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KIDS IN THE KITCHEN Most children adore cooking, and tasks such as squeezing fresh orange juice and cracking eggs are well within the capabilities of a young child. It's amazing how being involved in the planning and preparing of a meal can stimulate a child's appetite. Cooking is also a great way of bonding with children -- spending quality time shopping for ingredients and actually making the recipes together can be a fun task for everyone involved.
It's a good idea to ask your child to invite over a group of friends, choose a menu, and get them to prepare their own lunch or supper (younger children will need a little adult supervision). Not only are they more likely to eat something they have a hand in preparing, but they are also measuring ingredients, keeping track of time, etc., all without noticing.
It's also fun to organize a cooking birthday party. Sit down with your child and choose a selection of party recipes such as Animal Cupcakes, Focaccia Pizza, My Favorite Gingersnaps, and Vegetable Kebabs. Group the children in pairs to prepare the food. I've organized many cooking parties for my children, and they were so popular that many of their friends ended up doing the same for their birthdays.
EAT TOGETHER Eating with the whole family whenever possible can really make a difference. Personally, I think that taking the focus off your child's eating and having lots of social chat at the table is helpful. Avoid using mealtimes to assert your authority. If there is a lecture to give, choose another time.
My children are teenagers now, and on a Friday night we always try to have dinner together and take turns telling one another some of the good and bad things that happened to us during the week. Sometimes children don't realize that bad things happen to adults, too, so it doesn't matter whether it's trivial or important -- dinnertime is a time for communicating and getting to know one another. It can soon become a regular family ritual. Children are more likely to open up to you if you are open with them, and it's good bonding time.
REWARD SCHEMES In a recent survey, 25 percent of mothers said that they dread mealtimes, and nearly 50 percent admitted they resort to bribery to get their children to eat up. Sticker charts usually work best once your child reaches two and a half. Keep portions absolutely minuscule (your child can always ask for more and will get a sense of achievement for finishing his or her meal), and at first give a sticker for just trying the food. Your child could have a yogurt as a reward for trying his or her main course. The treats for completing a sticker chart should not be unhealthy foods (e.g., sweets), as this gives the wrong message. Ideally, they should be small and affordable (you may be doing sticker charts for quite a long time!). Make the charts yourself, perhaps using pictures of your child's favorite things (tractors, fairies, etc.) to decorate it. You could even download pictures from the Internet for your child to color in to make the sticker chart with you. Try to keep them short for this age group so that the first one is relatively easily attainable and teaches your child the purpose of these charts.
Another useful reward scheme, for slightly older children, is to fill an empty jar with small objects such as dried pasta shapes. One pasta shape is awarded for eating a meal or trying something new (or any other good behavior). Start with a small jar and let your child put the pasta in him- or herself. A small present or treat (e.g., family trip to beach/football game/Rollerblading in the park) is the prize for filling the jar so that the lid does not fit on.
Encourage your child to make an "Eat Up" book. Buy a scrapbook and get your child to stick in the packaging or a photo of the new food that he or she eats. You could find some old food magazines and cut out photos of foods that you would like to get your child to eat and keep them in a shoe box. You could also get your child to draw pictures of the new food. Each time your child has tried or eaten six new foods and stuck them in the book, he or she gets a reward. It might be stickers, jewelry, sports equipment, or a trip to the movies -- choose something that would appeal to your child and isn't too expensive.
MAKE FOOD ATTRACTIVE AND FUN Give small portions -- it's not good to overload your child's plate. Also, children generally prefer smaller pieces of food, so it's a good idea to make foods such as mini burgers with baby potatoes, small broccoli florets, and mini carrots. They also like eating from small containers, so use ramekins to prepare individual portions of foods. You can also make a batch and freeze them.
Attractive presentation can make the difference between your child's accepting and refusing food. Whole fruit may not get eaten, but thread bite-size fresh fruit onto skewers or straws and it immediately becomes more appealing.
Children also like to assemble their own food, so you could lay ingredients out in bowls and let your children fill and fold their own wraps or choose their favorite toppings for their homemade pizzas.
BLIND MAN'S GRUB If you have a little "junk food junkie" who refuses to try anything new, play a game in which you blindfold your child and give her several foods to taste, some old favorites and some new, and see if she can identify what they are.
