lifelong skills of healthy cooking

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I’ll admit it. I sometimes wait until my little ones are either napping or at school so that I can make dinner like a normal person. Preparations are quick and easy and the cooking is done safely. But mess, danger and lots and lots of experimenting are what goes on when I’m cooking with kids.

It’s true that most parents are too busy to cook with their children but everyone must find a time to do it anyway, even if it’s only once a week. And I will absolutely not accept the excuse that kids make too much mess or it’s dangerous to give kids peelers or knives. They need to learn how to use kitchen tools eventually, wouldn’t it be best if they learn in the safety of their home with parents or caregivers to teach the child how to use the gadgets properly?

Learning how and what to cook is an essential life skill. Do you think most adults remember long division? Or every president or prime minister? Or the periodic table? But how many adults know how to cook healthy meals for themselves or their families? Teaching young people how to cook is imperative. Granting children admittance to the kitchen allows them to learn lifelong skills of healthy meal preparation.

You don’t need to be a super chef to teach a child how to make a healthy meal. Start with healthy ingredients, preferably that you choose together (broccoli, carrots, salmon and brown basmati rice for instance). Then discuss the plan (steamed broccoli and carrots, baked salmon with a thin spread of miso and lemon juice sauce, and rice with sauteed onions added). Then start cooking. Kids learn just by watching and doing, so let them get involved with whatever they’re interested. It could be mixing the sauce and spreading it on the salmon, or measuring the rice and water, or trimming the broccoli, or peeling the carrots. And finally it’s time to eat together. The added bonus of children helping in the kitchen is that usually they want to eat what they’ve helped to create.

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what will you do with all the spare time?

IMG_5206Kids are natural actors. Their adorable pouty quivering lips can get anything out of us. That’s why so many parents find themselves making 4 different meals for dinner every night. It’s an assembly line. 3 plates. 3 orders. No onions or mushrooms in that one, this one can’t have any of the foods touching and the third has white pasta with white cheese. Sound familiar? Now you all sit down to eat, albeit 30 minutes late since it takes so long, and you’re just pooped. What would happen if you said calmly “this is what’s for dinner. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. It’s mealtime now and later there will not be anything else available”?

 
I’ll tell you what: anything from whining, screaming and flinging of anything green. It will take getting used to, but the payoff is incredible. Less stress for you. Healthier meals for them. Better attitude as adults towards trying new things.

 
Going to bed hungry is OK sometimes. It reminds kids that there is no second dinner, even if they don’t eat the first dinner with the rest of the family. Eventually children learn that they’re part of a team. No one gets special treatment. Everyone is included. Kids set the table, stay at the table, eat some of their meal and clear their dishes, just like all of the adults in attendance (I hope). This built-in approach to food and eating doesn’t allow much room for pickiness, whining or petitioning for treats.

 
Are you rolling your eyes right now (or muttering some words that I am too polite to type)? No household gets it perfect every time. In fact just last week I found my three year old stuffing Swiss chard under his chubby legs. He tells me “I ate it Mummy”. Not a good day to be wearing shorts. According to Natalie Rigal, a psychologist and author of Winning the Food Fight, Neophobia (food rejection) is normal. It’s what you do with that food rejection that matters.

And what you do is stay neutral. IT’S NO BIG DEAL. Kids control 2 things: what goes in and what comes out (or, at least where it comes out). So if they feel that meal time is becoming a power struggle then they will do anything to gain control. Remain calm but firm. No substitute meals. If you’re serving cauliflower soup, they’re having cauliflower soup. And if they don’t want it, then they don’t eat it.

Now what will you do with all of your spare time, since you’re not making 3 dinners every night anymore?

Want to read more? Here’s my opinion about “Kid’s Meals”

dashing through the snow…and rain

IMG_2502This winter challenge your family to brave the cold and stay active all season. Use these tips to prevent boredom outdoors.

When my oldest son was about 6 months old I began a morning ritual of opening the blinds to check the weather (mostly for his benefit, because in Vancouver you can almost guarantee that it’s raining). I decided that the only way he’ll learn to appreciate and even enjoy the rain, is if I appreciate and enjoy the rain, so I began to cheer whenever we looked out the window and saw drizzling skies. Well, now he’s 6 years old, and this summer, on a typical rainy day, he blurted “Yay, it’s raining! It’s perfect weather for radishes!”

