One of my favorite aspects of parenting is bringing my love of nutritious creative cooking to my role as a mother. It’s no secret that I love food and nutrition, and being a parent has raised that passion to an entirely new level. Now I’m not just responsible for making my own healthy decisions- I’m responsible for two little minis as well. It is my responsibility to set a good example and teach them to make healthy decisions in all aspects of their lives, including what they put into their bodies.
I also believe that healthy eating boosts self-esteem. When you eat well, you’re showing your body love. You’re nourishing it and treating it with respect. You’re telling yourself that you’re worth it. That is what I want to teach Jack and Carolyn- to always take care of themselves, because they matter.
But how to get a two-year-old to eat a varied diet rich in vitamins and minerals when all he wants to eat is pb&j and cheese? The following is a list of five foods that are easily worked into any diet, be it a tenacious toddler or adult skeptic. They’re nutrient-dense, loaded with good stuff to keep your body healthy and happy, but versatile enough that you can squeeze them into practically any dish- which makes it easy to get your kids eating (and loving) them.
All of these are staples in our diet, and have been awarded the Jack stamp of approval.
1. Chia seeds. Yes, the seeds from the infamous chia pet. As it turns out, these little guys are more than just a bushy faux-pelt for the ceramic animal on your kitchen counter; they are absolutely loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. An ounce of chia seeds contains 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of healthy fats, and 11 grams of dietary fiber. They are also a good source of phosphorous, manganese, calcium, potassium, sodium, and iron. They can be purchased dried at any bulk food store, and packaged chia seeds have been popping up more and more- I know Bob’s Red Mill has some, and Trader Joe’s just started distributing their own package. I buy mine in bulk from Whole Foods.
Chia seeds are extremely versatile. They have little to no flavor, and gel up when introduced to a liquid. This makes them perfect for jams and jellies, puddings, and oatmeal. Chia seeds also work as a binder in baking, replacing the eggs- combine one tablespoon of chia with three tablespoons of water and let it sit for ten minutes. In vegan baking this is commonly called a “chia egg.” I always mix chia seeds into our oatmeal and/or muesli, which boosts the nutritional content and acts as a thickener. Same with smoothies- add a tablespoon of chia seeds to the mix to amp it up. Sometimes I even toss a tablespoon into chilis or stews! The Tarahumara of Mexico, considered the greatest runners in the world, mix chia seeds with water, lime, and a pinch of sugar to create a ‘sports drink’ that makes Gatorade look like PBR.
Here is a great recipe for blueberry chia seed jam by Angela over at OhSheGlows
2. Hempmilk. Because who needs rBGH when you can drink HEMP? Hempmilk is a product of the hempseed, and is the nutritional top-dog in the milk department (yes, that includes cow’s milk). One glass of hempmilk will provide you with omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, phytosterols, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium, fiber, iron, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin. Hempmilk also contains 10 essential amino acids, which means it is a great protein source. Whew!
Hempmilk has a very rich, earthy flavor. It is both creamier and more expensive than almond milk, so we keep both on hand and only use hempmilk for breakfast. It can be used anywhere that you would use milk: in baking, cream sauces, coffee, poured over cereal, etc. Tempt makes a great unsweetened hempmilk, and you can usually find it for a good price if you shop around.
3. Kale. This one has been on the map for a while now, but it’s such a powerhouse that it is worth reiterating: kale is just about the healthiest vegetable out there. It is high in vitamins K and C, calcium, lutein, zeaxanthin, beta carotene, sulforaphane, indole-3-carbinol, and carotenoids.
There are many different varieties of kale, so it is usually classified by leaf type. The most common are green curly kale, red kale, and lacinato (or “dinosaur”) kale. My local farm also grows red russian kale, which is the sweetest variety. Kale is at its best in mid-winter- its flavors are heightened by frost, but in warmer months a ten-minute stay in the freezer will have a similar effect. Kale can be tossed in olive oil and baked (kale chips!), seasoned and dehydrated (kale chips!), sauteed, steamed, shredded in a slaw, juiced, tossed in a salad, or stirred into mashed potatoes (colcannon, to us Irish folk). Jack gets 1-2 servings of kale every day, and he doesn’t even know it- I add two handfuls to our banana-almond butter smoothie each morning. We get a full serving of vegetables first thing in the morning, and you’d never know it by the taste.
Click here to join the ‘green monster’ movement!
4. Adzuki beans. Small and mighty, these little beans pack a nutritional punch. Their cultivation in China and Japan dates back to 4,000 BC, keeping with the trend that ancient foods are where it’s at! One cup of cooked beans provides 17 grams of protein, 25% of the daily recommendations for iron, 30% of magnesium, 25% of potassium, 25% of zinc, and 70% of folic acid- all excellent reasons to tie some of these into every possible meal! We buy ours in bulk from Whole Foods and soak/boil them at home, but I know that there are a few canned varieties floating around as well.
Jack takes his beans straight-up: rinsed and drained, plain in a bowl. Truth be told, they’re not a bad snack on their own, but they make a great addition to green or grain salads. They also do well in chilis and add body to soups. Get creative- their mild flavor means they’d add a protein boost to anything from veggie burgers to post-workout health cookies!
5. Oatmeal. I think that oatmeal is an unsung hero. Consuming one bowl of oatmeal daily can lower blood cholesterol due to it’s high soluble fiber content. It has been a staple food of athletes for years because the high content of complex carbohydrates encourages slow digestion, keeping you fuller longer. It is also high in B-vitamins, protein, and aids in milk production in nursing mothers. Yet time has not been good to oatmeal- it has been steamrolled and over-sugared, packed into packets with sad little pieces of freeze-dried fruit.
People, embrace the groats. Hulled, unprocessed oats will provide you with all the energy you’ll need to start your day, and they’re probably the most versatile food on this list. Oatmeal can be dressed up a hundred different ways- carrot cake oatmeal, zucchini bread oatmeal, blueberry vanilla almond, or just brown sugar and honey. There has even been a trend in savory oatmeal, which would stand in as an excellent throw-together lunch or dinner on a cold day. Oats can also be soaked overnight and eaten cold, as in muesli. Blend them up in smoothies, process them down into a gluten-free flour, or bake them whole into cookies, loaves, and bars. Again, get creative.
My intention with this is to provide an entryway into what may have otherwise been intimidating and unfamiliar foods. When people tell me that they haven’t ever had such-and-such because they’re just not sure how to prepare it, I feel awful. There are so many foods that have become favorites of mine that I wouldn’t ever have tried if I hadn’t picked it up on a whim and winged it, and I encourage you all to do the same. Each time you visit the grocery store, pick up something you haven’t ever tried before, do some research, and then experiment.
Food should be fun. It shouldn’t ever be stressful to prepare a meal at home. There’s no Chef Ramsay screaming about underdone scallops, no panel of judges waiting on a perfectly-plated appetizer. It’s just you and your kitchen, and maybe some people who love you a whole lot. The worst that can happen is you botch the whole thing, in which case I encourage you to laugh loudly and feel good that at least you tried.