Re-Learning to Taste

January 10, 2011 by

My family and I are trying an experiment this month.  During January, we’re not eating meat or sweets, and are cutting the added salt out of recipes and dishes.  My husband and I have also stopped drinking alcohol.  The idea is to see if we will notice a difference in the way foods “taste” when we go back to our regular, luscious style of eating on February 1.  (And I, for one, am counting the days.)

I got this idea from Bon Appetit magazine restaurant critic Andrew Knowlton, who was asked in his popular “BA Foodist” column how he can truly appreciate food, and not gain a lot of weight at the same time, when he is required by his job to go from one spectacular meal to the next.  He replied that in January – presumably after a month or more of holiday over-eating – he whittles out these extras in order to “recalibrate” his senses and his palate. I started thinking about that in context of the research that I discuss in my book, My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.  And I think it makes a lot of sense.

When I talk to parents about their kids’ eating habits, I often hear comments that young children are  hooked on certain kiddie foods (like cereals, beverages and snack foods) and that they won’t eat the adult versions, because they “don’t taste right.”  That usually means that the adult version is not sweet enough or fatty enough.  This is the major problem with feeding your children any kid-oriented food in the first place.

But if “taste” and “flavor” are learned preferences – and I’m convinced that they are – then it follows that bad habits can be un-learned!  Researchers have found that if people who like high salt levels in their food purposefully eat a lower-salt diet for six weeks, then they come to actually prefer less salt.  This can work on your children, too.  Start mixing their Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loops with less-sweet adult cereals.  If they’re hooked on children’s yogurt, substitute an adult-marketed one.  There really is a difference in the level of sweetness.

I’ll let you know the results of the Piho Family’s attempt to sharpen our senses and taste buds. Although we’re not doing this for any particular health reason, we are definitely eating a lot more vegetables and beans than we normally do.  My husband has already lost two pounds.  But if nothing else, this month is reminding me how much I love good food.  I personally cannot wait until January 31, when I’m hosting a press dinner for the American Lamb Board and the Washington State Wine Commission!

New Year, New Eating!

January 3, 2011 by

If you’d like to see some changes at your house regarding your kids’ eating habits, you may need to put some new rules in place.  And what better time to do that than the beginning of a new year?  Make 2011 the year that you focus on your family’s health and well-being, by teaching your children to eat a broader diet.  Here are some specific tips that can help with older kids, even if the situation seems hopeless!

n  Recognize that your own eating habits, and your attitude about food, plays a critical role in getting your children to eat better.  You can’t eat breakfast in the car, grab a coffee drink for lunch at 3:00 and serve a limited repertoire at dinnertime, and then expect your kids to do better. Resolved: This year, everyone in our family will eat better, and will think more critically about the foods we eat!

It’s time to cut out the waitressing routine!  I’m particularly sensitive about this issue, as it’s a bad habit I’ve fallen into myself.  When my children are eating breakfast, for example, and want a second helping, I’m too quick to hop up, run to the kitchen, and get it for them.  As children get older, they need to be taught to do these tasks themselves.  Self-service makes kids that much more vested in the foods they eat.

This year, we will eat at least one meal together each day – or every other day – as a family.  The rule needs to be firm, but the details can be as flexible as needed to make it work.  It may be breakfast some days, or the dinner hour may vary, but make it a point to set aside at least 15 minutes every day to have everyone seated together to eat.

In 2011, we will cut out – or at least cut back – on kiddie snacking.  A major part of learning to eat well is learning to anticipate mealtime; satiating every hunger whim with bad-tasting chips, crackers or most other between-meal snacks prevents this.  When your kids say, “I’m hungry!” respond with, “Great!  Dinner is in an hour.  We’re having (fill in the blank) tonight, and you’re going to love it!”

If you have some tips on breaking bad eating bad habits that have worked in your family, I’d love to hear them!

