Mealtimes in homes with small children are often fraught, since pint-sized eaters can be outsized critics. “It tastes yucky!” they may proclaim. Or: “Why don’t you ever make what I like?” And: “What’s this icky green stuff?”
Cookbook author Dunja Rieber, a mother of two, is well-versed in preparing healthy meals for fussy kids. To get them to warm up to veggies, she says, they just have to get used to the slightly bitter taste. So what helps?
“Whatever tones down the taste,” she explains.
Add some cream cheese or cream to vegetable soup, for example. Blend mangoes or potatoes into pumpkin puree, and serve kohlrabi with cheese dip.
“Braise vegetables in the oven,” Rieber also suggests. “This in particular releases lots of sweet aromas.”
Preparing a batch of colourful veggie chips takes 40 minutes, she says, but you’re only really busy for just 15 of those. In Rieber’s recipe, the sweet potato, carrot and parsnip chips are served with plain yogurt and a walnut dip.
Cooking for young children isn’t rocket science, she says. “You can prepare healthy meals with no more than five or six ingredients. Little work, lots of flavour – that’s what it’s all about.”
Involve your child when out shopping
Rather than trying to force or cajole a child to eat something, Rieber advises doing things that set the stage for healthy meals: Buy fresh produce, let the child make some selections in the supermarket’s fruit and vegetable section, prepare the meals yourself and eat at the table together.
“If you set a good example, children will follow it – not right away, but little by little,” she says.
Experimenting with foods is helpful too, she points out. A child can get acquainted with something like carrots in many ways: raw – with or without dip, grated, cooked, steamed with butter or in a smoothie mixed with fruit.
“Vegetables can be blanched, oven-roasted or pureed,” Rieber says. “Once a child has experienced a certain taste, there’s a better chance they’ll try it sometime in different variations.”
If a child doesn’t like sandwiches as a morning snack, mixed drinks are a good alternative. One option is to take a cup of yogurt or milk, add some strawberries and one or two tablespoons of oat flakes.
Be flexible, not dogmatic
Peter Gehlmann is another cookbook author who has given thought to how to keep kids happy at mealtimes. As a father of seven, he knows how challenging that can be. In childhood he was told to eat what was on his plate, but coercion and dogma have no place at his family’s table today.
“If a child really isn’t hungry in the morning, they simply take their breakfast with them to the creche or school,” Gehlmann says. “Bread, fruit, pancakes – there are so many options. We don’t ruin the start of a child’s day by putting them in a bad mood.”
Dr Mathilde Kersting, head of the Department of Research on Child Nutrition at Ruhr University Children’s Hospital in Germany, agrees it’s important that children enjoy meals.
“Eating is something pleasant,” she says. “When family members gather for meals, the focus should be on enjoyment, not the strained pursuit of nutritional value.”
Some children go through phases in which they suddenly dislike a food they previously ate, she notes, advising parents to react to this with equanimity. She says they should calmly – but persistently – reoffer the rejected food at regular intervals.
“And don’t give up too soon!”