A Love Letter to Future Family Meals
We’re thrilled to bring you an awesome guest post today by Lisa Maxbauer Price. Lisa lives in Northern Michigan and is the author of the award-winning children’s book, Squash Boom Beet: An Alphabet for Healthy, Adventurous Eaters.
I used to dread Thanksgiving.
On the big day, when it was all hands on deck and all burners firing, I would procrastinate. My husband Matt would be tending the turkey and I’d be dawdling in the dining room overthinking that year’s tablescape. (That’s a word, right?)
I’d be folding and refolding napkins and reconsidering place-card fonts. Somewhere in between rearranging candles and gathering dried hydrangeas from the yard, I would hear my husband tease, “That’s all great, but are we going to have potatoes to go with this turkey?”
Looking back, I know why I dragged my feet about the side dishes. It’s really hard as a parent to spend countless hours cooking a meal that might only last 10 minutes for the kids. It was my least favorite Thanksgiving tradition.
When my picky pilgrims protested green beans and Brussels sprouts, it was easy to wonder, What’s the point? Preparing a homemade dinner – whether on the holidays or just a random taco Tuesday – often seemed a useless exercise, like folding fitted sheets.
I was in trouble. I was a foodie who just wanted my kids to enjoy their food.
I didn’t simply want to sneak veggies into my three kids’ meals to keep them healthy. Carrot-infused marinara sauce was fine, but the secrecy wasn’t going to help transform my sons into brave eaters, for their life or their next meal.
No, to end the dinner-time distress, I needed a fresh approach as a parent and a (mediocre) home cook. If I wanted long-term results, I’d have to take the long view. Raising good eaters would be more a marathon than a sprint.
After nearly 20 years of writing about nutrition and 10 years of parenting, this is what I’ve learned about getting kids to be curious eaters and reclaiming the joy of family meals…
Change the Conversation
For starters, I realized the way grown-ups tended to talk about dinner hadn’t changed much since the 1950s. The conversation has always been, “Eat it. It’s good for you.” Or “clean your plate.”
That didn’t seem to work anymore. Today’s kids – at least mine – were wondering, “What’s in it for me?” They didn’t want to hear me spout off nutrition facts. They wanted memorable experiences. And bragging rights.
With that in mind, I started introducing my family to some funky, fresh foods from our local farmers’ markets. The adventurous names alone were enough to pique the kids’ interest. Things like green tiger zucchini, dinosaur kale, candy cane beets and rainbow chard.
I mean, what little kid wouldn’t want to brag to friends that he’d eaten dragon tongue beans or fairy tale eggplant?
Play With Your Food
Fun sounding veggies may have been a gateway. But my kids needed more to stay hooked. So I rallied and week after week presented them with crazy textures to touch and explore in the kitchen.
I handed the kids some acrylic, kid-friendly knives and told them to chop away and help with meal prep. They dissected a head of red cabbage and joked how it looked like brains. They remarked at the waxy skin of kohlrabi and ran their fingers over the other-worldly bumps of romanesco. “We have permission to eat stuff that looks this crazy!?”
Taste the Rainbow
We talked colors, too. Slowly, a box of beige crackers seemed boring beside purple fingerling potatoes, indigo tomatoes and watermelon radish that looked positively tie-dyed. “Wow, guys, these veggies are as colorful as candy.”
We also explored outside – visiting farms, planting gardens, just getting down and dirty with food. I realized my children had become disconnected with what real food looked like. “Yes, carrots actually have greens and don’t just come washed and peeled in a plastic bag.”
Empowering my kids to become brave eaters meant helping them recognize exactly what they were seeing at the market and on their plate. I mean, a rutabaga isn’t scary once you know what it is. (Okay, maybe it’s still a little scary.) But knowledge is power. I tried to to appeal to the senses – and to kids’ sense of adventure.
With time my family became more daring: snacking on homemade beet chips, desserting on zucchini bread. Some food experiments ended in success. Others were destined for the compost heap. Either way, a shift had happened. Meal time was no longer a dirge. Foreign food was no longer the enemy at our table.
My oldest son even became a food risk taker. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. For his 9th birthday he hosted a hot chili pepper tasting party. It started with mild bell peppers and moved to more daring offerings. Some kids tasted a pinch of ghost pepper dry spice. Every kid went home with a bottle of Tabasco in a goodie bag. But the real gift that day was all mine: I had done it. I had birthed a brave eater!
To keep my ego in check, my middle child remained a healthy food skeptic. But all I’d have to say was “Eat brave” at the table and he’d remember our new mantra. It was positive peer pressure at its finest.
While this approach didn’t make my family perfect eaters, it made us all open-minded at meals. My kids try more foods now, and linger at dinner longer, curious of what they’ll find. (Apple pie crust that’s tinted green from spinach juice? Sure, mom’s crazy like that.) It’s a food philosophy the kids are building and adopting on their own – no threats or demands.
So this year as I stand at the stove and prepare some new and old side dishes, there is hope and gratitude. I genuinely love Thanksgiving now. It is powerful knowing that people all across the country are sharing the same traditions at the same time. Fortunately, serving picky eaters doesn’t have to be one of them.
Lisa Maxbauer Price is the author of the award-winning children’s book, Squash Boom Beet: An Alphabet for Healthy, Adventurous Eaters. The hardcover book is a colorful field guide of fun foods that can be found at farmer markets across the country. All the food photographed in the book was grown at 56 farms and gardens near the author’s home in Northern Michigan. The book can be found at many local bookstores in the Traverse City area and also on Amazon. Learn more at www.squashboombeet.com.