Four-year-old Audrey Montgomery didn’t always like salad.
“She just wouldn’t try it,” said her mother, Kris Adair, Lawrence. “It was just not appealing to her.”
Adair, seeking a solution, thought maybe it would help to do something fun with the ingredients, like put them on a skewer.
“Salad on a Stick” is now one of Audrey’s favorite things. She and her 2-year-old sister, Maurene Montgomery, not only eat it happily, they help make it, too, along with many other meals and snacks.
Kid-cooking experts say involving children in the process and finding fun — or, occasionally, sneaky — ways to present healthy food are some of the best ways to get kids excited about what they’re eating.
Rachel Ciordas manages classes and teaches several that are just for kids at the Culinary Center of Kansas City in Overland Park.
“I do hear from a lot of the parents that they want their kids to eat healthy stuff, but they won’t eat it if it looks weird or it’s not fun or it sounds too healthy,” Ciordas said. “I think you have to make it fun.”
Adair said she was not involved in the kitchen growing up and ate a lot “out of a box,” she said. Her attitude about kids and food changed after spending a maternity leave with her in-laws — Maurene was a newborn and Audrey an active, inquisitive toddler.
“She’d get into the kitchen and in the way, and they’d just set her to work,” Adair said. When she returned home, Adair vowed to do the same.
At first, Adair said, she was intimidated by the thought of cooking with her kids. But she’s realized that you don’t have to spend hours making a recipe to create something healthy and appealing.
Here are some tried-and-true plays for getting kids to eat their vegetables (and other reasonably healthy things).
Anything is more fun when it’s on a stick, right?
And we’re not just talking about candy and cakepops. Skewering is a fast, easy solution for pretty much any combination of vegetables, fruit or cheeses, though hard vegetables such as carrots don’t work as well unless they’re very thinly sliced.
Adair’s safety tip for sticks: Make sure kids place the item to be skewered on the counter, then poke into it. It’s easier for children, especially the little ones, to poke themselves if they try to hold the item in their hands.
For Salad on a Stick on a recent weekday, Adair provided her girls with washed romaine lettuce and let them tear it into bite-sized pieces. She chopped some of the vegetables herself and let the girls help chop a few. Cherry tomatoes and store-bought cheese cubes required no chopping.
The girls skewer their own salads and eat it with ranch dressing, which Adair thins with plain yogurt to trim sodium and fat.
Ants on a Log (celery sticks filled with peanut butter and dotted with raisins) is one of the easiest, age-old favorites when it comes to turning food into something it’s not, said Tony Bien of Shawnee, who teaches several children’s cooking classes at the Culinary Center.
Another of Bien’s favorites is Tortilla Snowflakes.
Warm whole-wheat tortillas can be folded and cut with scissors just like paper snowflakes, he said. Brush them with melted butter, sprinkle them with sugar and honey and put them in the oven just long enough for them to crisp up. The result is like a sweet cracker, he said.
Adair has dozens of cookie- and sandwich-cutters on hand, making cheese, bread or other food shaped like hearts, stars or fish only a press away.
You can also arrange — or let kids arrange — vegetables, cheese, lunch meat or fruit to resemble smiley faces, caterpillars, an octopus or pretty much any other character they can dream up.
In his Super Heroes Culinary Adventure class for 5- to 8-year-olds, Bien serves the kids a strawberry-banana smoothie he calls Hulk Juice.
Only afterward does he tell them there’s also spinach in it.
There always are a few kids who are grossed out at that point, but others realize that spinach isn’t actually as yucky as they thought it was, Bien said.
Using ripe fruit really helps, Bien said. Ripe fruit has more natural sugar and less reason to add any. Along with strawberries, bananas and a big handful of spinach, Hulk Juice calls only for a bit of honey to taste.
For kids who don’t like carrots, Bien suggests taking the edge off by sautéing them with a bit of honey. For any vegetables, avoiding over-cooking is key to maintaining their bright color, which helps make them more appealing to kids. (Not even adults want to eat brown, over-cooked broccoli, Bien points out.)
One of Adair’s favorite desserts, Fruit Bread Pudding, consists of whole-grain wheat bread concealed by a soaking of fresh fruit syrup. To hit more get-them-to-eat-it bases, the bread is cut into fun shapes, and the girls cut the bread and spoon the juice themselves.
The DIY (Do-It-Yourself)
One of Ciordas’ classes involves taking older kids to the farmers’ market (Overland Park’s downtown market is across the street from the Culinary Center), then showing them how to prepare some of the items they found there. In upcoming classes, she’s planning to make fresh salsa, enchiladas and berry crepes.
Not only do kids learn where food comes from and even talk to farmers, Ciordas said, “They love it when they can say, ‘Look what I made.’”
Getting kids involved in the process and allowing them time to be creative makes them want to eat what they concocted. Ideally, don’t pick a day you’re in a rush.
“Kids, they have great imaginations,” Ciordas said. “If you’re patient with that, and make that fun and OK … that’s really helpful.”
Adair said she tries to involve her daughters as much as possible. She’s taken them to pick their own berries on occasion, and she has them stir, spoon, roll and cut, as long as she’s guiding the knife.
“I’ve learned where to involve the children and where to step in,” she said. “The most important thing I have found is just empowering them, letting them know they are capable.”
For more fun kid-food ideas and recipes, check out the Journal-World’s Go! Extra board on Pinterest.
For more information on the Culinary Center of Kansas City, go online to kcculinary.com or call the center at 913-341-4455.
Recipe: Fruit bread pudding
Stale or toasted whole-grain, whole-wheat bread (two slices per serving desired)
About 1 pound fresh berries, such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries
Scant 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
In a saucepan, simmer berries, sugar and water until berries are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Strain.
Using a cookie cutter or sandwich cutter, cut shapes out of bread slices. Place one layer of shapes in the bottom of a shallow dish. Spoon fruit juice on top of each. Stack second layer of shapes on top of first layer. Spoon fruit juice on top of each. Let stand about 30 minutes.
Serve with fresh berries for garnish.
(Recipe from Kris Adair, adapted from “Kids’ Fun and Healthy Cookbook,” DK Children, 2007)