Child eating apple
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What your children eat could be contributing to a host of health and behavioral problems. Chef Aine McAteer explores this connection and offers tips to get your children to eat—and love!—healthier foods.
I personally haven't given birth to children, but being the third in a family of 11, I certainly got an opportunity to practice some motherly duties whilst a mere child myself.

Many of my clients have children, and it's always a thrill for me when I can get them not only to eat their veggies, but coming back for more. One of my clever kid clients would make a deal with me that she'll eat her veggies if I eat a Big Mac—she got me there!

I had one cooking assignment for a family in Spain whose 6-year-old son was having some behavioral problems and difficulty concentrating in school. Some tests revealed he was allergic to wheat, dairy products, sugar and tomatoes—ingredients that are staples in almost every child's diet.

What's a parent to do when faced with such a dilemma? Unfortunately, flying in a personal chef for your 6-year-old is not an option for most parents. After a month on his new diet, the child's transformation was dramatic. He became much calmer, and his teachers noted he was focused and paying attention in class—they were so impressed that they started to include healthier options for the other children in the school.

This child is not an exception. Many of the foods that are staples for children are at the root of a host of health and behavioral issues. The question is what to do about it and how to get children not only to tolerate healthy foods, but to want to eat them.

Get 9 tips to help your children eat healthier
Here are a few tips that have worked for me—and by the way, they apply to kids of all ages (even the very grown-up ones!).

  • If something tastes good, people will eat it. I've presented foods that, on first appearance, might look a bit different. But once people taste them, any resistance to trying something new is dissolved. Have a few nice sauces or dressings that kids can dip their veggies in that will give them a nice flavor. (I had one kid who would eat anything as long as it had my mushroom gravy on it!)
  • Offer small portions of food, attractively presented. Be creative with colors and shapes—children respond to this. Have a selection of fun-shaped cookie cutters you can use for presentation. Think up creative names for dishes. I often consult with my kid friends when I'm trying to think of names for my recipes—I just love the creative names they come up with!
  • Be a good example. You have a much better chance of getting your kids to eat healthy foods if you eat them too—and, of course, you will have so much more energy to give them if you are nourishing yourself as well. I once taught cooking to a mother in New York who was struggling to get her young son to eat his veggies. After cooking, I sat at the table with them to eat and noticed it was her husband who was setting the example for their son: He clearly was not a vegetable lover and was quite verbal about the fact. The son was following suit. Kids take their cues from what's going on around them—try to get the whole family on board so you're not fighting a losing battle.
  • Introduce children to a broad range of healthy foods when they're young. This helps their palates becomes accustomed to healthy foods. For example, take the children shopping and let them loose in the produce aisles and encourage them to pick fruits and vegetables of all colors. Make it a fun and playful experience—you can even turn it into a game, like finding all the colors of the rainbow. Get them used to reading labels on food—this will not only improve their reading and spelling skills, but will give them a good habit for life.
  • Talk to children about where their foods come from. I was teaching a cooking class to a group of teenagers once, and when I went to cook some beans that I had soaked overnight, someone commented, "I thought beans came in cans." Sadly, this is the relationship many people have with their foods. Taking kids to a farm or experimenting with growing foods or herbs in the garden or window box can be a fun project.
  • Avoid letting kids fill up on snacks. Otherwise, when it comes to meal times, they won't be hungry. If a child is hungry, you have a much better chance of getting him or her to eat something healthy—especially if that's all that's being offered.
  • Don't cause a fuss around food, or use bribes to get children to eat healthy foods. Don't say, for example, "You'll get dessert if you eat your veggies." Try not to associate sweet treats with reward.
  • If you are changing poor eating habits, start very slowly and don't give up. When you go shopping, stock up on healthy foods and lunch items your kids will enjoy. Of course, it's lovely to make everything from scratch, but if time is an issue, as it often is for busy parents, you can find some nice, healthy ready-made dressings and sauces and even things like whole-grain pizza bases and pastas that can be used to make quick, tasty meals.
  • Substitute staples with healthier versions. For many parents, coming up with creative, interesting ideas for lunches can be a challenge, especially if you want them to be healthy and nourishing too. Trying to get your kids to get excited about nibbling on broccoli or carrot sticks when their friends are eating crisps and candy can be a big task. If you are giving them treats like crisps and candy, look for crisps and crackers that are baked, not deep-friend; and these days there are lots of sweet treats that use natural sweeteners in place of white sugar. Opt for whole-grain bread for sandwiches in place of white bread, and delicious burgers can be made from beans, nuts and veggies that are full of nutrients. Many health food stores also carry a range of healthy veggie burgers that are handy to have in the freezer for quick meals and lunches.

As for my young friend in Spain, one of his favorite lunches was my Savory Stuffed Rice Balls. Occasionally I made a sweet version, stuffed with dates or other dried fruits, and for a special treat, I sometimes gave him a little bowl of melted dairy-free chocolate to dip them in. I hope you and your children enjoy them too, and—as always—I encourage you to get creative and experiment with different fillings.

As the song goes..."I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way."

I truly believe that the best contribution you can make toward a healthy planet is to raise your children as healthy and conscious human beings—that I believe is a job well done.

With love,

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