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As I sit and type this post, I am breathing a deep sigh of relief that I don’t have to worry about finding an actual automobile for either of my kids yet. Picking out a car will be exciting and fun, I’m sure, but also filled with anxiety and sticker shock and insurance premiums and nostalgia. Today I want to tell you about a different kind of vehicle: one that is made for kids. And springing for this kind of vehicle is easy, delicious and hopefully will bring some extra smiles to your kitchen table.

No, thank you! We'll take the edible kind of vehicle for now.

What I want to share with you today is one of the best kitchen tricks I know:  how to select and use foods as “vehicles” to get extra nutrition into our kids. Now, I’m not talking about chopping up beets and hiding them in brownies, or about mixing puréed squash into macaroni and cheese.  This “trick” isn’t a trick at all: it’s simply tuning into what your kids like to eat, and then adding to it. For example, my younger son loves yogurt. Yogurt is a wonderfully healthy food, and I’m lucky that my little one will happily polish off bowls of plain, organic, whole milk, locally-made yogurt.  I could stop there and be satisfied that he’s getting a good helping of calcium, healthy fat and Vitamin D… or I could decide that yogurt is his vehicle of choice.  Choosing the latter, and seeing a bowl of yogurt as merely a starting point, has opened up a new world of food opportunities.  In this new world, I tend to approach snack (or meal!) time with a list of questions in mind that are usually reserved for the car lot:

  • What is my preferred type of vehicle? (Yogurt.)
  • What are my top features? (Coconut, fruit, flax seeds.)
  • Any deal breakers? (Pumpkin seeds.)
  • Any incentives to sweeten the deal? (Sure, I’ll take a little maple syrup.)

Suddenly, his yogurt turns into even more of a nutritional powerhouse.  It’s fun and exciting for the little one to design a “yogurt bowl,” and I can meet all kinds of nutritional requirements in one easy snack.

There are lots of vehicles to choose from, which is a very good thing, since kids’ tastes can vary widely. My older son will let me stir all kinds of things into oatmeal: frozen blueberries (they thaw right away), coconut milk, granola, sliced almonds, a bit of honey– or a huge glug of honey, depending on who’s in charge of making the bowl. So to start, think about which of your kid’s favorite foods could be viewed as blank canvases, and then search your fridge and pantry for ways to make them more colorful. (Better yet, put your child in charge of the add-ins!) Yogurt and oatmeal are obvious choices, but your kids might gravitate toward soup, smoothies, mashed potatoes, rice, applesauce, or scrambled eggs/omelettes. Even pizza and sandwiches seem to be filled with possibility when you start to view them this way (ever thought about sprinkling wheat germ or shredded coconut inside a PB&J?).

Oh, and once you’ve identified your kid’s vehicle, resist the urge to sneak unfavored foods into it!  This is why it’s important to know your kid’s deal breakers, too.  If I were to serve up a big bowl of oatmeal for my older son, mixed with fruits and seeds and all kinds of healthy goodies, and then throw in a few very finely chopped walnuts (which he hates), it might be fine. He might not even notice. But if he did notice that dreaded texture, or pick up on the earthy flavor that has repulsed him since he was 2 years old, then throwing away that one bowl of food could be just the beginning of the fallout.  Remember: A reliable vehicle is sacred.  Once you have found it, you won’t want to lose it!

Do you rely on a vehicle to get extra nutrition into your child?  Which one works for you?  Please share your tips!