The “News” About Children and Cereal

December 20, 2010 by

Did you catch the reports about the new Yale study that found that kids really do like low sugared cereals just as much as the high sugar counterparts?  My favorite part of this story was the way that it was reported by the press: as a SURPRISE!!  Like this is really big news for parents!  Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it really is big news to cereal manufacturing companies.

Cold cereal is something that most children eat a lot of, and it is unique on the grocery store shelf in that there are so many varieties developed exclusively for kids.  I can’t think of many other food products that are so clearly either for “kids” or for “adults.” And as is the case with just about every food that is made for and marketed to children, “kiddie cereals” are inferior in both nutrition and taste to the cereals made for adults.

Because they are such a basic staple in most people’s diets, there is a whole chapter in my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” about cereal.  In fact, in conducting research for the book, I had several taste-testing panels, where we really tasted a multitude of popular kiddie cereals and noted differences (what little there are) between the brands.  There are detailed notes on what we found in the book, but the overall conclusion is this: Children’s cereals for the most part all taste the same, and that sameness is SWEET.

If you want to teach your kids to eat a wide variety of foods, and thus be on the path to really “eating everything,” a smart move is to skip over the children’s cereals altogether, and instead start them off from the beginning on adult cereals.  If you compare the food labels, you’ll see that the adult products generally have fewer grams of sugar per serving.  And it’s important to note that the sugar in many adult cereal products often comes from dried fruits like chopped dates or raisins.  You at least are getting that small nutritional benefit, as well as a little textural variety.  In the children’s cereals, the sky-high sugar level is just added sugar.

I’m hoping that food manufacturers will start taking note of findings like the one that just came out of Yale.  And parents, if you must serve your kids Fruit Loops or Apple Jacks, at least keep the portion size to a “topping.”  Start your kids off early on low-sugar cereals and sprinkle a little bit of their favorites on top.  Like these researchers found, very soon they won’t even know the difference and in fact may come to prefer the lower-sugar variety!

This is my last blog entry for 2010.  I look forward to being back in this space after the holidays!

The Real Food Divide

December 13, 2010 by

I’ve read several interesting articles recently* that discuss the concept of food as the new cultural divide in this country; that it is the wealthy and upper class that is driving an American food revolution, while the less fortunate don’t have the time, dollars, education or interest to care what they eat. If this is true, it’s a bad thing.  In any progressive culture, food should be a unifying component.

But while I think this question is an important one for all of us who seek to improve Americans’ diets to consider, I also believe it misses an important and even deeper point.  While it may be the rich who prefer organic, vegetarian, heritage, locally-grown, fair trade and other labels to preface their foods, while those who spend as little as possible to eat select what is cheap and available at a corner convenience store, both are still at least partially driven by the motivator we often seem to forget about in these discussions – the TASTE of the food.

And it is here that the Whole Foods shopper and the McDonald’s diner have more in common than either may realize.

With almost twenty years of marketing in the food industry, and especially after researching my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” I am more convinced than ever that there is a primary point that we all think about when making food choices.  And it’s not nutrition, price, or even availability.  It’s what we, personally, think tastes “good.” 

The upper class suburbanite who turns up her nose at French fries from Burger King thinks nothing of eating in a top-notch restaurant where the chef regularly over-salts the food. (“Because that’s how my diners tell me they like it,” one James Beard award winner told me when I asked about the frequent propensity to over salt.)  She may proudly keep her kids away from HFCS-laden sodas, but make a morning stop at Starbucks for her own sugar-loaded caffeine fix.  The bottom line is, sweet is sweet, whether you find it in a $20 dessert from the best bakery or restaurant in town, or in a piece of cheap, stale candy that has been sitting on the shelf at Costco for 3 months.

A healthy diet is a varied diet, one that appreciates and accepts a wide range of foods, flavors and flavor combinations.  This is what all of us should be teaching our kids.  Eating from a narrow flavor, and thus food, profile range is just as much a problem for “wealthy eaters” as “poor eaters.”