HEALTHY JUNK FOOD Create your own "healthy junk food." Make pizza bases using mini bagels, English muffins, focaccia bread, or pita bread and let your child choose his or her favorite toppings. Make burgers using good-quality lean beef -- and I have my own delicious version of chicken nuggets, for which you marinate the chicken in buttermilk, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and lemon and then coat in bread crumbs and Parmesan.
START AS YOU MEAN TO CONTINUE Start your baby off on fresh baby food rather than jars of processed food with a shelf life of two years. If they are used to a variety of fresh flavors early on, children are much less likely to become fussy eaters when you try to integrate fresh foods into family meals.
Once a child's palate has become accustomed to the intense sweetness of refined sugary foods, it is harder for him or her to appreciate the more gentle natural sweetness of fruit. If you want your child to enjoy fresh fruit, restrict sugary foods.
HEALTHY SNACKS After school is a great time to get your child to eat something healthy, as they generally come home starving. The trouble is that most children dive into the cookie jar or grab a chocolate bar after school. Have something ready prepared on the table. Cut-up fruit on a plate is much more tempting than fruit in a fruit bowl, and children like raw veggies with a tasty dip. It's quick and easy to make delicious wraps, pita pockets, or pasta salads, and it's a good idea to have a low shelf in the fridge from which children can help themselves to tasty healthy snacks.
Reduce snacks between meals to one in the morning and one in the afternoon and make sure they are healthy.
Try to control how much -- and what -- your child drinks between meals and at mealtimes. Try to encourage him or her to drink more water.
YOUR DENTIST IS YOUR ALLY Next time you go, ask the dentist to explain to your child what will happen to his teeth if he eats too many sweets and drinks too many sugary drinks. You can remind him of this the next time he demands the latest sweets he has seen on TV. Limit sweets to once or twice a week.
LET THEM PACK THEIR OWN LUNCH Get your child involved in packing his own lunch box -- that way you will know what foods he finds acceptable. There are some foods children may eat at home but won't eat in front of friends. Also make sure food is easy and quick to eat. Children won't bother with anything complicated because they are usually in a rush to get to the playground. If you give fruit, it's usually best to cut it up or peel fruits such as clementines and wrap them in plastic wrap.
CHANGE OF SCENERY Take food outdoors in the summer and have a picnic. This could just be in the backyard. For some children, a change of scenery works wonders. You could even take teddy bears and spare plates and cups so that the bears can "eat" with you.
In the summer, barbecues tend to be popular with children -- they like hamburgers, drumsticks, or corn on the cob cooked on the barbecue.
It's also fun to play make-believe if children are preparing a meal themselves. Let them create a restaurant in one of the rooms in your house. My children used to love doing this: one would be the waiter, the other the chef.
TRY SOMETHING NEW You are probably frustrated when children refuse to eat something that they have never even tasted. A fear of new foods is known as neophobia. It generally develops at around eighteen months, and babies who would happily accept many foods suddenly become suspicious and reject anything unfamiliar. If your child has a very restricted diet, it is best to give new foods when she is really hungry, let her see other people eating the same food, try to encourage her to eat just a small amount, and give lots of attention and praise if she is willing to try it. If she still refuses to eat it, maybe mix it together with something she likes. For example, if your child likes pasta but won't eat vegetables, try making a lasagne with spinach.
DON'T BE SCARED OF SAYING NO Children are good at inducing parental guilt, but you will make your life difficult if they know that they can twist you around their little fingers. Instead of rewarding good behavior with sweets, encourage children to choose treats such as stickers or comics.
PLAY THE FOOD DETECTIVE GAME Make rejecting unhealthy food into a game -- ask your child to find a drink that contains less than 10 percent juice, and then get him to look for one with the words "pure fruit juice" or "100 percent juice." Ask your child to find you a breakfast cereal that isn't high in salt or sugar by picking a cereal with less than 300mg sodium per serving and no added sugar.
If your child pesters you to buy something, ask him to read the ingredients list, and if there is a long list of additives that he can't pronounce because he doesn't know what they are, don't buy it.
GIVE YOUR CHILD A CHOICE Talk to your child about what he or she likes and dislikes and what he or she might want for supper in the coming week. Involving your child will lead to less conflict over food.
Text copyright © 2007 by Annabel Karmel