into dishes all week long. A little prep will go a long way.
Whether you keep a journal, take photos on your phone, or post updates online, record what you learn each week. For my family, keeping a journal in the form of an online blog was the single most important tool for keeping us on target. Your journal, analog or digital, is an easy way to keep you and your family accountable. Jot down tips, favorite ingredients, new foods you would like to try, and simple recipe variations. Snap photos of new foods you discover at the market, candid moments of your family cooking together, and pictures of the meals you create. Let your kids add their notes and musings. Record what is working, along with what isn’t. At the end of the year, you will have a treasured family cookbook of healthy foods to enjoy together.
Join the Community
My blog offers a place where you can share your experience with other parents. It’s a great way to get the encouragement you’ll need to keep going when you hit the tough spots, or to celebrate an accomplishment. It’s also packed with tips and tricks. Join me online at www.52newfoods.com.
Keep Score: The Points System
“I hit an all-time high tonight!” James shouted like a gambler on a winning streak. “Over 300 points!” he chuffed to the players at the table, then qualified his winnings with, “I earned a lot of bonus cards this round.” He pranced over to the score sheet posted on our fridge to record his accomplishment. New family record.
In this situation, you might think we were talking about a high score in a round of Wii Sports Resort. Or maybe points earned in an old-fashioned game of Scrabble. You might hear boasting in either of those cases, but the win James was talking about was earned for something much different: eating colors.
There are countless systems for teaching families about how to eat healthy. As a child I learned about the food pyramid (yawn), and as a parent I closely watched the renovation of that pyramid into a plate. But for my kids—and me, too—those systems are theoretical. They are not engaging. Kids learn through play—interacting with people and the world around them—not through textbooks or food pyramid posters.
Points tap into a child’s innate love of games, so they’ll get you out of the starting gate. Broccoli is just a stinky green vegetable hogging space on your plate until it’s worth 10 points. The points are arbitrary (except that more nutrient-dense and exotic foods are worth more), but points feed our deep-seated drive to make us want to earn them. Use the points system at the beginning of your 52 New Foods Challenge to get you rolling. Know that you will outgrow the need for them as your kids learn what a healthy plate looks like.
Track points once a week, on your New Food Day (see here for points by food and how to calculate your score). Use them when you feature your new food on the menu. Dinner worked best for my family, but it could easily be lunch or breakfast. Choose a time that works best for you. At your meal, aim for at least 30 points composed of three colors, one protein, one healthy grain, and one liquid. Points are earned for eating one portion of food: a serving the size of your fist. The smaller the player, the smaller the serving size. Earn as many points for colors (fruits and vegetables) as you like, but limit points for proteins and grains to one serving per meal. Points are also awarded for water and milk, but not juice or soda—removing sugary beverages from your home is one of the simplest changes you can make to help improve the health of your family. Double all of your points if you try something new—even a taster. You can count a food as “new” up to fifteen times. Research shows that it takes many exposures to a new food before a child may like it, which is why I suggest that you give your kids bonus points multiple times for trying the same food. It encourages lots of tasters.
For many kids, including my own, branching out from a narrow stable of favorite foods can be challenging at first. A strategy that works well is what I call Gateway Foods.
Each child will have their own set of Gateway Foods, and for your 52 New Foods Challenge to be successful it’s critical for you to figure out which ones they are. Gateway Foods, like blueberries for Catherine and James, are your ticket to some of the more challenging new foods for your family. Knowing that something familiar, and well liked, is part of the meal is like a culinary keystone for kids. It gives them a safe place from which to venture out, with the security of knowing they’ve got something on the table that they like.
Mixing the Gateway Food with other new foods is great, like adding a few slices of jícama and radicchio to your Blueberry-Mango Salad, but even serving the foods side by side and sampling a bit of each will move you in the right direction. Preparing a Gateway Food in a new way, like we did with mandarin oranges, is another easy way to break out of the rut and broaden your food repertoire. Try something as simple as adding a few “sprinkles”—sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, nori flakes, or sliced almonds—to a Gateway Food, like green beans, to change it up. It gets your kids used to the idea of trying things in a new way, which is an important habit to foster.
The last thing you want to do is short-order cook. Serving a Gateway Food at each meal is your insurance policy. Your kids will eat what you’ve made even if they’re not feeling adventurous, and even better, Gateway Foods might be the reason they are willing to try something new.
As for competition among players at the table, I found that my kids reacted in very different ways. When Catherine smells competition, she runs from it like she would from freshly chopped onions. She plays for the fun of playing, not for the fun of winning. James, on the other hand, will turn anything into a competition. He will keep score. When we started playing for points at our table, he was laser-focused on beating the all-time record. Every time. Making it a game worked for both of them, but for different reasons.
