One of the most common questions I get is from readers who want to get their kids to eat better. It’s easy enough for us to read about the health benefits of a particular way of life and then enact the changes necessary to attain them, but small kids are ruled by their immediate desires. That’s what makes being a kid so great. Rather than try to stifle that intrinsic part of their being and risk creating the unfortunate abomination known as a tiny, prepubescent, stressed-out adult, what if we could somehow work with their natural proclivities to make healthy food appealing? Wouldn’t that be awesome, effective, and far easier than fighting them?
Today, I’m going to throw out some tips and ideas for getting your kids involved in the kitchen and eating healthier—for getting kids to learn to love real, Primal food just as much as you do. It won’t be a systematic step-by-step detailed regimen. Families are too unique, and kids have different needs. I’m confident that everyone will find something useful, though.
Let them choose at the grocery store.
Kids (humans, really) like having a choice. When they can make a decision, they feel empowered. They are empowered. Yeah, they might grab the durian because it looks funny and has spikes, or want ten pounds of chicken feet because, well, they’re chicken feet, but so what? They’re getting invested in actual, real, Primal food (and you can make some awesome broth).
Stick to the perimeter.
Yeah, if you traipse down the cereal aisle, that gleaming hall of colorful toucans and cookie thieves and deliciously stale marshmallows, your kid is going to be grabbing junk left and right. The solution is simple: don’t go to the cereal aisle. For that matter, don’t go down any of the junk food aisles. Stick to the produce, the meat, the real food. That way, your kid will still be able to choose, but the choices available will be generally good.
Go to farmers markets.
Grocery stores pale in comparison to a bustling, vibrant farmers market. Where else can your kid be exposed to free-market competition, twenty kinds of kale, a guy selling sauerkraut juice shots, a hippy lady selling magic crystals, and produce with real dirt on it? Plus, farmers markets are generally bereft of junk as a rule.
Give them a basic framework, but let them fill out the details.
When you take your kid shopping, give them a framework for making decisions. Say “I need two green vegetables, two meats, a fruit or vegetable of every color, and a nut,” and then they take it from there.
Make a game out of it.
Tell your kid, or kids, that it’s up to them to come up with the perfect dish. Then, they have to go find all the requisite ingredients. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt, except you end up eating what you find. Let’s just hope they pick something edible. Winner gets a trophy and accolades, and the loser goes hungry for a night (kidding).
Have them help with cooking.
Food must be prepared, especially if you want truly Primal food. Plus, as anyone who’s gone and stayed Primal can tell you, making your food forces you to appreciate that food. It’s more satisfying, fulfilling, and nourishing when it comes from your own hands. Kids (and people) may like taking the easy way out when it’s available, but if they literally get their hands dirty in the kitchen, they’re more likely to want to eat the food.
Work on kitchen skills one by one.
This isn’t a sprint. Start slow, and make sure your kids are adept at a skill before moving on to the next one. Skills include washing produce, whisking, beating eggs, emulsification, knife skills, spatula work, tong handling, seasoning, smashing garlic, egg separating, use of the stove and oven, sautéeing, grilling, and the list goes on and on.
Assuming they have full control of their opposable thumbs, functional nervous systems, and reasonable hand-eye coordination, let them cut things with actual sharp knives and handle hot pans. Start with forgiving items like romaine lettuce and celery and graduate to more tricky things like onions and five year-aged gouda. Oh, and even though it may go against your natural inclination, be sure that the sharp knives are truly sharp; dull knives are more likely to slip off the target food and end up in fingers and hands. Have the bandages and first aid ready, of course, because accidents do happen. Just know that accidents are rarely serious and ultimately end up being potent learning experiences. Regarding the pans, shy away from cast iron and stick to stainless until they’re strong enough to handle them adroitly.
Things will move much more slowly and get much messier in the kitchen when the kids are involved. That’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Breathe, and know that everything will pass, and that this will pay off in the long run.
Cede control of the spices.
If your kids are going to learn how spices, salt, and other additives affect the dish, let them add them and taste the result. After each addition, have them stir, have everyone take a taste, then report back with their impressions. Over time, they’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. That said, I wouldn’t exactly give them access to a tablespoon and a bag of saffron. Instead, give them a quarter teaspoon to mitigate the potential damage.
Clean as you go.
There’s nothing quite so demoralizing and off-putting as a kitchen in utter and total disrepair following a big meal. Kinda like how new drinkers often swear off booze after that first real hangover, first time cooks might swear off cooking if they have to clean the entire kitchen in one fell swoop. To combat this, clean stuff as you use it. Let’s face it: washing dishes is the worst. If you can break it up into bite sized pieces, it’s not nearly so bad. This is good advice for anyone who spends time in the kitchen, but it’s especially important for parents who want their kids to actually like (or at least tolerate) cooking.
Use your hands.
Kids are naturally inclined to eat with their hands, and there are definite benefits to eating with your hands. Choosing foods that work well with fingers will play to their desires. Ribs, drumsticks, lamb chops, cowboy ribeyes, carrots, broccoli, orange slices, cherry tomatoes are just a few examples. Heck, go ahead and eat chili with your hands if you want. Just be prepared for the massive cleanup job after.
A recent study just came out showing that adding fat to veggies helps kids learn to like them (it works on adults, too, I find, especially if you use butter). So, be sure to incorporate plenty of healthy fat in your meals.
Aged Italian cheeses, fish sauce, porcini mushrooms, and soy sauce are all sources of umami that when combined with healthy food can trigger reward systems and “train” a kid to like a food.
Kids love condiments. The right condiments, sauce, or dip can change the entire trajectory of a kid’s meal. For the longest time, though, condiments made food more unhealthy. One of the main reasons I started Primal Kitchen was because there weren’t any good condiments made with healthy ingredients. Now there are. Now, we have condiments that actually make food more nutrient-dense.
Start incorporating healthy condiments, sauces, and dips whenever applicable.
You’re going to strike out once, twice, ten times. Eventually, though, you will find some foods your kids will eat and love. You’ll get into a groove, you’ll learn (and shape) their tastes, and things will get easier. But if you keep throwing the same five dishes at the wall that have yet to stick, nothing’s going to change and you’re only going to be frustrated.
When weaning a fussy babe, try keeping them on your lap.
They may not think they’re interested in whatever food you’re trying to get them to eat, but if they’re on your lap, food is constantly whizzing by their face only to be eaten with great relish by the person they look up to most of all: you. Be sure to make lots of smacking noises; make it obvious how much you’re enjoying it, and they’ll eventually want in on it. Watch the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally for an idea of what to do. This should work on kids of varying ages, too, although I wouldn’t recommend trying to place a sixteen year old on your knee.
“Take five bites” rule.
A kid may reject something simply by looking at it, but if you make it a rule that everyone tries 5 bites of everything, you’ll get some buy-in. Oftentimes by bite 3 or 4 the kid starts realizing “Hey, this is actually pretty good!” and they end up loving it.
If there’s one theme running through this post, it’s that people need to have a stake in their food. When you do that, when kids have a role in the decision-making, food-preparing, and cooking processes, they are far more likely to be interested in the end result: a healthy, Primal plate of food. Giving them a personal role in the process also makes them less likely to develop neuroses from having their desires imposed upon by an authority figure. Parents are the ultimate authority in the parent-child relationship, but it shouldn’t be a totalitarian regime that engenders rebellion and resentment.
What about you guys? What’s worked for you? What’s worked on you? Let’s get a nice compilation of tips going in the comments!
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.