*Check out “Divided We Eat: What Food Says About Class in America,” by Lisa Miller, Newsweek, Nov 20, 2010; “The New Front in the Culture Wars: Food,” by Jane Black and Brent Cunningham, Washington Post, Nov 26, 2010; and “Junking the Junk Food,” by Judith Warner, New York Times, Nov 25, 2010

Making Vegetables Tasty – And A Great Recipe!

November 29, 2010 by

I’ve written in this space about the importance of attention to taste and flavor in getting kids to eat a wide variety of foods.  That especially applies to vegetables, which too often are presented to kids in a bland form, maybe just steamed or boiled in water.  It’s easy to overcook them in this way, making the texture too mushy, and the sharp natural taste of veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach is too strong for some children.

Don’t be afraid to serve your kids – even the little ones – all of these vegetables, prepared the way you like to eat them.  That may mean sautéed or grilled in olive oil and garlic, properly seasoned with salt and pepper, or flavored with fresh herbs or chicken stock.  This is not the same thing as smothering vegetables in a cheese sauce or ranch dressing, which merely masks the natural flavor.

As I take the week off to recover from a fun holiday weekend, I’m sharing an easy recipe for Brussels sprouts slaw that was a hit at my Thanksgiving table with everyone, including my 3 year old!  This is a good way to introduce kids to a new vegetable like Brussels sprouts, in a way that everyone will enjoy.  This slaw will be making many appearances on my dinner menus, throughout the winter months.

Brussels Sprout Slaw with Mustard Dressing


¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ cup vegetable oil

1 ½ pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed

In small bowl, whisk mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and sugar.  Whisk in oil.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Bring large pot of water to boil; add one tablespoon salt.  Add Brussels sprouts and cook until crisp-tender and still bright green, about 5 minutes.  (Do not overcook!) Drain and rinse with cold water.  Cool.

Place Brussels sprouts in food processor and chop until coarse.  Transfer to large bowl and toss with dressing.

Optional:  In small bowl, combine ¼ cup maple syrup, ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper.  Toss 1 cup pecan halves in syrup, to coat.  Spread in single layer on sheet of aluminum foil and bake 5 minutes at 325 F. Separate and cool.  Stir nuts into slaw.

From the November, 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

Children’s Foods and Thanksgiving!

November 22, 2010 by

Did you know that when given a choice between plain milk and chocolate or strawberry milk, many kids will choose the healthier plain milk?  And when asked to taste plain Greek yogurt and then a sugary/ high fructose corn syrup-laden “kiddie” yogurt, many will tell you that they actually prefer the creamier, slightly-sour Greek yogurt?

I wouldn’t have believed it, until I saw it with my own eyes!

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to about 350 elementary school kids, grades K-5, during their school’s “Farm-to-Table” week.  I wanted them to understand the difference between natural and “real” food products like plain milk and plain yogurt, versus the sweetened up versions that many of them are, unfortunately, more accustomed to.

When I asked the kids what kind of yogurt they like, most gave tooty-fruity answers like banana-strawberry or blueberry.  We talked about these kiddie yogurts and how much sweetener most of them contain – upwards of 20 grams of sugar per serving.  The fact that a small portion of that added sugar is from the fruit may help the product slightly – slightly – on the nutritional front, but it is irrelevant when it comes to the taste of the product.  If you haven’t sampled your kid’s Danimals or Gogurt, give it a try.  It will knock you over with the sweet, sweet flavor. 

I see this issue over and over when it comes to many children’s food products, and it’s a subject that I cover extensively in my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.”  When did we all decide that children need a special variety of yogurt or milk, and that their version must be inferior in flavor (read: overly sweet), as compared to the “adult” or standard product?

As these kids proved to me, given a choice, most will happily try the milk you drink or the yogurt you eat.  If you want to raise a child who loves to eat everything, don’t buy into the line that he should be eating the children’s version!