How often do you hear parents say, “no you can’t play outside, it’s raining”? When on earth did this become a normal thing to say? OK, maybe if you live in Xiamen where the acid rain is corroding buildings. But Canada? If you’re scared of the rain or snow, your kids will be too. And they’ll be hard pressed to meet the minimum 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity recommended for Canadian kids. According to Statistics Canada, only 7% of Canadian children met the 60 minute guidelines from 2007 to 2009. It’s time to challenge yourself to embrace the elements. And, for goodness sake, go out and get some waterproof coats and boots, and do whatever you normally do outside, anyway!

Bored of jumping in puddles and building snowpeople? Here’s a list of other outdoor activities to try in the cold:

  • Start a collection. Of anything. Kids love to run around and see how many rocks, leaves, sticks, snowballs etc. they can find in a specific amount of time. The bonus here is that they now have ingredients for mud soup.
  • Stop at a playground right before or after school. Otherwise you “don’t have time” or “it’s not convenient”. Kids who play outdoors after school get an average of 2000 more steps (that’s like walking an extra 2 km per day!) than kids who don’t. Playgrounds are often deserted once snow hits the ground but, so long as you’re careful not to slip on icy play-structures, they can offer a whole new and wonderful landscape to explore.
  • Make a family goal of tracking how often, & how far, you walk … to school, to work or to grocery shop. Compete with one another for most miles traveled!
  • Go old-school: Play tag, hide and seek, what time is it Mr. Wolf?, family soccer or other well-known games to get everyone running around. Make sure that everyone gets a turn choosing which game will be next. Many of these are extra fun and challenging in the pouring rain or driving snow!
  • Visit a park with an obstacle course and do it three times together (your preschooler might need help with the chin-ups). Just make sure no one licks the bars.
  • Go to the beach to run near the waves (or frozen water!) and make snowy sandcastles. For real – try it!
  • Try a wintery picnic. Pack thermoses of warm drinks and some healthy treats, then hike into the woods (or a local park) to look for the perfect spot. Try looking for birds or anything frozen; ponds, leaves and berries look magical when they’re sparkling with ice.
  • Enlist the help of your little ones to rake leaves, shovel the driveway, and carry groceries. This is possible – just act like it’s normal and expected that everyone is part of the team.

When you’ve exhausted outdoor options, or just want to play inside, then there’s always jumping on the bed, playing hide and seek and building blanket forts. Coloring, reading and playing board games are certainly enriching, but make sure you balance these with physical activities.

eat your veggies

Love my Veggies 2It’s the old Hide-The-Vegetables-In-The-Meal trick. You add blended cauliflower to cheese sauce, or beets in your chocolate brownies. But hiding vegetables can have unfavorable consequences. While your child is getting nutrients, they won’t know a vegetable when they see one and will likely continue avoiding them. For really young kiddies it’s best to serve produce in it’s true form, meaning raw, diced tomatoes or roasted cauliflower pieces. Anything that actually looks like what it is.

For older kids that run away like maniacs with their hair caught on fire when you even mention the word “Vegetable”, let alone serve it at the table, a bit of hiding in combination with slow introduction may be necessary. What this means is that while you can continue mixing in baby food carrot puree into your pasta sauce, you also want to serve a dinner that your child has accepted in the past with the addition of a visible vegetable and encourage the “try everything rule”. Try everything means just one bite. If they don’t want anymore then remain neutral and just say something like “maybe you’ll want more next time”.

Another option is to add discernible vegetables to a dish that is already on the approved list. Like make the usual pizza, but add a few pieces of steamed broccoli under the shredded cheese. If your little one starts to pick it off, remind them of the “try one bite” rule, and if they want to pick off the rest then fine, “maybe next time you’ll appreciate this big-girl pizza topping”. When kids realize that vegetables are cool and that big people eat them, they might feel more inclined to try them.

By the way, if you run away screaming when you see Swiss chard, chances are little Johnny will not go near it with a ten foot pole.

Other tips:

– Serve veggies first. If kids aren’t snacking around the clock, then they should be quite hungry by dinner time and are less likely to be finicky. Put a platter of fresh cut-up vegetables on the table while you finish the last few touches on the rest of the meal.

– Children like whole foods. They’re more fun to eat. Like a whole bell pepper, a whole mini cucumber or a whole tomato. Just wash and give it to them whole (I don’t need to warn you people about choking hazards, do I?)

