Meeting Foodland Challenges for Young Families

April 21, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Cooking & Baking Hints, Diabetic Menu Item, Psychology of Food by Joyce Bunderson

A few days ago I spent about two hours with my hairdresser. It feels a little strange to call her my hairdresser; yes she’s the only one that has cut and highlighted my hair for the past 10 years. And the only time that we get together is when she’s working on my graying locks, but she’s really lots more than a hairdresser. She’s really a friend. She’s the age of my children, so she could be a daughter, but I’d have to say that she’s a dear friend that works on my hair. Her name is My Kel, and she’s a darling young mom of three little girls. Have you ever thought what it would be like to have a hairdresser for a mom? You should see the little girls; most days their hair looks like it could be in one of those hairstyle books for little girls. She’s quite the impressive mom – PTA leader, room mother for the oldest daughter, church volunteer, amateur photographer, part time hairdresser and scrap booker. All of you moms out there know that this is a very incomplete list – as it doesn’t include the garden, house decorating and cleaning, shopping, cooking and a hundred other hats that many moms wear.

The reason that I told you a bit about My Kel is that she always seems to me like the American Mom. She’s juggling so many things, being a wife and mother. One of them is being the nutritional gatekeeper, a term used by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. This week My Kel’s life and Dr. Wansink’s writing have come together in my life.

Please bear with me as I slow down just for a moment and describe what Wansink says about the nutritional gatekeeper-- the person that does most of the food shopping and meal preparation. He says that this person powerfully shapes what food gets eaten both inside and outside the house. Wansink has done decades of research about eating – fascinating research, one of the things that he has learned is that the nutritional gatekeepers don’t need to be great cooks/chefs. His research shows that if the nutritional gatekeeper just focuses on adding variety to their meals, they can have a great positive influence. His suggestions are: 1) Buy different foods, 2) try new recipes, including ethnic ones), 3) substitute different ingredients (mainly vegetables and spices) into favorite recipes, 4) take kids to the grocery store and let them choose a new, healthy food, or 5) visit authentic ethnic restaurants. (His disclaimer is that McDonald’s is not a Scottish restaurant.) He says that when a child develops a taste for a wide range of foods, healthy foods can be more easily substituted for less healthy ones. He says, even if the child does not adopt broccoli as their favorite food, he/she is more likely to eat it occasionally for dinner or with a low-calorie ranch dressing as a snack.

I know that some people have their hair done and are quiet, but My Kel and I talk the entire visit. She’s an interesting conversationalist – she enjoys reading and is a person who will be a lifelong learner – always learning something new.

I guess that it never became so crystal clear to me how challenging it is to make food changes in a young family. My Kel described to me how she and her husband are happy eating ‘real food – whole food.’ But the three little girls really prefer chicken nuggets, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. My heart just went out to her, knowing how difficult it can be to make a big change midstream with children. She really wants to cook nutritiously, but when the dinner hour approaches, she’s faced with thoughts of the struggles that she may face if she cooks just what would be healthy. Of course, there are the issues of last minute meals, and issues of developing a number of different recipes that use the same ingredients, so she won’t need to grocery shop everyday. One day recently, she essentially made three different dinners to accommodate, her husband, herself and the girls.

My Kel and her family are a perfect example of what’s happening in America; people are becoming aware of the impoverished processed and fast foods that we have become accustomed to eating. Many of us want to move away from that type of eating, but the convenience and taste (fat, salt and sugar) have us and our families stuck in a food seduction that’s not easy to escape. We’ve become dependent on the ease and familiar, seductive tastes of the processed foods and our lifestyles are built around that dependence. Let’s recognize it, but not give up. We can do something about it; maybe taking steps, like two or three cooking days per week and still depending upon the processed foods until the new skills and habits evolve to blot out most of the impoverished processed foods.

As a result of our last ‘hair day chat,’ I’ve decided to write this post and throw out some ideas from a Grandma, who of course, fed kids decades ago. I believe, if you’re having struggles with learning what Food Inc. is doing to our health, and at the same time feeling the pressure of the realization that you are the nutritional gatekeeper for your family the first and most important step is to strive to do a little planning; take it a step at a time. I’ll list some resources and some ideas below and maybe it will give you some ideas of where to start.