And this is a perfect segue to mention this week’s Thanksgiving dinner.  A “children’s table” at a house full of relatives is a wonderful tradition many of us share.  But don’t apply that same policy to the meal as well!  Give your kids the same turkey and dressing, squash casserole, roasted Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce and Grandma’s pumpkin pie that everyone else will be enjoying.  That is, after all, how we pass on the best of our holiday traditions.

Chocolate, Strawberry or Plain Milk... Which Would Your Kids Choose?

McDonald’s Kiddie Marketing: Some Interesting Stats!

November 18, 2010 by

Regarding the Happy Meals posts of the last two weeks, here are a few statistics just released by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. 

In just the last week:

Forty percent of children ages 2 – 11 asked their parents to take them to McDonald’s.

Eighty-four percent of parents of children ages 2 – 11 said they took that child to a fast food restaurant at least once.

And … 15% of preschoolers will ask to go to McDonald’s every day.

Is there still a question about the allure of the Happy Meal?!

Happy Meals in San Francisco, Part 2

November 15, 2010 by

Thanks for the thoughts and comments on the recent San Francisco ban on toy giveaways associated with less-than-nutritious food products; the so called “Happy Meal” ban.  I had a number of interesting conversations about it this week.

I definitely get the point made by those of you who say that it seems like a wild and unnecessary “big brother” step of government intrusion into family life, and into a matter that should be up to parental discretion.  If Happy Meals are out today, what is next?  Several people told me that they think the ruling seems arbitrary; who came up with this particular definition of “high fat/ high calorie” food sources in the first place?  It all smacks of a direct pot shot at McDonald’s made by “a small group of people who probably haven’t set foot in one of their restaurants in years,” according to one friend.

But while I understand that point of view, I have to say that overall, as a mother and a food marketing professional, I do support the intent of the ban, clumsy in execution though it may be.

The bottom line is this: Corporate direct marketing and advertising of food products to children – and I mean little children, as young as about 2 years old – is escalating, because it is extremely effective.  It may have started with, and even still contain, some positive elements, such as the promotion of beneficial  foods like fruits and vegetables – but far more dollars and attention are spent trying to sell your kids – not you, but your kids – food items that many parents would prefer that they not have.  I learned a lot about this when researching my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.”

Toy-and-kiddie-food tie-in promotions are everywhere, far beyond McDonald’s Happy Meals.  How about the Fruit Loops, Oreo and M&M’s counting books for toddlers just learning numbers?  Coca-cola infant clothes, Krispy Kreme toy trucks, Toucan Sam stuffed animals, and “Barbie Works at McDonald’s” play sets.  And of course these toy products are just one piece of the puzzle — it would take many more blog entries for me to review all of the television, in-store, electronic and even in-school advertising that kids are subjected to.

Yes, of course, parental responsibility factors into this.  If you don’t want your kids to have this stuff, then don’t buy it for them.  But what also must be considered is this: The sheer volume of kiddie marketing has made the equation between “parents” and “corporate spending” completely unbalanced.  Parental influence is simply no competition against the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year, pushing products that appeal to the basest desires of children.  No matter how vigilant and stringent you are, your kids will find this advertising, or rather, it will find them.  As a parent, I feel like I’m trying to stop an avalanche, armed only with a small snow shovel!

So bans like the one in place in San Francisco are one way for a community body, representing concerned parents, to fight back.  It may not be perfect, but I’m hoping it will send a message.  Some of us have truly had enough!

In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about the rise in marketing of “kiddie food products” directly to kids, and will give tips on how you can stem the tide in your own home.

Happy (Meals) in San Francisco?

November 8, 2010 by

That roar you heard from San Francisco last week was not fans of the Giants winning the World Series, but from kids who heard the news that the local Board of Supervisors has voted to “ban Happy Meals” from being sold in the city.  What is going on here? 

