Getting our little people to eat - particularly the 'right' foods - has to be one of the most stressful elements of day-to-day parenting...
Will they eat what we cook for them? Are they receiving the nutrients they need? How can we create good eating habits that aren’t going to result in fear or shame? It’s a constant challenge and one that mother-of-three Mandy dos Santos knows all too well.
As the founder of Little People Nutrition, Mandy believes that food not only nourishes our bodies but connects us with people and our environment. And all this starts with nurturing the love of food in children. Her latest venture – Musical Kitchen – takes this to the next level, by encouraging a love of food and cooking through music.
We grilled Mandy for all her tips on creating great little eaters. So if you’re looking for ways to get your children inspired and excited about food – and to make mealtimes easier for yourself – you can look no further.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your business?
I am a mama to three children, Isadora (10), Maya (7) and Timmy (4) and to our latest puppy baby, Nelson, who is nine months. I am also a wife to my lovely hubby, Marco.
We have lived on the Central Coast, NSW for almost 18 months now and are enjoying settling into our new home and life up here.
Professionally, I am a food scientist and nutritionist and with my passion for food, science, nutrition and children, have worked for the last 6 years with my own business, Little People Nutrition, as the chief kitchen mess maker.
Little People Nutrition is all about exploring food.
We use our incursion programs, menu plans (for childcare centres and families), music, stories and other interactive resources and services to engage, inspire and empower children, families and educators to explore food.
Of course, nutrition plays an integral part in this. But it is the relationship our children develop with food which will benefit them as they grow. Therefore, our programs and resources are created to explore food and its connection with people – our families, friends, culture and community. To explore food and its connection to our environment – where food comes from and how it is raised and grown. And extending the learnings through sensory and STEM-based concepts to engage in an age-appropriate context.
Whether that be encouraging toddlers to play with the food on their plates, licking and sniffing their peas. Or perhaps pre-schoolers exploring the sensation of touching cooked rice versus dry rice and how the texture has changed. We want to engage children in the exploration of food so that they can build a trust and understanding of it and in turn, develop a deep love for it.
Where did the idea for Musical Kitchen come about?
Musical Kitchen is a collaboration between my dear friend Phoebe Cormack and I. Phoebe is a music therapist and musician and she is just rad, and I have so much respect for what and who she is. Phoebe is equally passionate about food and we saw this real opportunity to use music in a therapeutic and clinical way with food education.
Our originally written and produced music moves through how food is grown, where it is grown, how we buy it, to how we cook and eat it with our loved ones. As well as touching on the senses of food and the anxieties that little ones feel at mealtimes. Acknowledging and respecting little people’s feelings, in all areas of life is important, food and mealtimes included. Through learning the songs, the children can also increase their vocabulary to communicate how the food makes them feel and what they do or don’t like about it.
We have seen and received such lovely feedback. What brought Phoebe and I to tears recently was some feedback from an educator about an ASD child in their care, reciting the colours of his food from our song “Can You Eat the Rainbow?” The child also used our “Sniff It, Lick It” song to build his confidence when interacting with new foods. This was all simply from listening to the music in our performance. Music is such a wonderful resource and tool to engage and communicate, it is so powerful.
Musical Kitchen will be touring regional NSW this year. We will be in the Upper Hunter region in June; the Dubbo, Orange and Forbes region in July; the Canberra, Wagga and Tumbarumba region in August; and Port Macquarie in October.
Our music is also available on iTunes and Spotify now.
How do you involve your own children in meal preparation?
I have tried many ways to engage my own children in meal preparation, but I also never want to push it too far. I invite them to help me almost every day but have also allocated the eldest two the responsibility of cooking a meal or snack each week. Be that muffins, bliss balls or even scrambled eggs. Cooking is an essential life skill that will empower their health as they grow.
My youngest often steps up on a chair and helps. Cutting is one of his favourite tasks and we are transitioning him from our little kid friendly knives to a standard sharp kitchen knife at present. He feels incredibly empowered when I allow him to cut up his own morning or afternoon tea, he eats the whole lot!
Cooking with kids is always a little chaotic and messy but truly, it is worth it.
We all know it's so important to encourage our children to have a love of food. Where do we start?
One of the simplest ways you can encourage the love of food is to cook with whole foods at home and eating the meal together as a family.
Research supports that the act of eating together (as little as three meals a week) has a significant positive influence on the quality and variety of food children eat (yes, including vegetables!). Not to mention the emotional and social development of children, extending into their teenage years.
As my own children grow older and after-school activities have become more prevalent, I too have experienced the pressure of finding the “time” to come together. I ensure it is a priority and schedule activities accordingly, as much for the sanity of a slower pace too.
And the three meals? They do not need to be dinner. They can be breakfast, lunch, even afternoon tea. With a little planning, it is possible, even for the busiest of us.
What tips do you have for parents who are faced with toddlers (beyond the early years) or children who are fussy with food?
I am a die-hard Ellyn Satter fan and adore her theory, ‘Division of Responsibility’. It can be confronting for parents to relinquish the control a little, but it truly is liberating and incredibly powerful.
The theory is as such.