  • The first bit of information is to start as early as possible. Young children before age 2 or 3, are more willing to try new foods – even if they go through a persnickety stage, they are more likely to come back to the larger selection.
  • Even if a food is rejected, be persistent in presenting it again. You may have to serve a small tablespoon or two of certain foods before they will even try it.
  • Consider talking with children about taste buds ‘growing up’ – human tastes do actually change with age. Something like, ‘your taste buds are ‘X’ weeks or months older, so give it a try; you may discover that your taste buds have grown up some more.’
  • One technique is to use foods that your children already like; for example muffins, yogurt, eggs, pancakes – pumpkin or zucchini muffins; yogurt and fruit topping for pancakes, instead of syrup; scrambled eggs with shredded vegetables mixed in. We’ve published many recipes and suggestions in our past newsletters and blogs. One of the very first ones when we started the company was the suggestion to blend defrosted frozen strawberries with a little Delight and serve instead of a sugar syrup. Stir dried or fresh fruit into cereal (raisins, strawberries, bananas, dates).
  • Involving children in meal planning, is one of the ‘real magic’ solutions; it seemed to me that nothing got better ‘buy in’ for a meal than their involvement – start with making a grocery list with their help. As related to planning, Dr. Wansink has a very helpful rule; he calls it the ‘half-plate rule’; essentially it is: one-fourth for protein; one-fourth for starch; and one-half for salad or vegetables. That’s one place to start. If you strive to achieve this rule (I think it is a great one.) then you know that you want to increase the amount and variety that you put on the grocery-shopping list.
  • Involve the children in choosing a new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Having children helping to make the decision (buy in) really does work like magic. If they get to help prepare it too – ‘double magic!’
  • Involve children in growing a vegetable garden
  • Don’t have dessert at every dinner; consider dessert as a special occasion item or serve a fruit cup with dinner. If you use Dr. Grandma’s Muffins Your Way, consider it part of the meal. Dr. Grandma’s products don’t have sugar, or bad fats – consider it one or more whole grain servings.
  • As a parent, don’t become part of an emotional mealtime. Stay calm, ‘just say, “This is dinner.” If they don’t want to eat what you’ve prepared, let them leave the table. No substitutions, and no returning for a favorite snack or dessert. If you can’t watch them be hungry, offer some plain (not favorite) bread or food.
  • Don’t let children fill up on juice or pre-meal eating.

I’ll tell you one little story and then list some ideas that may help you create your own ideas.

My little story: When my children were young about 35 years ago, I was worried about them learning to eat vegetables. Their father did not like vegetables, so I feel that I had a valid concern. I would not introduce new vegetables at the dinner table, because I felt if their father rejected the vegetables, they would too. So I remember making myself a big plate of steamed vegetables (I am lucky that I grew up eating and liking vegetables.) All I did was put some frozen vegetables in the microwave. The children already had their lunch. But they would come over and ask what I was eating. I said that I was eating my lunch. Then invariably they would ask if they could have a bite. I shared – they all love vegetables. I never had a struggle with vegetables – lucky me.

Techniques to try:

I think that the most magic techniques that worked for me were the ones that involved the children. The following are some ideas, old and new, that may help you get the children involved. Not every single meal needs to be 100% nutritious – the idea is to start to get them excited about being involved. Remember, children feel involved even when they’re too young to be the main cook. Just pouring the ingredients into the bowl or pan makes them feel like they’re cooking.

