I remember the harrowing days when my son started developing food preferences, or rather, non-preferences, when he just under two years old. As a first-time mother, I remember this as one of the most stressful times in my parenting journey. I constantly worried about whether he was eating enough, and every meal was a battleground. Gradually, I realized I was not alone in this struggle; most parents find planning meals for children tedious. What is balanced nutrition? How much junk food is permissible? Just like with every other aspect of parenting, we are constantly second guessing ourselves, more so because we have been told all our lives that what you eat when you are a child is what your body becomes.
But getting balanced meals on the table is not as daunting as it sounds. We started with meal structures. Children are creatures of habit; most of them resist sudden changes. But meal planning can be turned into a fun exercise-what do they want to eat and when? Is there a favourite dish that must be on the weekly menu? Do they want to name the days Meatless Monday, Toast Tuesday, Soupy Saturday (noodle soup time)? Offering them healthier versions of the food they enjoy, like pizza paratha or whole wheat pasta loaded with vegetables works better than giving them lauki (bottle gourd) every week. At our home, we also like to maintain a single menu, everyone eats what is cooked. And making time every Sunday morning to design the weekly menu ensures that there is equal participation of the whole family.
When creating the menu, we also talk about food groups and ensure we include some of each every day. Some protein, some whole grains and a small quantity of what we call “the fun food group”. These are essentially little treats-a small chocolate at the end of an otherwise boring meal, or a cone of ice cream on Friday. Getting your child to eat a balanced meal is as much a test of your negotiation skills as making a sale to a client. Give in with a bit of fun foods to work in plenty of vitamins.
Right next to our weekly menu in the house is a column where all of us can pencil in five things that we are allowed to skip that month. The clincher is that with the exception of these five things, all of us have to eat everything. What really started as a fun experiment that ended up producing results. I see my son diligently looking up fruits and vegetables in season and then picking the ones he thinks are the worst, the ones he just cannot stand. And once he has committed to it, all I do is point to the list whenever he turns up his nose. His current list has capsicum, avarakkai (broad beans), mustard leaves, bottle gourd and quinoa (I will keep from sharing mine). I think this also creates a great sense of ownership and understanding in children, which is 60% of meal problems solved.
The remaining 40% is a matter of presentation, a play on how you serve the roti, sabzi or dal-chawal. A few things work like magic in our house and topmost among them are DIY meals. Whether it is assembling your own soup bowls, where I serve broth (clear or creamy like a curry), noodles/rice, vegetables, protein, some basic sauces and condiments or make your own tacos with rotis or dosas instead of tortillas, some salad, vegetables, boiled eggs/chicken/fish fry and overboiled dal as a sauce. Assembling these on the table gets children excited about the meal. And since it is all essentially still Indian, I can have my cook make everything. I don't need to worry about having to take time out for cooking every day in a busy work schedule.
Introducing colour in food is another thing that works fabulously well with children, for instance, adding a little beetroot or spinach puree in the atta dough to make green or pink puris. Or some butterfly pea flowers-a natural dye-to make magical, colour-changing noodles. When my son was younger, this translated into rainbow-eating competitions, and once he even sought out the purple cabbage in a salad to complete his rainbow of the day. What better way is there to ensure that one gets sufficient nutrients on a daily basis than kids looking out for it themselves?
Remember to keep things fun for both you and them. It is important to focus on what you are bringing in rather than what to take away to create lifelong good and fun food habits.