When your kids curl up their noses at peas for the fourth time, you — like many moms — might decide to throw in the towel. And we feel your pain! With busy schedules, it’s hard to find the time to prepare a nutritious dinner, let alone watch it being thrown across the room in disgust.
But the ultimate mom-on the-go Tamera Mowry-Housley (seriously, she’s an actress, mother of two, and co-host of the daily talk show The Real) is sharing some of her secrets for not only getting her toddler to eat healthfully, but to enjoy it, too.
If she can get her three-year-old Aden eating grapes, zucchini, and carrots, so can you! She’s teamed up with Uncle Ben’s on their Ben’s Beginner’s Cooking Contest to help spread the word on making cooking fun and playful, and connecting with your kids through preparing healthy meals.
Here are her top tips for sneaking in nutrition and making meal time “family time” — all while juggling a busy schedule.
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1. Play with shapes and color.
“Kids love learning their colors and shapes,” says Mowry-Housley. She takes advantage of this by color-coding dinners: Think, an orange plate filled with sweet potato, carrots, and seasoned rice — or make it rainbow night and try to get every color on your dinner plate! She also uses cookie cutters to cut or arrange food into fun shapes. Getting kids excited about the visual aspect of the meal makes them less likely to focus on the fact that they’re eating produce.
2. Have themed nights.
Another way to make mealtime fun is to re-create meals from your kids' favorite restaurants — like pizza, Chinese takeout, or Mexican food. Kids will enjoy making — and eating! — their favorite dishes at home, and it's easy to sneak in some healthy ingredients. They’ll be excited to dig into a burrito stuffed with brown rice, beans, and leafy greens, or a bowl of whole-wheat spaghetti and meatballs with spinach tomato sauce.
3. Rehab your kids' favorites.
"Aden loves pancakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Mowry-Housley. So she uses whole-grain pancake mix and then adds in pureed veggies for a dose of nutrition. “I puree veggies like carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, and sweet potato, and add other healthy ingredients like yogurt, bananas, and berries; he has no idea I’m putting them in his pancake mix,” she says. “You can hide them in tomato sauce, too. I also like to add pureed zucchini or cauliflower to banana muffins. I feel great as a parent because I know he’s getting that nutrition. I find myself doing the evil laugh behind him — you have no idea what you’re eating buddy!”
4. Let them play chef.
Buy kids their own apron and oven mitt and pull up a stool so they can stand at the counter and get involved in meal prep, says Mowry-Housley. “Aden loves to stir and he will mix his own pancakes, which is a great way for kids to get involved since they can’t hurt themselves,” she says. This is also an easy way to teach kids about what is in their food: “Now Aden knows the ingredients. He will tell me he wants pancakes by pointing to the milk and eggs because he actually knows what goes in them.”
5. Go at their pace.
While Mowry-Housley does try to introduce her son to new fruits and veggies, she’s also learned that allowing them to discover produce on their own terms is sometimes the best route. After multiple failed attempts to get Aden to try grapes, she gave it a rest. “I tried so hard. Then I was like, you know what? Let me just step back,” she says. “Then one day he saw grapes out on a plate and he just started eating them — I almost fell off my chair!”
6. Have staples prepped.
When it comes to finding the time to cook dinner during the week, “the prep is usually what gets you,” says Mowry-Housley. “The actual cooking time can be less than 20 minutes.” To streamline the prepping process, she likes to grocery shop before the week starts and store cut up fruits, veggies, and grains in containers to have them ready to go. She recommends investing in stainless steel mixing bowls with lids so that you can prep and store your ingredients in the same bowl, saving you time and cutting down on dirty dishes! She also keeps easy staples on hand like microwavable rice and egg beaters that make it easy to throw together a meal in minutes.