First, two important points of clarification.  Contrary to the way the story is being discussed in some media outlets, these San Francisco lawmakers did not single out McDonald’s and Happy Meals on this issue.  It is not “Happy Meals,” specifically, that are targeted, but any restaurant chain that gives away a free toy enticement, in conjunction with the purchase of a high-fat or high-calorie meal.  (“High fat” and “high calorie” are defined by a group of Berkeley area nutrition and obesity experts.)  Because McDonald’s is so large and Happy Meals so ubiquitous, they represent the face of the ban.

And second, it is not the “Meals” – or the foods, high fat and high calorie though they may be – that are the object of the law.  It is the toy tie-ins themselves.  So to look at the purpose of this ban, it is not really about getting kids to eat healthier foods, at least on the surface.  It is really aimed at stemming the rising tide of direct marketing to kids, by manufacturers who have figured out ways to appeal to children, sometimes more effectively than their own parents can.

In my book “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” I talk a lot about the rampant increase in recent years in the marketing of food products directly to children.  As a long-time veteran of the food marketing industry, not to mention the mother of two little boys, I am particularly mindful of the impact that all of this promotional advertising has on young children and on the buying habits of their caregivers. 

Children are a cheap and easy target and unfortunately, the food products that are “created especially for them” are the same way.  Not only are they often unhealthful – as in the case of a Happy Meal, which ranges from about 380 – 690 calories and 13 – 29 total grams of fat, depending on which version you choose – but they offer nothing in the way of taste or flavor.  Virtually all children’s products are comprised of a “flavor base” made exclusively of fat, salt or sugar.  If you think about it, they are all basically the same thing, just packaged and sold under different labels.

Food companies have figured out ways that you wouldn’t believe to reach your kids, to tell them about these products.  From their earliest daycare years, little kids are the subject of targeted advertising programs that include things like tie-ins with popular cartoon characters. In this space next week, I’ll talk more about some of these marketing strategies, including reliance on the infamous “nag factor.”

So one city is has finally had enough, and is taking a step to ban kiddie-marketing.  What do you think of this?

When Treats Become Tricks

November 1, 2010 by

Ugh.  Are your kids – and maybe you — on candy overload this morning?

Halloween is the start of a two or three month, holiday-based eating frenzy.  We’ll pick through our Kit Kats and Jolly Ranchers for the next few weeks, and then move on to Thanksgiving pies.  Then it’s time for a month or so of Christmas, New Year’s and other holiday winter parties that feature more candies and treats.  You may try to stop it there with your New Year’s Resolution diet; the marketing world, however, tries to extend that period of rich and festive eating right into the Super Bowl weekend and even Valentine’s Day!

I don’t think this is a bad thing, in and of itself.  Food plays an important role in all of our holiday traditions, from the chocolate bars you gave out on Halloween, to the rich chocolate truffles your sweetie gave you on Valentine’s Day.  What would Thanksgiving be without your grandmother’s cranberry sauce, or New Year’s Day without black-eyed peas and cornbread…. Or roast pork and sauerkraut?  What we choose to eat and serve on all of these occasions says a lot about our families, who we are, and how and where we grew up.

Part of teaching your kids to “love to eat everything” is teaching them the significance of foods as they relate to important holidays and family celebrations. And I think that’s the message we need to pass on now, even in this Halloween hangover mode, about all of the candy that’s been accumulated.

All candy is not created equal, even in the eyes of kids. If you’ve watched yours make trades and pilfer favorites from each other’s bags, you know what I mean.   So use this as an opportunity to teach your children about the importance of food choices; just because it’s “there” doesn’t mean you have to eat it!  Pick out a few of the candies from the trick-or-treat bag that you know you’ll enjoy, and put them away to enjoy, a few at a time over the next couple of weeks.  Non-favorites can be traded or donated to a charity that is taking collections.  This is not the same thing as Picky Eating; this is “Discernable Eating” and it’s a skill that will serve kids well for a long time.

Last Night's Loot