A parent or carer decides:
- What’s to eat;
- When mealtime is;
- Where mealtime is.
The child decides:
- If they will eat it;
- And how much.
Eeek! I hear. How does this actually work?
For instance, I as the parent decide we are having spaghetti meatballs with a deconstructed Greek salad. I as the parent decide that dinner will be at 5:30 pm (so that the children are not too tired) and I as the parent decide we will eat it at the kitchen table.
The child decides that they will eat the meatballs, two slices of cucumber and a piece of tomato. And that is it.
There is no pressure from the parent to eat the spaghetti, eat more veggies, or for the child to finish their plate. It is important for the child to be able to express their ability in feeling full.
Of course, there are many-an astericks to this theory, but that is the basic premise.
It is a slow process with children that are fussy eaters. But persistence and consistency will pay off.
How do you recommend we deal with kids who refuse to eat what we've cooked for them?
Based on the ‘Division of Responsibility’, what we cook, is what we cook. You are not a restaurant. But of course, that is not always feasible.
I like to couple the above theory with family style eating as much as possible. Think Chinese or a Mexican style meal where all the food is in the centre of the table. Perfect for leftovers as well. I ensure there is always something in there that the child might like to eat. And if they eat cheese, pasta and a slice of capsicum, I look at it as a win as they have eaten protein, dairy, carbohydrates and vegetables.
Family style eating allows the child control over what goes on their plate and how much they would like to eat. Two integral components for developing a component eater.
What is your approach to sweets/treats?
No food is forbidden in my home. I love all food. It has a time and a place and that is my goal in educating my children when that is, how frequently and also helping them understand what excess feels like and what the ramifications of that are.
Although I don’t particularly like the wording of “every day” and “sometimes” foods, I do use the framework to discuss why we aren’t having chocolate or ice cream on our way home on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after school.
“We might save the ice cream for when we have movie night, because that’s when we normally have ice cream and popcorn. Is that ok?”
Or perhaps if the child asks for a donut at the mall, I might say, “Well I was thinking we might have apple crumble and ice cream tomorrow after dinner, so I think we might wait for something sweet until then? So, we can eat it all together. I know Papa loves crumble.”
We learn through these situations that sure, these foods are okay to have but we don’t have them all the time. And that it is more fun to eat them for an occasion or tradition, with family and friends, eaten mindfully.
I have also been known to let my children overeat on sweets and chocolate so they know how awful that feels. And to be honest, they have never done it again.
Do you cook different meals for yourselves vs your children?
Unless they are unwell, never. I am a firm believer of one family, one meal and by using family style eating and the division of responsibility, we have been able to achieve this. Eating together and parental modelling is key to encouraging a positive relationship with food. You are not a restaurant.
How do you work seasonality into your menu planning?
The body naturally feels like certain kinds of meals at certain times of the year. Warm nourishing soups in winter, crispy fresh salads during summer. I simply complement that with what is in season through research and also what is abundant at the markets and by talking to the grocer.
We are pretty lucky to have a wonderful array of farmers and produce suppliers on the Central Coast sourcing local produce. This keeps most foods in season.
By focusing on seasonality, we also get a variety of foods into the menu, which equals a variety of nutrition. Just like our Musical Kitchen song “Can You Eat the Rainbow?” variety of produce and colour are key to a healthy diet.
What are some of your favourite go-to family meals?
We are huge converts to the roast and one tray bakes, especially coming into Winter. The children adore anything with a noodle so more and more Asian inspired deconstructed noodle salads are featuring regularly. We also adore legumes and dahl like dishes with rice, as well as a quick and easy throw together pasta dishes.
I am a huge believer of #leftoversarelife for the benefits of time, sanity, budget and waste. All of the family recipes in our menu range are designed to feed a family of four, twice, so that there are leftovers for lunch or a meal in the next few days.
One misconception people have of me is that because I work and adore food, that I cook and eat fancy meals. Sorry to disappoint, but I am known for a Sunday night scramble egg dish on sourdough and if a weeknight is in a frazzle, yoghurt, fruits and veggie sticks are devoured as a picnic for tea. Healthy doesn’t need to be fancy. Simple whole foods are just as delicious and fabulous.
How do you suggest we teach our children about 'healthy' foods without creating shame (or intense lust!) about particular foods?
I try as much as possible to steer away from the use of the words “healthy” or “unhealthy” when talking with children about food. Food is food. Sure, there are better choices but focusing on them naturally creates desire. My aim with food education is to focus on the positive message and how the “better” foods make us feel, without calling them “better”. For instance, “I know you would like chocolate ice cream, but we normally don’t eat chocolate for breakfast because it won’t give us the energy to play and learn until morning tea. But perhaps we can have some on Friday, for movie night.” Or perhaps after a birthday party where your child has indulged and is going a little cray cray, “How are you feeling? Why do you think you might be feeling like this?” And then for the next party, “Remember when you ate that whole bowl of red lollies and the afternoon became a little crazy? Maybe this time listen to your body and when it says it is feeling full from the red lollies.” I very rarely say a complete no, as our children are learning about food. Learning about eating broccoli as much as learning about eating “unhealthy” foods too.