Do you want to cook more frequently, or more creatively, but aren’t sure how to start? Or maybe you’re faced with picky eaters who refuse to eat anything you make? The barriers to cooking can quickly add up, which makes eating out feel like a lot less hassle, and seemingly worth the expense. But that doesn’t need to be the case. Here are a few tips to make it easier to cook healthy and delicious family meals.
- Plan your meals the MyPlate way. Incorporate a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to increase visual appeal.
- Start with simple recipes. Once you get used to cooking and comfortable with the recipes, experiment with substitutions and additions.
- Plan ahead for meals and shopping trips. This will help to minimize the prep time and frustration surrounding cooking and increase the chances you’ll have the ingredients you need to quickly throw together a meal after a long day at work or taking care of the kids.
- Choose local and in-season produce whenever possible to maximize taste. Taste is the number-one predictor of whether or not kids will eat a food. Spending the extra effort to pick produce that tastes good ups the chances that your kids will like it and want to try it again. Also consider frozen and canned vegetables and fruits (just watch out for sodium and added sugar).
- Incorporate herbs and spices into your recipes. Not only do herbs and spices enhance the taste of food, they also add fantastic aromas to your cooking. The sense of smell is 10,000 more sensitive than taste and is a major determinant of how positively a food is received. If you make your meals smell good, you greatly increase the chances your kids will want to eat them.
- Use cooking methods that create delicious-tasting food without an excess of calories. For example, simmering, boiling, stewing, steaming, braising and poaching all use water as the primary cooking medium, while roasting, baking, broiling and grilling use heated air. Both of those types of cooking methods don’t add extra calories (as opposed to sautéing, panfrying and deep-fat frying, which can add hundreds of excess calories).
- Include at least one food your picky eaters like at each meal. This way, you don’t have to worry about your children refusing to eat everything; they’ll be happy and you can avert unpleasant mealtime battles. However, don’t hesitate to add a new fresh ingredient to an old favorite to try to help your children be a littler more open-minded about food preferences. Keep in mind that it can take children 15 to 20 tries before accepting a new food, so don’t sweat it if they reject the new addition on the first—or even the 15th—try.
- Sneak it in. Help your kids acquire a taste for a consistently refused food by pureeing it and adding it to a mealtime favorite. Only do this on rare occasion, as the goal is to get your kids to actually be willing to try and learn to like the food. The best way for them to do this is to know that they are eating it.
- Solicit help. Involving your kids in meal preparation, serving and clean up not only makes your job easier, but by including them in meal preparation, they’ll be more likely to eat what they help make.
- Have fun with it. Cooking need not be a dreaded ritual. Try to have fun experimenting with different ingredients and recipes. For example, you could take a “trip around the world” from the comfort of your own home by learning about foods from different cultures and trying to recreate some of the healthier dishes. Each week (or month) choose a new country and typical fare to try.
Adapted from Muth, N.D. (2012). “Eat Your Vegetables” and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters. Monterey, Calif.: Healthy Learning.
Natalie Digate MuthContributor
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP is the Senior Advisor for Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and ACE Certified Health Coach. She is the author of "Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters" and the textbook "Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals." She has been ACE certified since 1998.
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