Sneaking broccoli into brownies. Bribing. Begging. Parents resort to many a desperate tactic to get their children to eat healthy. Now there's a fresh idea: Teaching your kid to cook with healthy ingredients - using the über-earnest Canada Food Guide as your bible.
"It's not a diet. It's not gimmicky," says pediatrician Cheryl Mutch of the new cookbook, The Good Food Book for Families, that she co-wrote with teacher Brenda Bradshaw. "You're probably not going to see it on Oprah." (Although, if you're reading this, Ms. Winfrey, the authors wouldn't reject your overtures.)
Instead, the cookbook takes its cue from the new food guide, updated in 2007, and walks parents through the basics of serving sizes, daily portions and the latest nutrition research. It also includes recipes skewed to these concepts, such as homemade turkey tacos and buckwheat pancakes.
The food guide is also the basis for a new kiddie chef school in Toronto called Rising Chefs. Owner and chef Tracey Manne recently expanded her healthy cooking classes to a mail-order club that kids can sign up for online.
For parents who think they've already hit the wall, Ms. Bradshaw and Dr. Mutch offer some surprising tips. For example, they say it can take 10 to 20 exposures to a new food before a child will accept it.
Exposing kids to more vegetables and whole grains is a timely pursuit, given our culture's current interest in farm-fresh, whole foods. Folate and carotenoid-rich green and orange vegetables in particular are the darlings of the nouveau food guide set.
There are also bad-guy foods. Ms. Bradshaw and Dr. Mutch take aim at "juice abuse," for one. They're adamant that kids under 13 drink only the food guide's maximum of a half cup daily to avoid tooth decay and too many liquid calories. "Juice has an undeservedly healthy reputation that it really shouldn't," Ms. Bradshaw says.
While this and other nutrition reminders may seem obvious, they remain elusive for many parents. The authors say it's easy for parents to slide into a low-veggie, high-sugar, high-processed predicament.
"Part of the reason we've gotten off track is because everybody is in such a hurry," Dr. Mutch says. "Kids are so programmed. Both parents are working and it's rush, rush, rush. A lot of the convenience foods are fast. People just fall into the habit of overusing them."
A century ago, there were no obesity epidemics and parents didn't have problems convincing their kids they should eat vegetables, Ms. Bradshaw says. "We've somehow made this more complex than it needs to be."
For the Rising Chefs mail-order service, a child receives a box every month containing a recipe geared to a food-guide pick, all the dry ingredients needed to make it, and a kid-sized kitchen tool such as a wooden spoon. Last month the pick was carrots, with a recipe for muffins. This month's offering is silken tofu as a "meat alternative." The recipe is for whole wheat macaroni and cheese, its sauce thickened by the tofu.
"The children are really open to trying new foods," Ms. Manne says. "Instead of a parent thinking, okay, we have to start eating healthier so I need to restock everything in my cupboard, we let them try one ingredient at a time to see what works with their family."
While Elliot Platt is already a good eater, the four-year-old Mississauga, Ont., boy treats the delivery of his monthly cooking kit the way a teen might receive a new video game.
His mother, Amanda Platt, merely works the stove or oven as he mixes the muffins or stirs the macaroni and cheese, matching the instructions to the colour-coded ingredients. She says the organizing principle of the food guide is especially appealing to her mini-chef.
"Classification is really important for children - it's easy for him to fit everything into little sections," she says. "He's really into measuring things and fractions - pretty big boy stuff."
For picky eaters, Ms. Bradshaw, Dr. Mutch and Ms. Manne agree that repeatedly putting foods into kids' hands increases the chances they will eat them. That Indian children love curry and Inuit kids love fish illustrates the power of multiple meetings, they say.
Ms. Manne also suggests the sous-chef parent of a veggie-hater might tuck a little pureed cauliflower into the mac-and-cheese recipe. But then, she says, they should stud the final product with a few small florets so kids make the connection.
"We know that children who are involved in making the food are more likely to eat it," Ms. Bradshaw says. "It also breeds familiarity. They're seeing you prepare it or preparing it themselves. That, too, is an exposure."