As a first year FoodCorps service member last year, I left one too many classrooms with half-full bowls of kale salad and dozens of extra servings of hummus dip. Why weren’t my students eating this delicious, nutritious food? Why was I greeted with “yucks” instead of “yums?”
I learned quickly that getting kids to eat healthy isn’t just about giving them access to healthy food. A lot of the time, you have to truly engage the kids with the food in order for them to become interested.
Here are some tricks and tools I’ve learned that turn the most skeptical students into eager eaters.
1. Having him or her be the chef. Research shows that when kids are involved in the process of making a recipe, they are much more likely to try it, and like it! Getting kids involved in the cooking or assembling process, no matter how easy or difficult it is, has shown to be very effective. I break up jobs into kid-friendly tasks and try to let them work as autonomously as possible so that they truly feel like they own the dish. Not only does this make the kids want to eat it, but it also builds self-confidence.
2. Using a little peer pressure. Let’s face it: kids, for the most part, like to fit in. If they see that all of their peers are trying kale chips, you better believe they’ll try a kale chip. Sometimes all it takes is some gentle reminding, from an instructor, parent, or peer, that everyone else is enjoying the snack. In the past, I’ve put my students’ peers up to the task of describing how wonderful they thought the food was to their not-so-enthusiastic peer, in hopes that this would push them towards the healthy snack. This often works, but other times, all it takes is for the hesitant student to see all of his or her peers munching to realize, “well, I guess just one bite won’t hurt…”
3. Letting the kids decide for themselves. After prodding one particular student incessantly to try our new snack with the rest of the class, he pulled me aside and said, “but Miss Rachel, what if I’m too shy to meet new foods?” This helped me learn that sometimes, kids just need a little extra time to prepare themselves for trying something new. In my experience, it’s been much more effective to let a hesitant eater take his or her time and decide for themselves than it is to try to convince him or her to try the new food. If and when the students does decide to try the new food, it will have been on his or her own accord: nobody made them do it. An independently-made decision like this is much more likely to lead the student to try more new, healthy foods in the future than if anyone had forced them to try it.
4. Linking the new food to other foods in the students’ world. So, why didn’t any of my students like the collard pesto last year, but this year, it was a hit?! Last year, I didn’t walk the students through making the connection between the oily green dip on their plates and what their grandmothers grew in the collard patch on the side of the house. I didn’t lead students to explore the similarities and differences between our collard greens recipe and their families’ collard recipes. On the other hand, this year I made it a point to help my students connect our snacks to other foods in their homes, communities, and the cafeteria. This made them more likely to try things, because kids are much more likely to try new foods if they are similar to something they’ve seen before. I’ve learned that taking time to learn the culture and home of your students is crucial so that the foods you make together make sense to them in the broader landscape of their lives.