Have you ever noticed what is ON a Children’s Menu? If you don’t have small children, you may not be able to rattle off a list, but suffice it to say that the menus are incredibly similar from restaurant to restaurant. They generally include some combination of the following items, regardless of the ethnicity or fanciness of the restaurant in question:
Macaroni and Cheese
Chicken Fingers or Chicken Nuggets
Not exactly the healthiest or most varied fare for our littlest eaters. I will concede that nearly every child will eat (and moreover will really like!) these dishes given the opportunity, but I’m often left wondering why these are the only choices on kids menus! To me, it reinforces a widely-held belief that there are two types of food in this world – “Grown Up Food” and “Kid Food” – and I just don’t buy that.
As the mother of preschool age children, I’m often asked questions about how I get my own kids to eat healthfully. So many of my clients, friends, and family struggle with children who are either picky eaters or habitual snackers or reluctant eaters overall. The truth is, on certain days I could call my own children the same things…but I have a few principles that generally keep them eating healthy diets full of foods that nourish them.
Here’s what I do:
1) There’s no “Kids Menu” at our dinner table
I cook one meal for the family and the kids can either eat it or not…but I don’t make separate food for them. Since we’ve done this since their very first meals, they don’t know any other way so they agree to this pretty readily. I may “deconstruct” our meal so that they have slices of grilled chicken and mandarin oranges if we are having an Asian Chicken Salad, but I simply won’t prepare different food for them.
2) I put at least one KNOWN hit on their plate at each meal.
To help with the first principle, I make sure that there is at least one thing on their plates that I know they love at each meal. While they then at least try everything, when they don’t love ALL of their dinner, there is something healthy there to fill their bellies.
3) I don’t have a “Clean Your Plate” rule.
Since I’m constantly introducing new flavors and textures at the dinner table, and since it’s unlikely they’ll love everything I ask them to try, I don’t force them to completely finish their lunch or dinner plate. When they are full, they stop, and that’s cool with me! The beauty of this is that they stop eating when they are full…even on nights when one of their favorites is on the table! I’m far more interested in training them to listen to their bodies for fullness cues than I am in policing them while they reluctantly choke down those last bites of potatoes. Kids will not starve themselves. Trust me. They may not be hungry when we want them to eat a meal, but when they get later, they will eat healthful, nutritious food if it is what is offered to them.
4) I use condiments like catnip and kids dishes like art canvases.
All kids LOVE LOVE LOVE to dip! I will let them dip anything in anything if it works for them! Ketchup is a favorite…homemade salad dressings….sour cream….mustard….barbecue sauce…kids can handle a few extra calories if it gets them to eat REAL FOOD for dinner! Try it. I swear to you my kids eat their vegetables FIRST because of this. I also have those sectioned-off kids dishes and often artfully arrange their food in fun presentations. They love the visual fanfare as much as you love it when a great restaurant stacks or fans your food on a gorgeous plate. We eat with our eyes first – kids do too.
5) I keep healthful snacks on hand all the time.
Kids have small stomachs and need to eat smaller quantities more frequently. Rather than fighting the “not now it’s almost time for dinner (or lunch)” battle, I keep healthy snacks on hand and let them eat when they are hungry. If that means they eat a smaller dinner, so be it. As long as what they are eating for snacks is nourishing, it doesn’t really matter WHEN they eat. This means snacks are things like turkey and cheese, fruit, raw vegetables, soups, plain nonfat yogurt with fresh add-ins, leftovers from previous meals, healthy cereals, dried fruit, etc. Get the good stuff in. Don’t be picky about when it happens.
6) I teach that treats and snacks serve two different purposes.
We have “healthy snacks” (see #5 above) and we also have “treats”. My kids love cookies and ice cream and french fries as much as any other child does, but I’m trying to teach them that those are things we eat because they taste good and are a fun treat…NOT because we’re hungry. When we are actually hungry, it’s time to fuel our body with healthy food..not to go digging for a cookie. Incidentally, this reduces the craving for “treats” overall because their bellies are full of GOOD stuff…and when they do have a treat, that’s exactly what they call it and how they see it. One is not a substitute for the other. When you want that chocolate chip cookie, let’s face it, nothing else is going to scratch that itch. I think there’s a place for both and the important lesson is learning to tell the difference.
7) I let them eat treats!
I absolutely admit that I give my kids “treats” on a daily basis. My objective is not to withhold indulgences from them; in fact I often indulge right along with them! My goal is to help them learn how to integrate these things into an otherwise healthful, nourishing diet. We keep portions kid-sized. If my 5 year old asks for chocolate, she means 1 or 2 Hershey’s kisses or 10 chocolate chips in a little pile….NOT a king sized Snickers or 4 cookies. Make sense?
8) I try to cut myself some slack.
That means when someone asks my daughter what her favorite meal is, and she says “chicken nuggets and french fries” I try not to cringe! The truth is that she really DOES love it when we let her have lunch at McDonalds…it’s just not a frequent occurrence in our house. My answer to the favorite meal question may be Maine lobster with drawn butter eaten on the coast….but that doesn’t mean I eat it often, right? Every meal isn’t going to be perfect…in your house or in mine…but I take heart in knowing that on most days my children are getting healthful, nutritious foods into their bodies and learning how to really enjoy food!
So, what do I do about Children’s Menus? I rarely have my kids order from them. I’d rather get them a plate to share my meal or order an adult meal or side dishes for the two of them to share than give in to the conformity of the ubiquitous Children’s Menu.
Do you have other ideas to share? Comment here and tell us what YOU do to keep the kids in your life healthy and thriving!