Making it a game also helped me transform my role at the table, from a dictator to a facilitator. The root of those words highlights the key difference. The root of facilitator is facile, which means “to make easy,” versus the root of dictator, dictate, which means “to speak or tell.” I needed to make it easy for my kids to make their own good choices, as opposed to telling them what to do. Arguably, the reason why my kids were so much more willing to eat balanced meals was because I stepped out of the way and let them choose for themselves. Granted, they were choosing from within a healthy set of foods. My job was to ensure that there were enough colors on the table each night—to make it easy for them to round out their plates. Their job was to earn points by eating a healthy, balanced meal from the colors that were available. Mom facilitates. Kids choose.
Gateway Food Tips
1. Identify three to six Gateway Foods for your family. These are your culinary keystones. The Gateway Foods in our family include:
f. Green beans
2. Aim to cook your Gateway Food along with a new food. For example:
a. Blueberry (gateway) + Mango (new) = Blueberry-Mango Salad
b. Strawberry (gateway) + Rhubarb (new) = Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp
c. Orange (gateway) + Fennel (new) = Orange and Fennel Salad
d. Carrots (gateway) + Parsnips (new) = Rainbow Ribbons
e. Peas (gateway) + Chickpeas (new) = Sweet Pea Hummus
f. Green beans (gateway) + Kumquats (new) = Kumquat Salad
3. If your kids resist combining the foods, start by serving them side by side. Taste the Gateway Food, then encourage a small taster of something new that complements. This can be as simple as putting a small amount of food on the tip of their tongue and letting them spit it out (they don’t need to swallow the food for this to work). Move toward mixing, but don’t be overly concerned if they want to keep foods separate. That is a natural tendency at a young age and one that most kids outgrow with time.
How long, and how frequently, you choose to track points will depend on the unique personality of your family. For my kids, after a few months of playing with points they didn’t need them anymore. They internalized the system. As we continued trying new foods each week, they shifted their focus to other aspects of our challenge—cooking foods, growing foods, and finding new foods at the market. They still loved the fun of our game, but they didn’t need points to keep them going. Occasionally we needed a boost, like after a vacation, and points reappeared at our table to help us get back on track. Use points as a catalyst when you are stuck.
How Much Food Is Enough?
Encourage your kids to check in with their bellies to determine when they feel satisfied. Do not push them to eat until they are full—that will cause them to overeat—or force them to finish everything on their plate. Developing a personal sense of what is the right amount for your own body is critical to building a healthy relationship with food.
A chart outlining suggested points for foods and how to calculate your score can be found in Appendix B. I’ve also included a points value on the pages profiling each food in this book. Foods are ranked based on a combination of nutritional value and how challenging it is to get kids to eat them: Hence, asparagus (nutritious but sometimes tough to get kids to eat) is worth more points than apples (nutritious but relatively easy to get kids to eat).
The issue of points and rewards is a thorny one. Like an arrow, it fires straight at the heart of the debate about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Does your kid want to eat healthy foods because you are giving him points? What happens when the points go away? Will he cease to eat healthy when there is no tangible reward? I firmly believe that making healthy eating a game allows you to leverage extrinsic motivation to tap into intrinsic motivation. Gamification, or the idea that game techniques can be applied to real-life situations, is spreading rapidly and can be skillfully applied at your family table to make healthy eating fun for everyone involved.1 It’s not just kids who benefit from the fun of a game. As parents, we benefit a tremendous amount, too. Kids (and adults) may start out a challenge because of the allure of points or a prize (leveraging extrinsic motivation), but they will only stick with it if the activity is fun in and of itself (tapping into intrinsic motivation). And the more they stick with it, the more their bodies will crave healthy foods (as opposed to foods that are engineered to make us want more2). They’ll be more open to trying new things. It’s a positive, reinforcing cycle.
If you choose, you can track points at meals throughout your week to speed up your progress. You don’t need a new food each night. Instead, use points to help establish a pattern of balanced, colorful meals at your family table.
How to Set Goals
If you run into problems, try working in reverse. Start this challenge by discussing what would be a great reward for taking on the first thirteen foods. Maybe a day trip to a favorite family destination, like the beach or your local state park. Or time with friends you don’t see very often. Refer to What to Give as Rewards to generate ideas.
My kids are a good example of how this plays out. When we first started playing Crunch a Color, it was all about the points and prizes. Inevitably the dinner discussion turned to how many points each person had racked up, who had the all-time highest points total, or which person had the most multiples for trying new foods. But as we continued to play, and eating colorful, balanced meals became second nature, my kids’ focus turned away from the points and toward the sheer fun of the game. Extrinsic motivation got them over the hurdle; intrinsic motivation kept them going. The most salient example is the launch of our 52 New Foods Challenge in and of itself. My kids were craving the bigger goal and were carried forward purely for the love of the adventure. Not the points.