  • Let them create mini pizzas. Whole wheat Sandwich Thins turned into mini pizzas; defrosted whole-wheat dough, flat bread or tortillas are also great options. Fruit pizza could be a special dessert day, strawberry cream cheese or yogurt for the sauce base.
  • Let them thread fruit onto skewers. Cut fruit into chunks. Some fruit like bananas, apples and pears stay whiter, if mixed with a juicy fruit like kiwi, lemon or orange. Fruits to try: banana, pineapple, red or green grapes, oranges, pears, peaches, apricots, kiwis, strawberries, apples, and mango.
  • They can skewer vegetables with or without meat pieces – broiled or grilled onto kabob sticks. Consider red peppers, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, onions, zucchini, yams or mushrooms.
  • Use yogurt for an apple, grape or vegetable dip – add a little herb flavoring or blended strawberries, for the fruit dip.
  • Blend zucchini or spinach into part of your pasta sauce
  • Serve vegetables as a stir-fry. If children decorate ‘placemats’ for Asian Night at home – more ‘buy in’.
  • Let them fill pita pockets, sandwich thins, and tortillas. If the children, help prepare the serving dishes with lettuce, slivered cabbage, tomatoes, meat, olives, yogurt, salsa, and so on, they may be more likely to try it.
  • Make toasted sandwiches with bread cut into shapes. See Lunch Punch Sandwich Cutters.
  • Have the children help you make homemade humus, great on tortillas, or as a substitute for sandwich spread, or salad dressing. Young children can’t do it all with a blender, but they can pour in the beans and ingredients and maybe even push the button when you say ‘now.’
  • Use mini rice cakes or popcorn cakes and let the children make stacked snacks with low fat strawberry cream cheese and slivers of banana or apple. Or try with applesauce instead of the cream cheese.
  • There are scores of recipes using the no-sugar added Muffins Your Way. Kids love them, even with vegetables (carrots, zucchini or yellow squash, pumpkin). See the recipes included in the package.
  • Cut little bits of food (mild sweet peppers, carrots, celery, broccoli) and allow the children to decorate or make silly faces on their sandwiches.
  • Cut whole wheat bread into ‘butterflies’. (Two triangles, connected in the middle.) The children can spread with humus and decorate with bits of vegetables or fruit to become beautiful butterflies.
  • Banana pops – put a half of banana on a stick; dip in yogurt, sprinkle with chopped nuts, or decorate with raisins, strawberries and other fruit.
  • Allow children to make a small salad for each member of the family. Supply ingredients like: grated carrots, peach halves, cherries, olives, lettuce leaves, cucumber pieces, raisins – they could create Raggedy Ann and Andy individual salads.
  • The children decorate a whole-wheat canvas (slice of toast) – you could even use toast points (diagonal halves) for the roof. They could have small broccoli spears (for trees), orange slices (for the sun), carrot or cucumber sticks (for windows and chimney), and strawberries for flowers. I’m sure that you can think of a hundred additional ideas.
  • Use defrosted frozen whole-wheat dough to make shapes – see Rhodes book ordering instructions below.
  • Make homemade fast food. Think chicken tenders (skinless, boneless chicken breast strips) sprinkle with rotisserie spice, a little lemon pepper or other favorite. A great way to replace ‘nuggets:’ Chicken tenders cook in such a flash in a little olive oil in a skillet.
  • Let the children put the add-ins into scrambled eggs. Chopped spinach, chopped zucchini, chopped peppers and so on.
  • Invite the children to help make rice cups or rice bowls. Brown rice is one of the easiest steps for children to take in an improvement direction.
  • Use lots of color.  Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are both a visual symbol of good nutritional content and a treat for the eyes.


One book that intrigues me is: The Top 100 Recipes for Happy Kids: Keep Your Child Alert, Focused, Active and Healthy (Top 100 Recipes For...)
(Paperback)  $9.95  If you go to this link and scroll down to the section called: ‘Customers who bought this item also bought…….. most are under $15 – lots of ideas; not all healthy, but you can make many of them healthy.

I have a book (I bought them for our children (to use with the grandchildren); it’s called Kids’ Ideas with frozen dough. It’s available from Rhodes for $9.95 in paperback, $14.95 for the hardcover. It’s such a terrific book for ideas to allow the children to get involved in cooking. You can order them online; look for the ‘shop’ tab and then click on ‘cookbooks’.

Another place to get some ideas is; many of their recipes are for sweet snacks, but they have some cute ideas that you could change to a healthier version with Delight.

I realize that it may seem to add to the time challenges that may already be substantial, but taking little steps to help your children have a better chance at health is worth the effort – small successes smooth the way to larger future ones. My advice would be not to try to do too much in one giant step. We live in a nutritional wilderness created by Food Inc., Government subsidies, and our own habits, but it’s possible to make huge improvements, that are really worthwhile. Send me a note – if there’s anything I can help with, I’d be glad to do what I can. One last bit of encouragement to become a great nutritional gatekeeper.  Your good work in this role of providing an improved and healthier menu, is that it increases the chance that the children will not get each and every little cold or flu that they are exposed to, and their brains and bodies will develop more as they are capable of doing.

My grandchildren love mandarin oranges and sunflower seeds in Old King Coleslaw salad – hope your children will too.