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Can kids be foodies? With practice

kelsie dewar

My 8-year-old nephew’s favorite foods are oysters and squid ink pasta, which he lovingly refers to as “black noodles.” On the other end of the spectrum, my niece, 7, thinks lettuce is spicy.

While I’m impressed with my nephew’s already refined palate and love for food, I must admit, when I was a kid, I ate much more like my niece. White rice slathered with butter? Chicken tenders with ketchup? Perfectly acceptable, well-rounded meals in my child mind. Mushrooms? Onions? Seafood? Absolutely repulsive.

My mom would make me sit at the kitchen table for hours, sticking to her “you must at least try it” rule. I’d whine and scheme ways around this, like slipping food scraps to my dog or complaining of a belly ache. My attempts usually failed, but sometimes she’d relent for survival’s sake. I cringe at these memories now and wish someone would have been successful in their attempts to open my eyes to the world of good food I was missing out on.

As I watch these two little spitfires and their younger siblings grow, and as I wade through pregnancy expecting a child of my own, I think about these scenarios quite often: How can I help to build on my nephew’s love for food? How can I encourage my niece to branch out and try new things? How will I approach food with my own little one upon their entrance into this crazy world?

In my role at the Marquette Food Co-op, I’ve had the pleasure of working with children in our teaching kitchen and at off-site events. While I’m obviously no expert, I’ve picked up a few valuable bits of information that are worth sharing; things I’ll put to the test on my own children someday.

Actively involve them. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do to establish a healthy relationship with kids and food is to get them involved in the preparation. Kids are more likely to eat something they’ve prepared themselves, since they get to see the work that goes into it and develop a sense of ownership over it. As humans, we tend to value things more and take pride in them if we’ve put the hard work into creating them ourselves. Refusal to eat certain foods doesn’t always have to do with taste of preference — sometimes it can be about control. Kids, even when small, want to feel like they have a say. Why not let them have some input as to what goes on their plate?

Set an example. They say, “we are what we eat.” Well, kids, more often than not, mirror the actions of their parents, and what you consume is no exception. They are what you eat, too, so help them develop healthy habits early by choosing nutritious foods and teaching them what a balanced diet looks like.

Cultivate acceptance and an open mind. One of my favorite “rules” in the Co-op kitchen is “Don’t Yuck My Yum,” based off the children’s book of the same title by Amy Pleimling. It doesn’t feel great when you sit down with a delicious plate of food and someone takes one look and yells out “GROSS!” It’s a bad habit that many people have, without even realizing the implications.

I remember one particular instance where this really shines. During a smoothie demo with a dozen or so pre-K children, I poured out samples of a green smoothie consisting of kale, apples, bananas and oranges. Before taking a sip, one child — very loudly — said to all the others, “that looks absolutely DISGUSTING!” Kids who had the cup an inch away from their mouths slowly brought it back down to the table and pushed it away from them. It’s a hard sell after that. It’s not just kids, either. I’ve seen so many adults do this as well. What we say about food, especially when talking negatively about it, can influence the food choices of those around us. With this in mind, I think it’s really important to talk to children positively about food, helping to foster and open mind and acceptance of the food choices of others.

Exposure is everything. Nutrition science research suggests it can take multiple, repeated exposures to certain foods before kids start to look at them favorably. It obviously didn’t work for my mom, but remember that exposure can mean many things. Don’t just plop a pile of broccoli on a plate in front of them. Make it fun! Have conversations about food with your kids — talk to them about where food comes from and its nutritional value, start a home garden, show them the ingredients in the store, watch food shows on TV, prepare several recipes (with your kid’s help) using the same ingredient in different ways.

There are many great things happening locally that can help introduce kids to nutritious food or deepen their existing knowledge. There’s a wonderful program at the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market called the “Power of Produce” that provides a fun opportunity for children to engage with farmers and learn about locally grown food. Kids can also earn Power of Produce Bucks that they can spend at the market. If you want to go directly to the farm, there’s an upcoming opportunity for that as well. Every year, the Co-op coordinates free tours of local farms throughout the Upper Peninsula so members of the public can find out where their food comes from, learn how it’s grown or raised, and meet the farmers who are dedicated to providing our area with fresh, quality food. This year, eight farms are participating, with dates set for August 18 and September 15. For more information, visit www.marquettefood.coop.

As we were squeezing limes to make fresh limeade at our cabin rental last week, my nephew looked me in the eyes, glanced down at my growing baby bump, then back up. He let a huge sigh out and said, “you better not just let that kid get by on chicken nuggets or else they’re really going to be missing out.” My response was, “I’ll try my best, bud.” He didn’t seem too satisfied with that answer, but it’s all we can do. I don’t have all the answers, and the list above is definitely not exhaustive. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to food, and many different factors will affect the type of eater your kid is – personality, desired independence/parental control or guidance, social influences, environment, etc. While we can guide our kids and teach them what we know about the world, they’re still their own person. I’m looking forward to experimenting during parenthood to find out what works best for my family, using some of the tips above to guide me along.

Editor’s Note: Kelsie Dewar is the Publicity Coordinator at the Marquette Food Co-op. She loves all things food, and enjoys reading, writing, photography and exploring the great outdoors in her free time. Kelsie can be reached at kdewar@marquettefood.coop.