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Making food fun for children

Everyone from therapists, child psychologists to nutritionists recommend eating together as a family as a simple solution to most issues. And surely it would work in the ideal situation: the kids chatting and laughing and telling you about their day...

india Updated: Sep 03, 2012 16:42 IST

Everyone from therapists, child psychologists to nutritionists recommend eating together as a family as a simple solution to most issues. And surely it would work in the ideal situation: the kids chatting and laughing and telling you about their day, everyone happily tucking into their food, enjoying each other's company.

But what happens when the first words you hear at the dining table are - "Not fried rice again!" "I want only roti-ghee, no vegetables" or simply "I'm not hungry". One fussy eater is enough to turn the happy laughing table into a highly stressful battleground.

With most parents, the objective is to somehow get adequatehelpings of healthy food into thembefore having to surrender. From a child's point of view, there are a variety of reasons why they may be refusing food - too tired or sleepy, an illness, too excited about something, distracted, snacking too much to be hungry etc. Is it possible then, to make mealtimesa time to dread rather than enjoy?

Food habits start getting ingrained from infancy, as babies go througha system of smooth weaning foods, moving to slightly lumpy solids, then harder solids etc. Paediatricians and nutritionists recommend exposing to different kind of foods right from the beginning so that they get familiar with different tastes. But what can parents do if children have already established their food habits, even though not the best ones?

Bring in some fun - age appropriately
Younger children, say 4 and under, respond very well to interesting shapes and colours on their plate. A star or heart shaped sandwich will keep them interested enough to maybe even take a bite. Take a tip from Japanese mums, who seem to have taken lunch box packing to a whole different level.

Just do a search for "Bento Box Food Art" and prepare to be amazed by packed lunches made to look like anything ranging from cute animals, to cartoon characters, to Barack Obama. Japanese women spend a good part of their mornings preparing bento for their families - there is even a sense of competition among mothers to see who can produce the cutest, most appetising, and healthy lunch for their children.In fact, bento-making classes are even offered to moms to perfect their skills.

As they grow older, you can involve children in the food planning, purchasing, and preparing process. Children of 6 to 8 years can handle several kitchen chores adeptly - such mashing potatoes, slicing bananas with a blunt knife, wiping unbreakable dishes etc., and should be allowed to do them, under your supervision of course. Teens are more aware of healthy choice than they let on. The problem arises when we equate healthy options that will pay off in the long run. Instead focus on how healthier choices will make them perform better at their choice of activity today, such as athletics, a musical production, or academics.Give interesting options rather than only restricting foods.

RadhikaSil, professional chef and mother of two daughters encourages parents to allow children to explore different kinds of food the world has to offer. "Food is a fantastic way to introduce new cultures and can become a cross curricular learning medium. I have enjoyed my journey as a chef, professionally as well as being the personal chef to my young family. The key is to tryand eliminate stress at meal times. Food can be fun and creative ... meals don't' always have to be all organic and boring... it is alright to trade off a bit as long as you can maintain the balance."Radhika also shares her favourite tried and tested tips for that creative edge.

Tips for making food more fun for children
" Always use only seasonal fruits and vegetables. Make sure they are fresh, without bruises and odours.
" Use a combination of colours in their daily meals. Red/ yellow/ green peppers, spinach, corn, carrots are some great ways to add colours to boring meals. Adding foods of every colour in a daily meal will ensure that your child's body gets the wide variety of nutrients that it needs to grow strong and healthy. And it's fun.
" Cut the vegetables and fruits as uniformly as you can, it helps preserving the nutritional value and speeds up cooking time.
" Cut whatever you can in a fun shape... carrots can be cut into diamonds, cucumber as a flower or even heart shape sandwiches!
" Involve your child in the daily menu planning, preparation, even grocery shopping. It will teach them to take responsibility for decisions they took and also make them want to eat what they have been involved in preparing.
" Keep the portion sizes small and manageable. We all love our children but too much of one thing definitely bores the young eater.Small sized and finger foods are always fun, too. Mini pizzas, idlis, nuggets, bite sized sandwiches, or mini muffins are sure to catch some attention.
" Remember most kids prefer to drink their food than eat it..!! Try out smoothies with fresh fruits, yoghurt, honey or apple sauce instead of sugar or even peanut butter.
" Children like to be in their comfort zone, we all do actually, so don't try a whole new cuisine at one time. It's best to introduce new foods along with familiar ones.
" Let them have fun with food - the younger ones will enjoy using cheese as building blocks or broccoli as trees. Involve your child in the cooking process.
" Dare to experiment and step out of the conventional. Asummertime dinner meal of whole-grain toast withcheese, apple slices, yoghurtdip with cucumber and carrotsticks may seem like just a lot of snack foods,but it includes crucial protein, calcium, fruit, and vegetables, along with whole grains.

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