By Mareya Ibrahim, The Fit Foodie
Founder, eatcleaner.com and co-inventor, Eat Cleaner Food Wash + Wipes
There aren’t many things we need in life to survive. Yet, there is one essential element that can imprint your DNA, and that is food. It is our lifeline. The truth is, it can completely change your destiny and those around you, and the fork in the road is what you choose to put in your mouth.
Knowing how to cook healthy foods may just be one of the most important survival skills we can nurture in our children. Our grab-n-go society might advocate convenience and ease – to have it your way and to lick your fingers while you’re at it – but at what price? When we sacrifice this attachment to intentional eating, we can lose our health, our identities, our culture, our traditions and a chance to bond with each other. We are no longer in control of what goes into our bodies.
“I don’t have time to cook…or eat.
“Eating healthy is expensive”
“My family won’t eat vegetables”
“My kids are fussy eaters”
“I don’t know how to make veggies taste good.”
Calorie for calorie, veggies are the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, meaning that you will get more phytonutrient – aka cancer-preventing, anti-aging, bone-building, skin-loving and blood-boosting – support than you could drum up in any other food group. Duh! That’s why everyone in the world has told us to eat our veggies. Dr. Joel Fuhrman created a system of ranking the densest based on a calorie to nutrient ratio, and it no surprise that the top 10 foods are green.
We all know they’re good for us, so why don’t we suck them down like a milkshake and excuse pizza as one? The problem very well could be that we get in our own way. The perceptions that they’re cumbersome, expensive, hard to make taste good and all the other inconveniences we conjure up come from our entry into the world as a 2 year-old. It’s about that time when we start making choices, and letting them be known, punctuated by foot stomps and tantrums. Our parents either listened to us and let us rule the roost or they kept trying until we got over ourselves. That pivotal time shaped us to the kind of people we are today.
*Chart of most nutrient dense foods, Dr. Joel Fuhrman
So what’s the best gift you can give yourself and your family? Vegucation. Teaching them how to love veggies, especially the green ones, nurtured by helping them flex the strongest muscle in their bodies – their tongue. It will help their health, their palates and ultimately aid them in becoming well-rounded citizens of the world. Ok, maybe this is stretching it a little but I don’t think so. There’s a direct correlation between a good diet and genius. Just take a look at this list of famous veggie lovers:
- Benjamin Franklin
- Mohandas Gandhi
- Coretta Scott King
- Thomas Alva Edison
- Albert Einstein
- Jane Goodall, PhD
- Steve Jobs
- George Bernard Shaw
- Leo Tolstoy
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Franz Kafka
- Paul McCartney
- Cesar Chávez
- Rosa Parks
- Fred Rogers (“Mister Rogers”) – my hero
In order to raise good eaters, we have to start with our own baggage, and come to terms with any pre-conceived notions we may have. No vegetable should make people cry. And no influential people, including a former president, should be popularized for inane comments about things like broccoli. Veggie haters need to kindly pound sand and stay out of your way because your mission is to get the good stuff into their mouths and help them thrive. If you’re saying to yourself right now, good luck, you don’t know my kids. Oh hell yes I do.
My son was a phenomenal eater as a baby. He’d slurp up his sweet potatoes and pound his peas. Apples were his favorite and he’d down the pureed pears and plums like a champ. I’d mix them with bananas, wheat cereal and even a little in his milk. When he turned 2, things got a little more challenging. Children have the ability to express their disdain for foods at a very early age and they show it by spitting it out, throwing it across the room and painting the walls, the carpet and the walls with it. That was my son. Anything green flew from his mouth in a projectile explosion that left us both crying. I could’ve taken that rejection and appeased him with something sweet. I kept trying. Now, my son is my little chef in the kitchen and loves to be part of the process – and eats a good variety of veggies but it’s taken years of work. Taste buds are like muscles. They need to be conditioned, tested and strengthened so that they can take on new flavors. Studies show that it can take up to 20 times of trying a food before a child has truly developed a taste for it but it requires some creativity and patience as parents instead of the easy, fast food route or tap out.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your child left to their own devices will likely not have the brain capacity to pick what’s best for them. You’re in control and the ultimate decision maker. You have to be their ‘frontal lobe’ as America’s favorite brain doctor and child psychologist Dr. Daniel Amen says.
Why we slip down the rainbow
Most babies experience a variety of fruits and vegetables as some of their earliest food experiences. When our little ones start making the transition to solid food, they start with fruit and veggies – peas, carrots, spinach, green beans, you name it. Yet, somehow, from that point until they reach children’s menu age, the color fades from the plate like a person about to faint. From a palette of red, orange, green, purple and blue, we introduce white to brown food and somehow forgot all the gorgeous colors we once had. Hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fried this or that. By this point, kids and parents almost get conditioned to accept that as the norm. Why do we slip down the rainbow to the point of no palate return?
