I am delighted to provide a guest post written by the Neil Welsh, all about cooking with our children! If you fancy some tips, read on!
Cooking for a family kind of creeps up on us… very, very slowly. One minute kids are demand feeding and then before we know it we find ourselves negotiating with a three year old about how many peas they are going to eat… whilst their sibling keeps getting down from the table to run off somewhere! Kids aren’t like other dinner guests who might join us for a meal, they do not respectfully eat foods that they might not be fond of and they can be brutally harsh in their criticism of even our best culinary efforts. To be fair, who could blame them? More often than not they are human guinea pigs. Very few parents have actually been taught how to cook for kids, we are just expected to kind of adapt what we used to cook and eat from our pre-kid days and making it appealing and nutritious for our new offspring; no easy task. Also, we are expected to understand the psychological warfare of the dinner table. Bribing with food may work in the short term but child psychologists are increasingly warning of the long term implications of rewarding with dessert.
So, how can we make cooking for young kids a success? Try these 10 simple hacks to make life in your kitchen better for all involved:
1. Don’t take things personally. We have all been there; we have lovingly crafted a meal, presented it to our kids only to have them turn up their nose. “How do you know you don’t like it if you have not even tried it!” It is hard but kids are irrational. Some days they will love a meal that the next day they will not even touch. It’s not you, it’s (usually) not your cooking. Take a deep breath and try to remain calm. Being calm is important as something younger kids may decline food as it results in them getting attention. It may be negative attention but it is attention none the less. Ideally, every meal should have an element that you know your child will eat but even if they do not want to eat anything, that is fine. Ensure the child stays at the table whilst everyone else eats (and they will often start eating too) and do not offer an alternative, you are not a short order cook! In general, feeding professionals would encourage parents to look at what the child has eaten over a 24-48 hour period, which is usually plenty. Don’t get blinkered into panicking that your child will become malnourished if they do not eat much of one meal.
2. Be realistic in your cooking. In this world of social media it is easy to see pictures of kids dinner that have been artistically served as a countryside scene with a tractor with homemade falafel wheels. Meals don’t need to be like that. On a day to day basis most parents do not have time for that sh!t. I also think that there is a strong argument that there is no benefit to kids in turning their meals into art. Food should look like food, not an owl. Keep it simple and, even better, have a list of “f#ck it” recipes. These are recipes that we use when we really can’t be bothered to cook. There is no shame in these; again it is important to have a long term eye on a child’s nutrition. Serving pesto pasta, etc. now and again does not make you a bad parent!
3. Use speed hacks. When it comes to actually cooking, cheat as much as possible. Little time savings tricks can add up and also make more complicated recipes seem less daunting. Buy pre-chopped garlic and ginger and keep them in the fridge. Keep loads of frozen vegetables in the freezer. Batch cook sauces and stocks and keep them in the freezer. Bag up and freeze leftovers for quick meals later. Spend a bit of money on simple kitchen gadgets that can save time and money. A burger press can make amazing burgers quickly and cheaply, a mandolin can speed up your chopping and make veg more interesting. Have simple “go to” slow cooker / one pot recipes.
4. Meal plan. Planning your meals can also save you time and money. Work out the number of meals that you need for the week, plan that number with a variety of meat, fish and veg meals and have those in the fridge ready to go. Don’t plan specific days, eat them in the order you want, meals are much more enjoyable that way. Don’t eat a curry on a Tuesday just because you thought it was a good idea on Sunday! Also keep a well stocked cupboard and a rolling shopping list to replenish anything that you might have used up.
5. Eat together and eat the same. In this day and age it is not always easy to eat as a family, but do so when you can. It may not be dinner every night, it may be breakfasts, or lunches or just at weekends but take the opportunities when you can. Research shows that there are some profound benefits of eating together, ranging from improvements in nutrition, improved family cohesion to better performances at school. Everyone eating the same cuts down on cooking time, is a great way to get kids to try new things and allows parents to be role models in eating. Don’t worry, this does not mean the end of spicy food! Arm your kitchen with condiments that can boost flavours. Mustards, wasabi, chilli sauces, olive tapenade, garlic mayo and flavoured oils can all transform a family meal. Herbs can also bring balance and freshness to many dishes.
6. Get them involved. Sometimes the last thing we want to hear in the kitchen are those three little words… “Can I help?”. This may not always/never speeds things up in the kitchen but kids will often eat more of a meal they have helped to prepare and it also helps them to understand the food they eat. In addition, they learn about weighing and measuring and maths and physics and develop fine motor skills… and how to clean up broken eggs.
7. No snacks within an hour of a meal. To give kids the best chance of being hungry at dinner and eating as much of what you have prepared as possible then ban snacks within an hour of dinner and allow water only to drink. One caveat here is that if your kids are genuinely “starving”, then allow then to eat off the chopping board. If they start their dinner a little early then it is not a problem. Bits of veg, cheese, cooked meat, etc. can all be picked at!
8. Avoid brand loyalty. When it comes to mealtimes, different should be the norm. Everything we make will be slightly different, even if we use the same recipes. From fajitas to stir frys and roasts, there will be slight differences in tastes and textures and smells and that is great for kids. One of the few times that those differences are lost are when machines make the food. Now, this is not the part when I say that we should never feed our kids processed food, that is often just not practical but avoiding the same brands every time will help kids get used to different tastes and textures.
9. Make it nice to eat. “Nice to eat” does not just come down to flavour. Sometimes a kid’s resistance to eat can often come down to the fact that it food can just a bit tricky to eat. “I don’t like it” can often actually mean “It is hard to chew / cut / stab with a fork”. Sometimes portions might be overwhelming. Sometimes kids might just be really tired at the end of the day. Try to make food simple to consume. Bite size pieces of meat for kids are great. Allowing them to serve themselves allows them to take responsibility for how hungry they feel (within reason) and can help develop important chopping and spooning skills. Try not to save all the nutritional foods for dinner, look at ways to get protein (often neglected with kids) etc. in at other times of the day.
10. Set the scene – Try to have a regular time for dinner and, as discussed, try to get everyone to eat together and eat the same as much as possible. Turn screens off. No phones and no tv… just for a little bit! Drink water. Be comfortable (make sure kids chairs are the right height, etc.). Chat. Have no pressure to eat what you don’t want. Make sure everyone stays until the end and then everyone helps to clear up… if they can operate a smart phone then they can put spoons in a dishwasher!
There is a lot of info here, some of which I have only touched on and that could have been a whole post in itself, so I have a little something for you! I have written an Ultimate Guide to Nutrition for mums with young kids. It contains more info on how to get kids to eat the food you want them too as well as great advice on how to look and feel great eating food that your kids will love. Check it out at www.neilwelshnutrition.com/ultimate-guide/