I love food. I always have. I love trying new things and exploring the world in foods. I grew up in and around the kitchen and have a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into making a good meal. I love the experience of savoring flavors and of debriefing with friends after an unforgettable dish.
So, it’s understandable that when I had my own children, I was adamant — almost obsessive — about making sure they loved food too. I went out of my way to make gourmet purees for them as soon as they started solids and used all types of seasoning and fancy ingredients. It was a labor of love. They WOULD LOVE FOOD DAMMIT.
What I hadn’t planned for was having hard-headed children with big personalities. What do you mean you don’t want to try this? Why? WHY!
It was frustrating, but the last thing I wanted was to make food dreadful for them. I knew I had to let them feel empowered and go at their own pace, but this was hard to do when toddlers are irrational and push all your buttons. Also, I was impatient and obsessive about food.
For us, the challenge started the moment our kids transitioned to table foods. This also happened to be around the time they started communicating in full sentences and were no longer strapped to a high chair. Between food flying all over the place and little humans running between my legs smearing food on the walls — making outrageous demands — meal times were disastrous.
I knew that we had given our daughters a good foundation with baby purees, exposing them to all sorts of flavors. The question was, how could we remain consistent in the toddler phase? It was important to me that we continue exposing them to flavor so their palates could develop well over time. After countless meal struggles that led nowhere, I realized we had to pivot.
That’s when I decided to make food magical. And it worked like, well, magic.
I started sprinkling chia seeds in everything — yogurt, toast, granola, oatmeal — and called them black sprinkles! Their eyes widened as they heard me talk about this special food called black sprinkles. Then, they ate it!
It seemed to work so I ran with it.
The roasted red beets? Oh honey, that’s unicorn food, good for making unicorn poop. Really! I’ll show you next time you go potty. Your poop will be bright purple, just like a unicorn’s!
The first time they made “unicorn” poop they stared in awe at their poop floating around in purple water.
You don’t like broccoli? Well, that’s too bad because it’s really Superhero food. That’s what gives Superheroes their superpowers! And it makes their muscles huge.
Baked eggs became eggo muffins, which just sounded so much better, and edamame debuted as magic beans. Why are they called magic beans, mama? Because they help you grow big and strong. Like magic! To this day when we go to sushi, our four and six year old still ask the waitress for magic beans.
We have since expanded our menu to include toast with bell peppers, better known as pizza toast and kale pesto also known as green pasta. I mean, green does sound friendlier — and more accessible— than kale pesto. Any spices we sprinkle over food — paprika, oregano, pepper, cardamom— is referred to as fairy dust and leafy greens are bunny food. Oh, and fish! We call any fish brain food. Why? Because it feeds the brain so it can grow healthier and smarter. In case you didn’t know, Superheroes eat a lot of brain food too!
The list goes on and on.
At first, my husband had an issue with this approach. He argued that we were misleading our girls about the food they were eating. But I disagreed. Baking the zucchini into a brownie and calling it chocolate brownies or throwing kale into a berry smoothie — that’s misleading. But we weren’t hiding the flavor or physical appearance of any of the food they were eating. We were serving them the same meals as us, so their palates were getting trained on the real flavors of these foods with every bite. What we were doing differently was emphasizing all the extraordinary benefits of eating healthy in a way a toddler could understand.
It helped my husband see magical eating in a different light.
Think about it. As adults, even for those of us who aren’t health professionals, we understand the general benefits of eating good food. Vegetables, for example, are good for our digestive tract and brain development; proteins are good for muscle growth; fruits boost our immune system and probiotics are good for the tummy. We also feel better when we eat healthy and our energy levels surge. But a toddler can’t grasp these concepts at their age. What they do understand is fantastical worlds and superheroes — and both of these things can help explain why healthy eating is important to a young, creative mind.
Magical eating has made meal times fun for us again, but more importantly, it’s made it fun for them. What we’ve learned is that expanding their creativity at the dinner table has helped them see food in a different light. It’s no longer scary and unknown. It’s approachable and fun. It could be anything they want it to be. It’s magical.
While this approach hasn’t made our daughters like everything, it has helped them try everything. Their willingness to try different foods at the table has helped train their palates by practicing, even if little bits at a time. Ultimately, this has made them better eaters over time.
I hear so many parents struggle with meal times the same way we did. In the midst of our struggle, I remember reading and researching tons of books about eating and nutrition. I asked our pediatrician a lot of questions, but nothing really worked to change the dynamic at the table with an independent toddler. No one ever told us to make food special and that’s exactly what worked for us when all else failed.
Magical eating became our secret weapon.
Laying the foundation for healthy eating early on improves the likelihood that children will adopt healthy eating habits later in life. The key is to help them understand why this is important in a language they can embrace. If you ask me, with a lot of creativity and a little appetite, food can — and always will be — magical.
MAGICAL EATING GLOSSARY
BLACK SPRINKLES: Chia Seeds.
BRAIN FOOD: Fish and avocados.
BUNNY FOOD: Leafy greens.
EGGO MUFFINS: Baked eggs.
FAIRY DUST: Tumeric, paprika, pepper, oregano, cardamom, and any other colorful seasoning.
FAIRY FUEL: Mushrooms.
GREEN PASTA: Pesto pasta (any pesto).
MAGIC BEANS: Edamame.
PIXIE PUDDING: Overnight oats (any kind).
PIZZA TOAST: Toast with red bell pepper spread.
RAINBOW SPRINKLES: Sprouted seeds & grains.
RAINBOW VEGGIES: Rainbow bell peppers.
SNOW CHEESE: Parmesan cheese.
SUPERHERO FOOD: Broccoli, asparagus, other green veggies and any protein (meat, fish, etc.)
TROLL ROLLS: Sushi.
UNICORN FOOD (to make unicorn poop): Red beets.