Last night our three-year-old ate two enormous pieces of gefilte fish for dinner. (Weird, yes.) But he specifically asked for it (“More cold fish, please”) and since he’s overall a pretty good eater, we were happy to let him indulge in this unusual offering. Are we advocating an all-gefilte-fish diet? No, but we think it’s a good thing when kids break out of the normal food routine — and it’s even better if they don’t have a “routine” at all. That’s because the more varied and interesting their diets are, the better chance they have of getting exposed to all kinds of valuable nutrients. So given that gefilte fish isn’t exactly part of his usual repertoire, we were happy to see him mix things up a little.
With young kids – especially picky eaters – it’s easy to fall into a trap of having a few major dinner items in a revolving menu. For many kids, the rotation looks something like this: Pizza, pasta, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and hamburgers – repeat as necessary. Along the way, parents sometimes get it in their heads that there are a handful of “super” foods (blueberries, spinach) that they need to push on their kids whenever possible. Then kids tend to hear about those individual foods again and again (“Eat your spinach!”). In fact, what kids need is not four or five foods (no matter how good they are) but a whole spectrum of nutritious foods – with variety being the key.
Oh sure, some parents say, good luck with getting our kids to think beyond macaroni and cheese. But inspiration can come from surprising sources. Maybe your kid will have a playdate at a friend’s house where they serve edamame for snack. Maybe he’ll spend a night at his grandma’s house in which he helps her cook (and taste-test) her famous paella. Maybe he’ll be sitting at lunch with a new friend who is munching on seaweed. Or maybe, in the case of our older son, he’ll be reading a new favorite book in which the main character (Harry Potter) eats pickled beets. Who knows what it will take to spark a new interest – but if the enthusiasm is there, we say, run with it.
Adults would do well to pay attention to this advice as well. Darya Pino, author of the food/nutrition blog Summer Tomato, touched on this issue in a recent post called “The Myth of Superfoods.” The general idea is, you don’t want to fall into a trap of believing that only a handful of foods are the “best” foods and you start eating just those foods instead of giving yourself a healthy variety. “If you want to get the most from your diet, you’re better off focusing on dietary diversity rather than loading up on the top ten foods some magazine says you should eat more of,” she writes. Good advice for kids and grownups.
One last story: The other night we went out to an upscale barbecue place with the whole family. The strong flavors of the barbecued meat seemed to turn both boys off, but they were thrilled with the cranberry cornbread. We couldn’t remember the last time we had served either cranberries or cornbread at home, so we were happy to let them dive right in. Even if it wasn’t the most nutritious grain product they could have eaten, it probably put a little more variety into their nutritional intake for the week.
The take-home message for parents (and kids) is this: Don’t get stuck in a rut. Don’t be afraid to try new things. And don’t let yourself believe that any one food that you serve over and over again is the “best” for your kids. As long as they have a good variety of foods over the course of the week (especially fruits and vegetables) they’re probably getting the nutrition they need.