Author and parenting blogger Emily Leary explains why a little variety is the key to developing healthier family eating habits – plus three easy and healthy recipes to try now.
Struggling to sneak healthier foods onto their plates? Fussy eating is a normal phase of your child’s development and, according to the NHS, as long as they are eating some food from the four main food groups (fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, dairy or dairy alternatives and protein) you don’t need to worry.
However, if mealtimes are becoming a battle without any truce, there are some easy strategies you can try. We ask Emily Leary, author of new cookbook Get Your Kids to Eat Anything: The 5-Phase Programme how to introduce a range of colourful, flavoursome foods, minus the protest…
Step 1: Put the unfamiliar into the familiar
Start gently with variety at mealtimes. Begin to introduce small elements of unfamiliar colour, flavour or texture into family favourites. Think lentil Bolognese or curried fish and chips.
Step 2: Educate
Next time you’re all sitting around the table, challenge everyone to see how many different flavours they can name. Get kids to explore the grocery aisles, smell the produce and take on the challenge to find the strangest looking fruit or vegetable to feature in tonight’s dinner.
You could even build a relationship with food by growing or picking your own (check out the pick-your-own fruit and oat breakfast bake recipe below). Windowsill herbs are an easy way to start – if they take ownership of their plants, they’ll be keen to see them added to their dinner.
Step 3: Discover the fun in food
Make each meal as much of an occasion as possible. Build a new level of enthusiasm for variety with arty plates or designing meals with five different colours (check out this peanut butter and apple pizza recipe). If you’re short on time (or creativity!) try spiralizing veg instead of chopping, or whizz spinach into a white sauce to make it green.
Involving kids with cooking is a great way for them to foster a healthy relationship with food. They get to explore the textures, smells and tastes and see what’s going into their meals. If you’re worried about time and mess, set them up at the table with some safe jobs for you to supervise while you get on with the bulk of the cooking.
Step 4: Enter the unknown
Discover ingredients and flavour combinations that are surprising even to grown-up palates. Try a ‘fridge raider’ challenge together by pairing unusual foods you find in the cupboards such as cheese and raspberry jam or gherkins and peanut butter – you might find some surprisingly good combos!
If they’re adamant they won’t try a new food, invite them to describe the smell, rub the texture between their fingers – even if they don’t taste the food this time, you’re gradually working to erode that “yuck” reaction.
Step 5: Cement variety
By coming this far and experimenting with a wide range of new flavours, you’ll need to make sure the habit sticks. You don’t need to reinvent every dish, every time, but simple tweaks can go a long way.
Take the humble salad, for example – try swapping out the obvious lettuce, tomato and cucumber for grated courgette or thinly sliced mushroom, which drink up zingy dressings. For added sweetness, try pickled beetroot or even strawberries.
Feeling inspired? Here are three of Emily’s tasty recipes to cook up now:
Looking for more family healthy eating inspiration? Try these five super suppers.