Jennifer Tyler Lee gets her kids to eat vegetables because she doesn’t demand that they eat vegetables. Instead, she treats cooking like a craft project, letting the kids help choose and prepare something new, once a week, to see what happens. Invariably, they try it.
The result is “The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year, With 150 Recipes.” (Avery Books, $20). Lee’s philosophy grew out of a game she called Crunch a Color, brainstormed in desperation for her finicky daughter. Jamie Oliver has become a huge fan, as have the Williams-Sonoma stores, where she’ll appear May 2 (Mall of America location).
Here’s how she helps kids develop healthful eating skills.
Q: So this isn’t about sneaking vegetables into foods, like making broccoli brownies?
A: No, not at all, and there is a really important reason why. Kids need to know what goes into our food. All of us do. The way in which we’re eating as a nation has changed dramatically. We eat out a lot. We’re disconnected with the food we’re eating. Helping kids understand what goes into a meal is a really important skill, like any other we need to teach our kids in order to set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Q: Is there such a thing as a picky eater?
A: This is a tough word because labeling them means they can own that label. In my family, my daughter is a finicky eater and my son is not. This all comes back to taking the focus off the eating and putting it on the experience of cooking together, because here’s what happens: If you’re at the table and it all comes down to, ‘Are you going to taste the broccoli or not?’ then it’s a confrontation.
Here you take the focus off that and put it on the experience: finding the food, growing the food, cooking the food together. Whether they taste it or not doesn’t matter because you had a fantastic experience. But the kids are going to be more likely to taste that food. Get them engaged in making that choice on their own.
Q: The challenge may not only be introducing kids to new foods but weaning families from prepared foods. How do you answer the lament of having no time to cook?
A: What was completely unexpected is that I learned how to make healthy foods taste incredibly delicious with very little effort. Also, we’re talking once a week, 30 minutes. I’m not talking about cooking together every night. And that 30 minutes can be shopping together or planting herbs in your garden. When you define it broadly, then any part of the process is going to move you in the right direction.
Q: I can imagine an initial skepticism. Is there a good first step toward long-term success?
A: The first thing is, don’t worry about all 52 weeks. Decide to do things for maybe a season, or a couple of weeks.
Then let the kids lead the adventure. Put them in charge of picking what new food it is you’re going to try. Let them choose the recipe. Define cooking broadly. We don’t need more guilt. Maybe it’s prepping vegetables for the week ahead.
Think of cooking like a craft activity. When you’re focused on exploring and experimenting together, that reduces the stress on the parent, and the child. Together, if we have a simple plan, we can do this.