little girl with expression of disgust against broccoli, isolated over white


It’s tough for many parents to make sure that their kids eat nutritious meals, what with all of the advertising for less than healthy fast foods on the market. We talk to a nutritionist and a chef about strategies and foods that parents can use to help their kids make better choices at mealtime and in between.

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Allison Childress, instructor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Texas Tech University; Sonoko Sakai, author of the cookbook Rice Craft

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16-35 Kids and Nutrition

Marty Peterson: How do you get kids to eat right? This is a question that not only plagues parents but also school administrators who see students either bypass the school cafeteria line with its government-mandated “healthy” meals or throw most of their lunch in the garbage can. We talked to a diet specialist about why kids are selective eaters and how we can get them to eat what’s good for them. Allison Childress is an instructor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Texas Tech University. She says kids have hard-wired food preferences that steer them toward certain tastes.

Allison Childress: We know in nature that there are no poisonous foods that are sweet. So we are all predisposed even at birth to seek out and search for that sweet-tasting food because we know that it’s safe for us to eat. But, I think that you can learn to enjoy healthy foods. They may not be your taste preference but after a number of exposures to a new food or a certain food, I think that you definitely can create a taste for that.

Peterson: Parents often worry that their children aren’t getting enough nutrition from the foods they eat. And, yes, there are even obese kids who have nutritional deficits, but Childress says that most young people get enough vitamins and minerals from the foods they eat most.

Childress: Fortunately, we have a lot of fortified and enriched foods in our country. So most of the undernourishment issues that we saw, particularly in the 30s, 40s and even 50s, have been taken care of through fortification. So some of the vitamins and minerals that are commonly fortified in foods are iron, and folic acid, and sometimes calcium is fortified, B-vitamins. So we see a lot of fortification. So eating fortified foods is a good way to get those. But I’ll tell you, if there was a miracle food or an ultimate food, fruits and vegetables have a very wide vitamin and mineral profile. You can get a lot of vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables. And if that’s not a possibility, it’s always something to think about to just take a good multivitamin, multi-mineral supplement.

Peterson: But persuading a child to eat or at least try some vegetables like green beans or cabbage can be a real challenge. Childress says that presentation of these foods on the plate can help a child want to try them.

Childress: Because we eat with our eyes first, so when we look at a food before we even taste it or smell it we’re going to make a judgment on a couple of things: whether or not that food is going to fill us up and whether or not we think we’re going to like it. So there are numerous places you can go on the Internet and on Pinterest and such to make food look interesting. So, in other words, take a little bit of peanut butter or a little bit of hummus and put it on a plate and stand a little piece of broccoli, a broccoli floret, in it and make it look like a little forest of trees on their place. Or make a face out of their fruit or out of their pasta. So I think sometimes we get really hung up on how it tastes, when all we really need to do is present it in an attractive way.

Peterson: Another strategy is to introduce a vegetable at a different venue, say grandma’s house or a restaurant; or even sauce the food with another food that the child enjoys but don’t expect them to eat as much of it as you do. Research shows that when kids have a vested interest in the foods they eat, they’ll eat more of them and try new foods. Childress says that getting kids to help plan meals, shop for items and prepare food is a good way to give them ownership of what they eat.

Childress: I think kids even as young as two years old can start to prepare things in the kitchen. So, you know getting a little stool and having a two-year-old or a three-year-old stand at the counter and tear lettuce or greens for a salad, they can rinse fresh produce in the sink, they can snap green beans, they can mash potatoes, you know, with a potato masher, they can use a whisk to stir things, they can squeeze fruits for juices and lemons and limes for things. Once we hit about four or five and school age they can start to peel fruits, they can help crack eggs, they can begin to assemble foods, like they can make sandwiches, they can toss salads. They can start to measure using measuring cups, you know, once they hit the kindergarten, first grade age.

Peterson: Finding alternatives that are fun for kids to prepare and eat is also a way to make sure they get their nutrients. Serving rice instead of bread is one way. Childress says that there’s not much difference in the nutritional value, and it’s a change from the usual starch in their meals. Sonoko Sakai has a great way for kids to get involved in making their own food for meals or lunch boxes. She’s the author of the cookbook Rice Craft. In it there are a variety of onigiri or little rice balls that kids can make and decorate.

Sonoko Sakai: Onigiri is rice shaped by hand into a ball, and you fill it with a savory something. You know it could be chicken, it could be a little tuna mixed with mayonnaise, it could be your leftover dinner like a grilled salmon that, maybe you have a little piece left, you could flake that off and just put it into you onigiri and make a ball and wrap it with a little seaweed to hold the onigiri together and it’s a little bit like a burrito or a sandwich, but instead of being made with wheat flour and baked or a corn tortilla, we use rice grains. And in order for the rice to hold together you need to make a ball or you need to shape it.

Peterson: Sakai says that onigiri is perfect for children to make because it’s easy and they can include their favorite foods – or a parent’s selection – into the ball all by themselves.

Sakai: It’s almost like you’re making snowball when you’re making an onigiri and every child knows how to make a snowball. Any child has, if you’ve been to the beach, you can make a sand castle. It’s using your hands to mold, mold the grains into a ball. So it’s very similar to playing in the sand, or making a mud ball, but it’s edible! And you can fill it, you can decorate it. I am so amazed at how creative children can be when you give them a set of fresh ingredients like parsley and edible flowers like nasturtiums and things from your herb garden, and chopped carrots and radishes and pieces of chicken or bacon and they will make the most delicious onigiri.

Peterson: In her book, Sakai has recipes that are healthy and would appeal to most kids: fruit and nut onigiri; a tuna melt ball and even a bacon and egg onigiri. She says that it’s a great way to use leftovers, such as Spanish rice that was served at dinner the night before or cooked vegetables or meat. You can even sprinkle the rice ball with cinnamon sugar and spread some fruit jam on it. The major rule of onigiri is that there are no rules — except that the rice you choose should be a medium- or short-grained variety that will stick together more easily. She says that, like sushi or spring rolls, you can also wrap onigiri in various vegetables to boost the nutrition.

Sakai: You can wrap your onigiri in leaves, like lettuce leaves, Swiss chard. You could do kale. Leaves are great for wrapping onigiri, like the Vietnamese spring rolls – you wrap it and then you can dip it in a sauce, a sweet and sour or lime. And I have one that you do with Swiss chard. It’s like sushi. You dip it in soy sauce. Sushi is basically onigiri. It’s just fancy onigiri.

Peterson: Sakai says that making onigiri and other rice-centric foods the center of the meal instead of fatty meats is one way the Japanese fight obesity in their country. Finally, Childress says that a good way to make sure kids eat healthy and properly portioned meals is to eat more with the family.

Childress: Research shows again and again that children who eat dinner with their families have higher intakes of nutrients like fiber and calcium and foliate and iron and vitamins. They also eat more fruits and vegetables and when they’re away from home they tend to eat fewer fried foods and drink fewer soft drinks. So having those family dinners sets those kiddos up to make good choices even when they’re not at home with their parents.

Peterson: Allison Childress says that if parents want to find out more about nutrition for their kids and themselves, they should visit the website at To learn more about onigiri and how to make it, pick up Sonoko Sakai’s book, Rice Craft at stores and online at her site, For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.