– When cooking veggies, steaming or roasting will retain nutrients better than boiling.

– Include children in the veggie-choosing process. Kids like being in charge so take them shopping and let them choose which vegetables will be eaten for dinner.

– Grow your own vegetable garden and let the kids pick and eat what they want (check out what we’ve got in our garden).

monster radishes

IMG_4343Our little garden is coming along nicely. We’ve made great progress since planting (read an unexpected surprise). I was under the impression that radishes were petite, elegant vegetables. Not in our backyard. The radishes here are monster-vegetables that have thorns and huge scary-looking leaves that are taller than the kids. They’ve taken over the garden and it looks like some kind of unkempt mini forest in there. The poor beets and cauliflower, I don’t know how they’ll survive. But these unsightly radishes seem to be edible. At least, nothing has happened to us. Yet.

It seems our adventures in gardening will never end. That’s the beauty of planting your own food. It’s unpredictable and there’s no way to know which veggies will grow, which will die, or which will become beastly things.

a cheesy idea

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String cheese anyone? Not me. At the moment we have 6 kinds of cheese in the fridge, ranging from parmesan to feta. How do you expect your kids to grow up and attend wine and cheese parties if they never try anything more exciting than good old mozzarella. Well, maybe not old. The answer is that it’s unlikely. I mean they will grow up, but it’s unlikely that they’ll attend wine and cheese parties. Host a mini cheese tasting party with your kids and let them explore the different flavors. If they don’t like one, just keep neutral and say something like “maybe the next time you try it you’ll like it a bit more”. Describing the flavors and textures is also a fun way for growing connoisseurs to learn the ropes.

And I must say, James Beard’s take on cheese is thoroughly indubitable:

I am grateful to have learned young that cheese has an important place in a menu. It isn’t something to serve with apple pie, and it isn’t something to cut into nasty little cubes and serve with crackers. Early in life I learnt to see the beauty of great slabs or rounds of cheese on the table, and I still respond to the sight of a well-stocked cheese tray properly presented. Cheese must have warmth and time to soften. Too many households and too many restaurants ruin every bit of their cheese by keeping it under constant refrigeration. Cheese that is served cold and hard is not fit for consumption.

From Delights & Prejudices by James Beard

time to get dirty

gardeningDo you have a garden? Does it flourish and provide your family with an abundance of fresh produce every spring, summer and fall? Well good for you. Can’t say that I’ve had that experience, but this year I really am going to plant an elaborate garden. Or at least a garden. I can’t guarantee the elaborateness of it. We have a petite, rectangular spot in the backyard that has the potential to sprout many wholesome goodies, but I fear that my thumbs are not very green. They’re more pinky-orange, if you will. Last year, with similar intentions, we started slow. My kids and I dug up the roots of who-knows-what (actually, I know what. A lot of pretty things and yummy-looking things from the previous owners, but who cares! Now we can start fresh and plant what we want!).

The next step proved to be challenging. My only previous experience in planting anything ended tragically when I was pregnant with such terrible nausea and fatigue that I couldn’t even bring myself to walk across our [very large] yard and check on the stupid tomatoes. But I kept telling my son that they weren’t ready because I could see from the window that they were still orange, and that they needed to turn red before we could pick them. They stayed orange for a month. Low and behold I dragged myself across the yard, weeks later, to discover that the tomatoes were moldy and squishy and I almost vomited just looking at them up close. Of course, I almost vomit looking at anything up close when I’m in the first trimester of pregnancy. Turns out I had planted heirloom tomatoes.

Back to our petite, rectangular spot in the backyard. Now the dirt is root-free and I have no idea what to do with it, so we buy seeds for corn, peas, beets, carrots and radishes. Only to find that the area fits just 3 types of veggies. The kids choose radishes, peas and corn, and at that point I give them the bags and let them plop the seeds wherever they choose. We did end up with a few homegrown radishes (shocking, yes) as well as two ears of overripe corn. Have no idea what happened to the peas.

This year I plan to start earlier by digging up the old roots now (not in April), getting some books from the library for gardening-for-dummies, and having another go at our family garden. Join me on this adventure: Choose an area to dig up in preparation for spring and research with your kids which vegetables you want to grow. One of the benefits of kids owning their own garden (or at least a spot) is that whatever grows there will usually get eaten. Even mysterious vegetation that you didn’t plant.