There’s so much to think about at holiday time, what to wear (will it fit?), what to buy (how much will it cost?), what to cook (what kind of face will my kid make?) and what to eat (how many calories is that?). And, not only are we entertaining – where we have control over the "what ifs" and the "what nots", we’re loading up the minivan, hybrid or SUV and caravanning to others’ homes and parties with our families. We cross our fingers behind our backs that our kids won’t crinkle up their noses and shake their heads when someone passes Rumaki their way or dishes greens onto their plate. We silently pray harder than ever that our little Mr. or Ms. Manners is present on those trips. I remember the days of packing cups of Cheerios and yogurts with special spoons. And that’s OK. Now that my kids are teenagers it’s unlikely for them to leave anywhere hungry, but it’s also just as hard to determine what their taste may be on any given day, as when they were little.
It’s not just at holiday time when it’s important for kids to branch out on the taste tree. But in the spirit of the season, I spoke with Robin Miller, nutrition expert, chef, mother of two boys and host of Food Network’s Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller. Robin came to my rescue with some tips on how to keep things healthy AND introduce new foods to kids of all ages at any time of year. But, there’s no time like the present, right? Because following any of Robin’s tips may just tame the food scrooge in everyone — once and for all.
Amy Nathan: What’s the best way to introduce new foods to kids of any age? I have teenagers, and I don’t force them to eat what they don’t like, although they will taste new foods. I just want to stack the deck in my favor.
Robin Miller: I’ve been a nutritionist for 18 years and I don’t force my kids to eat anything either. My first suggestion is to pair something new with something familiar. That way, it’s not a plate full of the unknown. Next, always feel good about what you’re serving your kids. Last, remind them of a similar situation. My son likes tilapia and I always remind him that he wouldn’t know that if he hadn’t given it a try.
AN: Lots of kids – even my teenagers – seem to exist on ketchup and ranch dressing – not that I have anything against ketchup or ranch dressing! But do you have any suggestions for dips and sauces that would open up new flavors to kids? My daughter likes mild flavors, while my son likes things spicy and seasoned. But we’re in a rut of eating the same thing all the time, and eating it the same way.
RM: That happens to everyone. Most people have ten recipes or foods that they make over and over again. One way to change it up is to use one sauce lots of ways. That makes less work and more choices. My favorite is a dipping sauce made with roasted red peppers for my kids, then I thin it out with stock in the blender to make a pasta sauce for adults.
We get comfortable serving what we know our kids will eat, and then we wonder why they won’t try new foods! Again, I say start with something familiar. You mentioned your daughter likes mangoes. You can puree them to use as a dipping sauce. For your son who likes things a little bolder, I have a recipe for an easy root beer barbeque sauce.
AN: In my family we’re very fat-content conscious. I use healthy fats when I’m cooking – and I’m always afraid that my meals just don’t stack up in flavor to those made with lots of butter and bacon. How can parents use real ingredients, keep the flavor but lose the fat? Again, my daughter, who does like vegetables, removes all noticeable traces of herbs from any piece of chicken or meat.
RM: First, fat. Fat covers the tongue and provides us with a longer flavor, therefore when we remove the fat we have to go 10x over with flavor. Use lots of herbs and spices. Reduce sauces and stocks by boiling them for five minutes – it intensifies the flavor. Second, spices like garlic powder, onion flakes and ginger add a lot of flavor but no color to a dish. She will taste them but she won’t see them.
Another reason to cook healthy meals for kids is so that they don’t acquire a taste for high fat foods. And don’t forget to serve colorful food, the more colors on the plate the better – that way you get big bang for your nutrient bucks.
AN: It’s winter and comfort foods are often fattening foods. Do you have specific suggestions for lightening up some favorite dishes?
RM: Macaroni and cheese can easily be made with low-fat cheese and evaporated skim milk. Same for scalloped potatoes. All stews and casseroles can be made with broths and you can still enjoy all the flavors you want without packing in all the fat.
Robin Miller’s tips make sense. We all get into ruts and when we’re busy. Around the holidays it’s easy to cook unhealthy meals, drive-through, open a box or just serve the same meal every Tuesday. Maybe when we’re remembering the gifts and good cheer, we should also stop and remember healthy meals and to change it up a bit. It’s a time of year we actually expect and want surprises, and with a little thought we could add that into mealtime as well.
Although no one can promise you won’t get a big surprise when your kids make a face at Aunt Marge’s fruitcake.