Friday, May 28, 2010

Involve children in meal planning to make the most of your food budget

My children will eat anything that grows in our garden. By mid June, they beg me to let them eat sugar snap peas from the vine. They snatch carrots from between the tines of the pitchfork, chomping on the thick, dirt-covered roots before I can encourage them to rinse their bounty under the garden hose. The novelty of eating chive blossoms makes them forget that they might not otherwise enjoy the taste of onions.
Getting our children involved in the garden makes them enthusiastic about eating fresh produce. It’s not only good for them, but it also saves us a significant amount of money. Succession-planting a $2 package of seeds will give us snap peas all summer long. By comparison, snap peas at the grocery store cost approximately $4 a pound. We easily eat a pound of them a week, which would cost us over $50 if we bought them at the store instead of growing our own.

A garden may not be practical—or even possible—for everyone, but it is important to get children interested in what they’re eating. When it comes to food, if you don’t capture their attention, specialized food advertising campaigns will. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, advertisers spend an estimated $4.5 billion on youth-targeted promotions every year and an additional $3 billion on packaging specifically designed for children. Food marketers target children as a means to build brand recognition. In turn, children use this recognition to influence what their parents buy. Has your child ever pleaded for a sugary cereal he or she saw advertised on TV? If so, you’ve experienced the power of marketing to children.

You can counter this trend and stretch your food dollars if you can get out in front of marketing messages. The key to doing this is to present children with choices that have parameters you set. For example, take advantage of a toddler’s desire to help by allowing him or her to choose fresh produce. If seedless grapes and apples are on sale, ask your child which one he or she would rather have. Then give your child the tactile experience of picking up the fruit or vegetables you choose together and putting them in the bag.

Let your children pitch in with food preparation, too. My 5-year-old can peel potatoes and carrots almost entirely unassisted. With a little help, my 4-year-old can crack eggs and handle a whisk. Even our 2-year-old enjoys helping in the kitchen, always willing to stir or dump anything he can get his hands on. Time together in the kitchen builds kids’ confidence and gives you a chance to teach smart eating habits, basic cooking techniques, and even simple math skills.

As children get older, you can turn over more food planning and preparation responsibilities to them. Give them a budget and allow them to choose and buy ingredients for a meal. Be available to answer their questions, but let them handle all the preparation and clean-up duties. As they grow more comfortable making food choices and honing their cooking skills, let them cook a meal on the same day every week. Children who get to help prepare foods are more likely to eat them – and less food is likely be rejected by picky eaters. You get a night off from cries of “What’s for dinner?” and a grocery budget that you know has been carefully spent on food you and your children will enjoy.

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