Neophobia, or fear aroused by new foods, is a common syndrome. All omnivorous animals are scared to try the unknown. Between the ages of 2 and 10 years old are the worst – and between 4 and 7 years, children usually only agree to taste something unknown to them if they are strongly encouraged, not threatened. The good news is neophobia can be overcome with education and consistency. If they don’t miss a beet, they would never know that veggies are vilified by adults whose parents let go of the wheel. Now, if you let off the gas and don’t support their veggie-filled existence, the reintroduction of those bitter and umami flavors will become much harder later. If you were the kid who never wanted to try anything new, and your parents were ok with that, your palate, or maybe your spouse’s, is reminiscent of a 4 year-olds. You know who you are. You gravitate to peanut butter and jelly on white bread, gummy worms and cocoa puffs. Perhaps some reconditioning is in order for the whole family?
This idea of kids not having the tastebuds for certain foods isn’t a matter of where they were raised, it’s how they were fed. It only takes looking around the world to see how what other kids eat for a traditional breakfast, for example. In Japan, it’s sea vegetables, rice and raw fish. In China, it’s congee, a rice porridge that can be seasoned with mushrooms and pork. In Egypt, it’s stewed brown fava beans with hummus, tahini and pita bread with pickled turnips. In Sweden, they’ll have slabs of whole grain cracker bread with slices of cheese, pate and pickles. In Spain, it’s bread rubbed with garlic and tomato. In India, it might be a tofu scramble or dal with chapattis. In Australia, you can get your Vegemite on toast. In Mongolia, the day wouldn’t start on the right foot without boiled mutton. In Uganda, it’s stewed bananas and cow organs. In the Bahamas, a plate of spicy prawns and grits is the breakfast of champions. In Mexico, you’re getting chilaquiles or machaca. And in Peru, ceviche made with raw, marinated seafood is a typical starter for the day. In the U.S., you can get your eggs and bacon, pancakes, cereal, oatmeal, Danish, muffins, waffles, grits, beignets, corned beef hash and all of the above.
The same child who grew up eating sea vegetables and raw fish in Japan can acclimate to the sugary U.S. diet in a heartbeat but to go the opposite way takes a little more persuasion and time. There’s a strong physiological reason for getting your brain involved. You don’t have to be a doctor to figure out why we tend to crave sweet and salty things the most. Just look at where those taste buds sit on the tongue! They’re hanging out right up front, waiting to dip their sassy little buds into syrup, waffles and pancakes with a bacon and corned beef hash chaser. Sweet and salty come naturally. By developing the bitter and umami taste buds that love foods like spinach and the greens family, celery, seaweed, citrus, fish, mushrooms and tomatoes, you unlock a whole world of health and wellness and that’s the muscle we’re trying to pump up.
The best way to get them on board is to get them working. I love teaching kids cooking classes. When I ask for volunteers to help me at the ‘chef’s table,’ everyone’s hands go up. They have such a desire to help, be creative and be a part of the process. They have no qualms adding in handfuls of spinach into a sauce or throwing broccoli into a sauté. Studies confirm that one of the most important ways of getting children to make sound food choices is involving them in the process. A child will be much more apt to try something if they’ve picked it or helped to prepare it. As much of a challenge it can be to haul your kids to the store or the farmer’s market, it’s a critical part of their connection to what you’re feeding them.
When my daughter was 1, I’d sit her in the front of the cart and hand her different fruit and veggies and recite the name so she could repeat it, hold it, smell it. By the age of 3, I would hand her a bag and ask her to pick a few of her favorite fruits and when we got home, I’d be sure to have her help wash it and we’d immediately cut it up so she could try it. That’s blooming pride on display. It seems so simple but there’s something about perception and the effort she took in picking just the right ones and if she did it, well of course she was going to try it. Recently, I made purple sweet potato gnocchi with a 2-year old and the first sentence I ever heard her put together on her own was uttered – ‘I made that’. Yes, she made that and boy was she proud of it. And yes, she inhaled it, too. Now, that is empowering.
Belly-up to the kitchen bench
Give them a task: A child will be much more apt to try something if they’ve picked it or helped to prepare it. Let them take part in the process, whether it’s picking, washing the veggies, pushing the blender ‘on’ button or mixing them into a sauce.
Let them pick: As much of a challenge it can be to haul your kids to the store or the farmer’s market, it’s a critical part of their connection to what you’re feeding them. They don’t have much say in anything, but here, they can have some choice. Kids have a valid interest in being part of the shopping and cooking experience. Help feed their curiosity with small tasks.
Gear them up: Kids love ‘dress-up’ and little chefs love to assume the role. Give them an apron and maybe even a little chef’s hat to get them excited about their role is a great strategy. Take lots of pictures. These will make for great conversation with their future boyfriends and girlfriends.
Grow your own: I’ve never met a child who isn’t interested in digging in the dirt, so introducing them to gardening is a fantastic activity. There’s something about seeing the fruit of your labor sprout that is like a miracle for kids, and they will be fascinated by the idea of growing their own food. Windowsill herbs are a cinch – and if I can grow them with no green thumb skills, you can too. Another life skill that will pay off in spades.