ALONG with walking and first words, refusing unfamiliar foods is a sure sign a child is growing up.
Frances Davidson, assistant professor of medical anthropology at the Georgetown University School of Community and Family Medicine, has observed the food habits of hundreds of elementary school-aged children and concluded that their diets are monotonous, they are by and large unadventurous and that they are conscious of brand names--in other words, they're a lot like adults in making food choices.
Kids like a certain amount of monotony in their lives, Davidson says--they find it reassuring to have something they can count on--and this penchant is often reinforced by parents, who tend to rely on the old standby dishes they know their children will eat. But there are ways that parents can get their children to sample new foods by getting them to help plan, prepare and even grow them.
Children who have not been exposed to a variety of foods early in life are likely to refuse foods they don't recognize and find unfamiliar, Davidson has found. Unfortunately for many children, the category of "unfamiliar foods" is amazingly broad. Davidson found one fourth-grader who did not recognize applesauce because he had never eaten it. Many children will refuse to eat common foods like green beans if they are prepared in a new way.
From her work in underdeveloped countries, Davidson has found that humans would rather go hungry than eat a food they are not familiar with.
Children do have a strong recognition of name brand products, thanks to heavy television advertising and the easy-to-open packages that make highly processed foods readily accessible. Davidson said it was simple for her to determine what children ate because they always referred to foods by their brand names. "Kids ask for Fritos or Doritos, they never ask for just chips," said Davidson. When a supermarket brand of soda was served at a party instead of Pepsi, Davidson said, the children acted as if the house brand "was not good enough."
Like many adults, children tend to eat foods that are readily available and need little preparation. Consequently, they consume lots of sugared breakfast cereals, both at breakfast and as snacks. They also go heavy on the milk, peanut butter and packaged, highly processed foods like chips and cakes.
Children say they like fruit, said Davidson, but they don't eat it if their parents don't make it available. And because it's difficult to walk into a supermarket and purchase 50 cents worth of grapes, children will stick to the packaged, usually less nutritious, items.
While adults may be conscious of the social importance connected to eating, they often forget about that connection when trying to feed children. Davidson, studying plate waste in the school lunch program, found that children ate more when adults were around, when they ate in groups and when they were given more time to eat.
Rather than just handing down a dictum to children to clean their plates "because it's good for you," parents can introduce their children to a greater variety of foods in more subtle and probably more effective ways, Davidson says.
One way to reduce children's prejudices against certain foods is to get them involved in its preparation. This can begin at quite a young age, Davidson says. Three-year-olds can make hamburger patties or form meatballs, and slightly older children can peel vegetables or core apples.
They can also be consulted in deciding what to serve with the main course. Parents can have children choose vegetables that "look pretty" together. Vegetables with complementary colors usually also contain complementary nutrients.
Davidson recommends taking children to the supermarket. "Teach them to pick out a nice apple, or pick out a new food to try out together," she suggests.
Just having new foods in the house may encourage children to be more daring themselves in sampling the new food, Davidson says.
Gardening can also broaden a child's experience; they can see that vegetables are not just some "hocus pocus affair" that appear miraculously in the supermarket, said Davidson. And the vegetable garden illustrates an important lesson, she noted: Children learn that when they take care of the garden, they get vegetables.
In her research, Davidson found that for most families, breakfasts were seldom cooked, and lunches, either bagged or served in school, were usually monotonous. This leaves dinner as the meal for experimentation. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to maintain a pleasant social atmosphere, conducive to trying out new foods, at the evening meal when everyone is exhausted. Davidson suggests the dinner conversation can revolve around food as a way to pique a child's interest in the foods he or she is eating.
Catherine Evans teaches cooking to children at the L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. The children, ages 8 and up, taste almost all the ingredients they use, including raw turnips. They also grow their own bean sprouts and learn to identify the smells and tastes of fresh and dry herbs. The kids get so involved in the process, Evans said, "They forget to say, 'Oh yuk!' "
Here are some recipes you and your children can try. ANTS ON A LOG
Wash and trim celery stalks. Fill with peanut butter or cream cheese. Top with raisin "ants." GOLDEN NUGGET SALAD (8 servings) 3 cups shredded cabbage 1 cup crushed pineapple, drained 1 cup grapes 1/2 cup cut-up dates 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup mayonnaise
Combine first 4 ingredients. Blend lemon juice, salt and mayonnaise. Add to fruit and cabbage and toss lightly. PEANUT BUTTER KISSES (Makes about 24 kisses) 1/3 cup honey 1/2 cup peanut butter 1 cup dry milk powder 1 teaspoon vanilla Raisins, nuts, dates, sunflower seeds and/or coconut
Combine and mix well honey, peanut butter, milk powder and vanilla. Add raisins, nuts, dates, sunflower seeds and coconut in any combination until the mixture is firm and holds its shape. Knead with hands. Shape into 1 1/2-inch balls. Chill and serve. BRAISED VEGETABLE (1 serving) 1 or 2 stalks celery, 1 or 2 carrots, 1 turnip or 1 large leek 1/2 cup chicken stock or water Salt and pepper 1 teaspoon butter
Choose any one of the above vegetables. Clean and cut into bite-size pieces. Place in pan and cover with 1/2 cup chicken stock or water and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until vegetable is tender but still crisp. Remove vegetable and reduce the liquid. Add a teaspoon of butter, salt and pepper to taste and pour over the vegetable. SPINACH SQUARES (6 servings) 2 eggs 1/3 cup flour 1 pound fresh spinach, washed and cut up (substitute 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed and drained) 2 cups cottage cheese 2 cups grated cheddar cheese 1/2 teaspoon salt
Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs for topping
Beat eggs slightly, add flour and beat until smooth. Add remaining ingredients. Pour into well-greased 9-by-11-inch pan and top with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cut into squares to serve. BANANA-SWEET POTATO PUDDING (6 servings) 1 cup mashed sweet potato 2 ripe bananas, mashed 1 cup milk or light cream 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup currants (optional)
Mix all ingredients in large bowl and beat for 1 minute. Pour into greased casserole dish. Bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes or until set. Eat immediately. HOMEMADE GRANOLA (Makes 14 cups) 1 cup vegetable oil 1 cup honey 1 tablespoon vanilla 9 cups rolled oats 2 cups wheat germ 2 cups coconut 1 cup soy granules Dried fruits, sunflower seeds and/or nuts
Heat oil, honey and vanilla until warm. Mix well with oats, wheat germ, coconut and soy granules. Spread on 2 greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. After cooking, add a total of two cups of dried fruits, sunflower seeds and/or nuts.