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How to Help Your Child Enjoy Cooking and Eating Healthy Food

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It’s never been easier to order cooked meals delivered to your door, and reaching for microwavable-ready meals can be very tempting when supermarket shopping. While turning to these easy options may solve time issues, they present other challenges, not the least of which is health.

As every parent knows, getting your child to eat healthy food at some point becomes a challenge. And it doesn’t help that when eating out, the children’s menu is invariably processed meat or fish covered in breadcrumbs and served with french fries. If they are offered a choice of vegetables, it’s unlikely to be more diverse than peas or baked beans.

Here are a few tips to tackle resistance to healthier plates of food.

Encourage them to smell before tasting

In my experience, parents always say, “You have to taste this; it’s yummy”. But the whole experience of cooking and eating starts with the smell. The chances are that the mention of curry or freshly baked bread triggers the memory of a smell before a taste. Aromas are incredibly important in cooking.

 If a person, particularly a child, doesn’t like the smell, they will say no. But if a child likes the smell, they will be more willing to eat what they have made (even if they might otherwise be put off by something such as the colour or texture). 

It takes a while before a child likes a type of food

It took my son five years before he started eating avocado. It doesn’t smell of anything and has a strange texture, but he got there in the end. You may have to experiment with a certain ingredient many times before your child is ready to start eating it. It took the introduction of humous before my son accepted the idea of chickpeas in their regular form. 

So, if a child is not keen to try a particular food, try presenting it in different forms. There are loads of interesting and fun meal ideas online to help you serve it in a new way. Plus, if you’re short on time, there are even services that offer special meal delivery for vegetarians straight to your door. Give it a try and see if they change their mind!This works particularly well for children who do not like vegetables, as most veggies can be prepared and presented differently. The courgette is a great example. Plain boiled courgettes are pretty uninspiring, but you can try so many options: fried courgette, grated courgette, spiralised courgette with a tomato sauce, courgette puree, steamed courgettes with aromatic herbs, even courgette and chocolate cake. Once you have found your “gateway” version of a food, other versions become easier to sell. 

Give them a recipe book and let them choose a recipe

I tend to encourage this for younger children, although my pre-teen still likes to do this. Just have your child find a recipe they want you to cook; this is always easier when there is an image for each recipe. 

And if you want your child to eat healthy food, only have healthy recipe books on your shelves.  For example, if they pick out a dish like Creamy Cheesy Tortelloni, you can jazz up this recipe with ingredients bursting with goodness, fibre, and all the healthy stuff. This way, you not only cut down on calories but also make the dish much more nutritious. And remember, don’t hand them anything that includes deep-frying Mars bars.

Whatever your child chooses, please do not put them off it because you think they might not like it. That defeats the object of the exercise. You want to encourage them to embrace the whole recipe and not put them off trying it.

Take them to the supermarket 

You’d be amazed how many children I meet who cannot recognise simple fruits and vegetables. So, take your children’s food shopping for basic ingredients. Even if you shop online, show your children what you are buying, asking if they want to try a new fruit or vegetable.

If possible, I would highly recommend taking your kids to a local market, as they will then learn about seasonality: that you can’t buy (tasty) strawberries in winter, that tomatoes are cheaper in the summer when they are more abundant, that in autumn there is a lot of butternut squash to experiment with in the kitchen. 

Take them into the kitchen 

So many parents are put off cooking with their kids because they cannot face the ‘inevitable’ mess. But the more regularly you cook with your child, the tidier their cooking should get.

It’s important to get your child a good knife. Don’t be afraid of this. Accidents happen when knives are not sharp enough. The reason for this is the same for chefs: when we don’t have good knives, we apply too much force to the knife when using it, and that is when we get cut – children and adults alike.

Hobs and ovens and the risk of burns are another frightening element, but don’t put them off going anywhere near them for fear of a burn. explain how to know if your particular hob is hot and how hot it might be (this will vary depending on whether you use gas, electric, induction, etc.) Likewise with ovens, don’t default to “don’t open the oven, it’s hot!” Instead, teach them to open the oven from the side so they don’t get steam in their face, ensure they know how to use oven gloves and protect their arms when putting things in and taking things out of ovens.

Children can learn to make sensible, healthy food choices if taught about ingredients and cooking from a young age, but it is never too late to learn. And it is fun for them and you.

Florence Rabattet, chef and founder of En Cuisine.

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