Wondering what to feed kids? Do they really need foods like pizza and chicken nuggets? Learn what “kid food” looks like around the world.
What was your favorite food as a child?
If you grew up in America, it was quite likely pizza, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets or something similar.
You may be surprised to learn that favorite childhood foods differ substantially around the world. This begs the question, is there really any such thing as “kid food” or are we underestimating these young palates?
Food Around the World for Kids
As both a chef and a registered dietitian, I'm highly interested in all things food and health-related, including the role food plays in culture and vice versa.
A friend mentioned to me that children at a school in Greece voted lentils as their favorite food and this got me thinking. What does “kid food” look like around the world? Are there foods that kids universally love and hate or do these vary from culture to culture?
I polled some friends (as well as our Prep Dish Facebook group!) and did a little research and here are a few interesting tidbits I found out about food around the world for kids:
- Rice, lentils and yogurt are frequently served to young kids in many countries around the world, partially because their soft texture is great for babies and toddlers.
- Norwegian kids enjoy caviar, mackerel in tomato sauce and liver pate (both of my own kids love liver as well so don't knock it til you try it!)
- Korean children eat seaweed and rice as a snack and children are fed kimchi with chili peppers and garlic from the time they're very young.
- Kids in Germany eat lots of raw fruits and veggies in addition to brezeln (baked pretzels), wurst (hot dogs), schnitzel, muesli with yogurt and, again, lentils!
- Curry with rice and greens is popular with kids in Myanmar. Rice with fried eel is popular in Vietnam.
- Lest you think the United States is the only country with less than healthy “kid food,” bread with butter and a variety of different flavored sprinkles is a popular breakfast in Amsterdam.
- Japanese children enjoy miso soup, rice, seafood and tofu.
- Like many children around the world, Puerto Rican kids enjoy rice, along with many fried foods.
- Parents in Denmark often feed kids meatballs, liverwurst, marinated beets and chopped salads.
- Olives are a standard part of kids' meals in Israel while kids in India enjoy khichdi, a spicy rice and lentil porridge.
- Kids all over the world love sweets but in many countries the sweets are less sweet than in the US.
While of course kids everywhere have favorite foods, another major trend I noticed was that, in many countries, kids simply eat the same meal as adults. There's no cooking mac and cheese for the kids because the entree is too spicy or serving them chicken nuggets because they won't eat curry.
In countries all over the world, children are simply eating “adult foods” like their parents. So why is it that so many kids in the United States balk at being served fish, mushrooms, olives or anything with a hint of spice?
First I want to say that this is in no way meant to shame you if you have a picky child at home or one who loves traditional “kid food”. Every child is different and I know from working with many families over the years that the picky eating battle can be both tough and emotional!
I simply wonder if we can use this peek into food around the world for kids to expand our horizons a bit, and maybe even change our expectations.
Tips for Cutting Back on “Kid Food”
So if we entertain the idea that kids don't need “kid food, what should we feed them?
Well, the simple answer is just to feed them what we eat of course but I know this isn't always as easy as it sounds. If your child is accustomed to eating less variety, it will likely take a lot of time and patience to help them move toward a more varied diet. That's okay though! Even if they find one new food they like (or tolerate…) this month, that's progress you should both be proud of.
If you're not sure where to begin, here are some ideas to get you started:
I get it, you're tired at the end of the day and dinnertime may be the best quality time you get to spend with your child on weekdays. You don't want mealtimes to become a daily battle.
Offering simple choices that you feel good about can give your child a sense of control, while still allowing you to be the one who decides which foods are available.
For example, you might say, “would you like strawberries or an orange with breakfast?” or “should we have broccoli or green beans with dinner tonight?”
Don't be discouraged if your child says neither! Simply respond with something like “It sounds like you don't want to choose today. I'll serve broccoli.”
When your child realizes that the choices won't change simply because they complain, they will likely begin to take a more active role in choosing when you offer healthy options.
We all have times when snacks are a necessity (I'm looking at you flight to California…) but in general, you may want to limit snacks if your child is struggling with mealtime.
If I find my kids are boycotting dinner, taking a look at snack time is one of the first things I do. Did they have a late snack? Did they have a larger than normal snack? Cutting off snacks a couple of hours before dinner can really encourage your child to come to the table with a healthy appetite and be more willing to eat something that's not their favorite.
If you're not comfortable limiting snacks, you may try simply moving away from typical snack foods. Try offering fruits, veggies and proteins instead of traditional American carb-based snacks. Some examples:
- a hard boiled egg
- sliced bell peppers or cucumbers with hummus
- sliced apple with almond butter
Children are smart and they learn early that “snack foods” are delicious. A child may say “yes” to things like crackers, granola bars and string cheese, whether or not they're really hungry.
If you're trying to cut back on snacks, try offering foods your child enjoys, but that aren't necessarily favorites. This will encourage them to only snack if they're really hungry.
Don't Force It
It's easy to get sucked into a dinner-time power struggle with your kids, but don't fall for it!
The best way to avoid power struggles at mealtime is to not try to force your child to eat something on their plate. Instead, serve the meal and leave it up to them to decide what to eat.
They may complain (which, yes, is annoying) but you can simply say something like “Just eat the parts you want” or “You get to choose what to eat from your plate but please don't complain.”
Don't Give Up
One thing I noticed when researching “kid food” around the world is that children from these other cultures don't always automatically like spicy or bitter foods.
For example, parents in Australia serve vegemite, but they often mix it with something like cheese or jam to tone it down for the kids. In Korea, parents serve kimchi to toddlers, but the toddlers don't always love it right away.
The thing is, the parents don't give up and say “oh well, my kid doesn't like that,” they just keep serving it. Over time, the child learns to accept the food.
So if your child doesn't like something you serve, don't give up! Just keep serving small amounts of the item to your kids whenever you make it. Try not to make a big deal out of whether they eat it or not as that can put too much pressure on the child.
One reason I serve our Prep Dish meal plans to my own family is that it naturally builds in variety without me having to think about it!
The foods our kids love sometimes surprise us. My own kids LOVE this Moroccan Chicken while another Prep Dish team member's daughter loves roasted oysters and pickled onions. You just never know what they're going to like until you offer it!
If you'd like help offering your kids more variety, I urge you to try Prep Dish for a varied meal plan that offers plenty of herbs, spices and different flavor profiles.
It's easy to look at a picky child and blame their behavior or blame the parents. But it's not always that simple. Picky eating is often due to a physical, developmental or sensory challenge. My friend Katie Kimball at Kids Cook Real Food has an excellent interview with pediatrician Dr. Kay Toomey.
Dr. Toomey says parents only cause picky eating 5-10% of the time so don't blame yourself if your child struggles with healthy eating!
She explains how to know if your child is a picky eater or a “problem feeder” and gives tons of practical tips on how to help your child overcome these struggles.
Give a listen to the interview or ask your pediatrician if you need help expanding your child's palate.
What to Feed Kids – Healthy Recipes Kids Love
If you want to move away from kid food but aren't sure to begin, here are some healthy, real-food Prep Dish recipes our subscribers' kids have loved!
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