Navigating Summer Foods with Children

Anyone ready for summer parties?!  I know I am.  My plants are potted and our patio is open for business.  (Or, fun, as it may be.)

We were just at a family wedding this past weekend, and our experience at dinner became fodder for this column.  This is the third column in a series about kids and food.  The first column focused on ways to describe some of the healthy benefits of food to elementary-aged kids, using the colors of the rainbow.  Next, I offered some helpful phrases to use, such as “Dinner is soon,” when children ask for snacks too close to meal time, or “Hot dogs aren’t on the menu today, we can have them another day,” when children ask for foods that aren’t being served at that meal.

This month, I’ll help you navigate the food table at all those summer weddings, barbecues and parties. 

Back to the wedding buffet that inspired this piece.  My husband, daughter (who is almost three) and I went through the buffet line, which included pork tenderloin slices, pasta with a creamy sauce, steamed green beans and carrots, and roasted potatoes.  I made a plate with a small amount of each item for my daughter, and placed it in front of her.  She began to pick at the food, but within a few minutes a server offered to bring a child’s meal of chicken fingers and fries.  I was reluctant (desiring my child to eat a more balanced meal), but my husband quickly accepted.  Her meal arrived, she ate a few of the fries, but her chicken was largely consumed between the two of us.  So, despite the new meal being more ‘familiar,’ my daughter still didn’t eat it. 

The most important thing when dealing with your young child and food is to offer a variety of foods, and to try not to serve them a ‘special’ meal.  Whether you’re at a fancy wedding reception or a backyard barbecue, put a small amount of all (or at least most) of what’s being served on your child’s plate.  They can’t eat it if you don’t put it on there.

It’s fine to encourage children to try unfamiliar foods, like your neighbor’s spinach salad, but try not to push.  Also, be sure to include plenty of items you know your child does like, such as watermelon or corn on the cob.

What happens when your kid turns their nose up to everything at the buffet EXCEPT one thing, and wants to fill their plate with only that?  It’s OK to say no.  Again, try to offer a mix of foods, as you never know when your child might try something new or eat more of something you didn’t anticipate.  Also, it’s important to remind children that they need to save some of the item (like watermelon) for others. 

For example, you could say: “I understand you like the watermelon the most, and that you don’t want to eat the potato salad or hot dog.  Our rule is to put a little bit of everything on our plates, but you don’t have to eat it.  You may have two slices of watermelon but we need to save the rest for everyone else.”

It’s also OK to regulate the amount of treats your children eat at birthday parties, even if other parents aren’t.  For example, you could say: “I see that some of the other children are asking for more cake.  One piece is all I’m offering right now.  There will be more another time.”

If you’re hosting a summer barbecue, here are some suggestions for both easy and nutritious foods kids will like:

Let’s be real—grilled chicken may be uber-healthy, but kids eat hot dogs.  If possible, go with organic and/or nitrate-free, and serve them with veggies and fruit on the side.  Many kids actually like raw veggies with a little dip, or grill corn on the cob halves wrapped in foil.

For sweets, consider having 100% juice popsicles for all the kids, either homemade or from the store.  Another fun idea for kids is grilled s’mores—wrap the ingredients in foil and warm for a portion-controlled treat. 

It’s time to party on the patio!

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