Critics of my game-based approach will argue that points are not much different than prizes and that a parent should not reward a child for eating, of any kind. The question is, how do you get out of the starting gate when you’re at a complete standstill? I’d argue the answer is points. When points make it easier to be a good parent, and for kids to eat their colors, the points are a good thing. Points turn bad when they can be redeemed for cupcakes. Or money. Leveraging the love of a game to make healthy eating fun is a lot different than packing plastic toys in your carryout meals.
What to Give as Rewards
A bike ride to the park.
A trip to the beach.
A cooking playdate with friends.
Extra afternoon playtime on a weekday.
A batch of their favorite dish to share with classmates at school.
What NOT to Give as Rewards
Ice cream (or any other sugary treat).
Video games or TV time.
Set up rewards that encourage healthy family time together and are appropriate given your goal. Keep rewards closely tied to the action that you want your child to take—ones that reinforce a healthy lifestyle. Do not use food or money as rewards.
Tailor rewards based on the personality of your family. If your kids need immediate feedback, give a small reward for meeting your points target on your New Food Day. Small rewards for small goals. Give something simple like extra outdoor playtime on a weeknight. Stickers or sports cards can work as well. Work toward giving a reward for a month’s worth of meeting your points goal on each New Food Day. Offer bigger prizes for bigger goals, like a family outing to a favorite park or beach. Download a free reward chart from my website, www.52newfoods.com, to track your progress.
Prizes aren’t necessary. For many kids, the fun is in the game. A helpful comparison is to think about a game like Sorry! or chess. No prizes are awarded to the winner.
The Core Principles
Before you start your 52 New Foods Challenge, I want to share the core principles of your New Foods Plan. They are the essential ingredients that will help you catalyze deep changes and establish healthy habits that will serve your children for a lifetime. These core principles are baked into every step of the 52 New Foods Challenge. Each week presents an opportunity to practice some or all of the principles, keeping you moving along the road to mastery.
These principles may not be new to you—many of us know what we should be doing to be consistently eating in a healthy way. But why, then, aren’t all of us doing it? Bringing these lessons to life at your table is what’s hard, especially for a busy family. The 52 New Foods Challenge is designed to help you easily put these principles into practice.
The Core Principles
1. Make It a Game
2. Eat Your Colors
3. Cook Together
4. Buy in Season
5. Grow It
6. Let Kids Lead
7. Keep Trying
Eat Your Colors
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Looking back, it was easy to see why we needed to add more color to our plates. They were bleak and dominated by the three Ps: pasta, pizza, and peas. It didn’t take a nutritionist or doctor to tell me that we needed more color in our diet. That was terribly obvious. But wouldn’t it have been sufficient to get my kids to eat a few bites of broccoli every day? A few crunches of carrots? Isn’t that good enough?
The answer is no. Eating broccoli is good, but eating broccoli alone does not equate to a healthy diet. And most of us don’t eat enough broccoli anyhow (or any other vegetable, for that matter). According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, most Americans do not eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. What you need is variety. Color is key, but not just one color.
You need all of the colors.
Another way to think about this: Colors in your diet are like instruments in a symphony—the more you have, the richer the experience.
To uncover why colors are so important, and how they play a role in a healthy diet, I went straight to the experts. First, I talked with Dr. Walter Willett, the nutrition chair at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and one of the nation’s leading authorities on healthy eating. I asked Dr. Willett how colorful foods play a role in our health, especially the health of our children, and he reinforced the notion of diversity on our dinner plates.
Variety is a key to nutrition. It reduces the chance of missing out on something important and also reduces the chance of getting too much of something undesirable. By aiming for a wide range of color, we help insure variety, and it also makes good nutrition appealing.
The other important distinction is in referring to food as colors as opposed to vegetables. Dr. Willett hinted at this idea when he talked about making good nutrition appealing. A colorful plate is much more exciting and enticing than a white one.1 But there is something more when it comes to engaging kids at the table—to making healthy food appealing. The word color is a treasured part of a child’s vocabulary. It evokes feelings of fun and playfulness and messy adventures at preschool. Kids get it, immediately, when you talk about colors. You’re speaking their language. Talking about vegetables, on the other hand, can often induce fear, resistance, and a heavy dose of upturned noses.
It’s marketing. Use it to your advantage.
Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietician, author of Eating in Color, and fellow mom, explains how intensity of color also plays an important role in a healthy, colorful diet:
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain plant chemicals called phytochemicals (or phytonutrients). Many phytochemicals have antioxidant properties, which means they can scavenge free radicals in the body and prevent free radical damage. Our bodies are assaulted daily by free radicals, from the air we breathe, to the effects of exercise, to pollution and the sun’s rays. So we need to pack our diets with antioxidants daily. In addition to brightly colored fruits and veggies, grains, nuts, and seeds also contain antioxidants. And yes, a purple potato does contain more antioxidants than a white one. And red onions have more flavonoids than white or yellow varieties.
Hence, purple potatoes are worth more points than white potatoes.
Tips to Make It Easy to Eat Your Colors
Be a Good Facilitator
Your role as a parent is to facilitate. That means your job is to set your family up for success (make the colors available) and encourage everyone to keep trying (cheer them on). Invite your kids into the game with questions like, “How many colors can you eat tonight?” or “How would you make a meal with all of the colors on the table?” Remember, you are part of the game as well. Model good behavior by loading your plate full of colors, too, and try something new. Use Gateway Foods so that you don’t need to be a short-order cook.
When you shop, challenge your kids to fill the cart with colors. Aim for at least one food from each of the five color groups: green, red, yellow/orange, blue/purple, and white/brown. When you’re starting out, you may find your cart is heavily weighted toward one color. In my case, it was green: green apples, green peas, and green beans. When this happens, choose your favorite foods but in a new color. For example, try purple beans instead of green ones, orange sweet potatoes instead of white russets, or red carrots instead of orange carrots. Within each color, aim for the highest intensity: Light green butter lettuce is good—deep green kale is better. Having a wide variety of colors in your fridge will be important so that you can easily feature three colors on the table each night.
Plan Your Meals
Plan for two colors at your main meal and one color for dessert. For example, try Brussels Sprouts Chips (green) and Crispy Sweet Potato Fries (yellow/orange) as sides with your main meal, and offer Warm Cinnamon Apples (red) for dessert. If you don’t have much time to cook, simply chop up fresh veggies and offer them with a dip. Sliced rainbow carrots are one of my go-to colors when I’m short on time. Just get those colors on the table! This takes a bit of planning at first, but after a few weeks, you’ll find it has become a healthy habit.
Dessert Can Be Colorful, Too
Serve colorful fruits for dessert on weeknights. Save sweet, healthy treats, which you make at home with your kids, for weekends if you choose to eat them. This not only boosts colors at your table but also has the added benefit of reducing added sugars in your child’s diet (see here).
Give a Simple Formula
Use a simple formula for building a balanced meal that is easy for everyone in the family to remember: 3 colors + 1 protein + 1 healthy grain + 1 liquid = a winning plate. No soda. If you choose to track points, aim for at least 30 at each meal. The points system is outlined in Appendix B.
Keep Colorful Foods within Reach
The easier it is to reach for colorful foods, the easier it will be for your kids to choose colorful foods. Keep low shelves and drawers in your fridge stocked with prewashed, precut veggies and fruit in glass containers. This will help at snack time (and when packing lunches). A bowl of seasonal fruit on the table is another great call to action for your kids.
Think about your colors over the course of the week as opposed to at just one meal. Don’t stress if you don’t hit your goal at each meal. It’s not a straight line. The key is to keep trying. Looking at your family’s eating habits over the course of a week will give you a much better view than looking at any one meal, and it will relieve the stress of worrying about whether they ate their broccoli today. You also need to be realistic in situations when it’s hard to eat your colors. Being the mom who harps on healthy eating at the pizza party is a tough role to play. Remember that one “bad” meal won’t erase a week’s worth of good ones. In those moments, let your kids know that it’s okay to make an exception and that you’ll get back on track at your next meal together.
Be Smart About Food Storage
When possible, choose glass or BPA-free containers for storing your food. BPA, or bisphenol-A, is a chemical used in plastics and cans. According to the FDA, there is “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.” 2
The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.
In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
If you’re like me (or any busy parent, for that matter), the thought of cooking together with your kids evokes one or all of the following reactions:
“It takes too much time to cook with my kids.”
“Cooking with my kids is messy, which makes more work for me (and I’m already overloaded).”
“I can get it done faster if I just cook it myself.”
I know these arguments well because I used to make them.
You are right. At first, it will take more time—time that you feel you don’t have to spare. It will be messier. It will be more work for you. But consider this: Time “wasted” today is quality time gained later. As your kids become more proficient in the kitchen, and together you learn to cook as a family, the health of your family will improve, your children will become more independent, and ultimately you will gain time.
Cooking together will make your life easier.