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How can you get your kids to care about food?

First We Eat: Try these tips to get them thinking and talking about what they eat

Salad rolls with dip.

When my millennial kids were young, on the last Friday of each month I showed up at school early, having first made a trip to the recycling centre to return our household’s contributions. “Noon dismal,” my kids called it, that early discharge. We made it into a family ritual by going out for Vietnamese pho, the modest cost usually covered by what I had pocketed at the recycling centre. I figured it was a good lesson in the tangible upside of recycling, but it also gave my boys an early and lasting fondness for food from another culture.

Eating out was a rarity in our household, reflective of my job as a chef, and of the era: a recent study reported by Dalhousie University shows that 64 per cent of millennials ate home-cooked meals while growing up, down considerably from the 94 per cent attributed to those born before 1946, but more than generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012), 55 per cent of whom were raised on home-cooked meals.

Since the pandemic, 60 per cent of Canadians regularly cook at home, which anyone in charge of their family’s weekly shopping trip is aware of. Home cooking is enjoying the biggest surge in decades, with even millennials and gen-Z adults swerving from their habits of buying meal kits and pickup/takeout to wielding a knife from time to time. So, parents, the question becomes this — how to involve the kids in caring about food?

Empowering your child to make good choices by talking about food — who grows it, how it fuels the body, the differences between healthy and junk food — will help them learn to make better choices in self-care. Start by instilling exercise as a habit. Appetites will bloom. Beyond that, here’s how you can approach the subject. Keep It Simple, Sweetie: KISS.

Keeping it simple

New ways to present old favourites can open new possibilities. Not too weird, and the ingredients should be recognizable. Or not — you can always hide less than favourite foods in other dishes. For instance, add grated zucchini to a frittata or crispy fried fritters.

Buy raw foods rather than packages, whole fruit rather than cans or processed junk foods. If it’s in the house, it will get eaten, so simply minimize temptations and avoid lecturing. But if you don’t have something — potato chips, say — in the house, you and your child will eat fewer potato chips and you won’t have an argument about what to eat at snack time.

Investigate other cuisines

When it is again safe to dine out, take your children to restaurants for different flavours and textural exposure. Be curious. Cook unfamiliar foods. Kids won’t eat adventurously if parents don’t. Visit ethnic markets and the library. Look online to figure out how to make things like salad rolls, then do it together. Come spring, take your kids to the garden or help them seed herbs and carrots in pots.

Strengthen skills

Until it is safe to attend cooking classes, there are many online lessons. Watch Jacques Pépin make two types of omelettes on YouTube, for instance, then go to the kitchen and copy him.

Same size

What you eat is what your kids eat. Do not cook down to kids or cook a “kids’ meal.” Do not buy into, “I don’t like it because it is green/white/purple.” Insist that everyone try everything once or maybe twice. Our house rule was always that you couldn’t form an opinion if you hadn’t tried at least a few bites. So first we eat, and then we debate the merits of live versus virtual cooking classes.

Salad Rolls with Dip

Everyone loves noodles. These are fat free and tenderly delicious. Makes about 12 rolls.

Hoisin, peanut or oyster sauce dip:

  • 1/4 c. hoisin sauce, oyster sauce or peanut butter
  • 2-3 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp. minced cilantro
  • 1 tbsp. garlic, puréed
  • 1 tbsp. ginger root, puréed
  • 1/2 tsp. hot chili paste
  • Soy sauce or salt to taste
  • 1/2 c. water

Salad rolls:

  • 1 lb. cooked chicken, BBQ duck or pork, finely sliced
  • 1 bunch cilantro, minced or whole leaves
  • 2 c. cooked fine-textured vermicelli-shape noodles (rice, bean thread or wheat)
  • 2 tbsp. puréed garlic
  • 2 tbsp. puréed ginger
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced
  • 1 package rice paper sheets in dried rounds
  • Warm water for soaking the sheets

To make the dip, combine its ingredients and adjust to taste.

For the rolls, combine the pork, cilantro, noodles and seasonings in a bowl. Mix well. One sheet at a time, immerse the rice sheets in a bowl of warm water. When pliable, lay flat on a smooth-textured kitchen towel. Place the filling on the lower third of the sheet. Tuck in the edges and roll up. Repeat until all filling is used up. Serve cold with the dip.

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