10 Questions with Voula Halliday on getting kids to eat well
The struggle is real. You pack what you think is a healthy lunch and when you clean out their lunch box after school you see the apple untouched, one bite out of the sandwich and the half-eaten yogurt is covering everything with a thin, disgusting layer of congealing goo. I know – sometimes I just want to throw the whole lunch box out. But those containers are expensive! And then on to dinner, which is a negotiation situation that rivals any Wall Street lawyer’s skill for arguing a case.
Urban Suburban Mommy caught up with one of this country’s national treasures, Voula Halliday. She’s prized for being able to overcome the irrational demands of any child’s appetite. A Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef, she was the featured chef on the Steve and Chris show and has written for many publications on the subject. She has also written the must-have cookbook Eat at Home. We had the chance to ask her the 10 questions you know you want to know about just getting your kid to eat!
1. What does the ideal school lunch look like? Hot or cold?
[Laughing] I say ask your kid this question! The ideal school lunch is one that is nourishing and one that they will eat. Conversation is the key to establishing this. Ask your child to share with you what she or he enjoys to eat at lunch. Sometimes food that they love eating at home isn’t as appealing after it’s been sitting in a lunch box for a few hours so it gets set aside and left uneaten, even if they are hungry. Here’s an article I wrote on this subject for Today’s Parent.
2. What do you recommend for picky eaters?
I’m not a big fan of defining kids as “picky” because I think that kids are still learning what they like and don’t like, and that’s okay. I suggest encouraging children to try new things all the time. And don’t give up after the first time they taste something and say “yuk”. New flavours and textures sometimes need to be experienced a few times before they are embraced.
3. Some parents think there should be a main, a fruit and a snack in the school lunch; others throw in 5 or 6 small graze-able items. What’s the best route?
I think it’s perfectly fine to go with either option. It’s more about packing a lunch that your child will enjoy and that will give them the fuel they need to get through the day. If you know your child is better with fewer choices at mealtime, go with a square meal. If they are someone who likes to move around a plate that is a mix of things, then offer small portions of a variety of items. Something important to watch out for is that you don’t put too much food in their lunch because that can be a turnoff for kids.
4. Does having a special lunch box – a bento or timpani – help for kids? Does the visual presentation impact their appetites?
I am very much a visual person and I appreciate a special lunch box, but I don’t think that you have to use fancy lunchboxes to make lunch more appetizing.
For kids one of the biggest barriers to eating lunch is access to their food. Some containers are so difficult for little hands to open so look for easy-to-open lids. If you are buying a bento style box, look for ones with partitions so that the food inside doesn’t get tossed about or mixed up. No one wants their blueberries tasting like tuna. It’s a good to go shopping with your child so you can ask if they can open a container easily before you purchase it.
5. What super-foods should always be in lunches – meals in general?
There are so many wonderful whole foods that can go into creating a balanced meal for lunch. Visualize half the meal made up of vegetables – peppers, peas, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, chopped lettuce or cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, and pickles too. I could go on! A combo of their favourite vegetables, either raw or blanched (to keep them bright and flavourful it’s better not to over-cook veggies) and cut into bite-size pieces is great on its own or as part of something like a salad or a pasta dish.
Make the rest of the meal up from a balance between a protein such as chicken, fish, eggs, beans, cheese, yogurt, tofu – whatever your child enjoys – and a super-healthy starchy carbs. Quinoa, rice, fruit, beans or sweet potatoes are all great choices.
Sometimes I combine quinoa or rice or rice pasta with black beans, chicken, and a variety of my daughter’s favourite veggies that I have finely chopped. I add a bit of lemon and olive oil and some seasonings and create something tasty and super nourishing. She loves it.
6. Some parents say, “It’s just a treat” while others feel sugar is a total no-no in school lunches. Some teachers send home shaming notes for bad food choices. Is sugar a hard “no” in your books?
I’m always so surprised at how much refined sugar is showing up as an ingredient in processed food. It offers no nutrient value so it’s one of those ingredients that we all should be careful to note how much we are consuming.
I’m against shaming because it doesn’t provide parents or children with what they really need – to know what is in their food so they can make informed choices. My approach isn’t a “total no-no”, instead I use my skills to help guide people with ease and I offer solutions that are accessible for all sorts of meal requirements in my cookbook – even for sweet treats – often using honey or maple syrup instead of refined sugar.
When balanced by a diet that is overall healthy – based on whole foods, not processed – and an active lifestyle, having a portion of brownie or cake is okay.
[Brownies in my cookbook are made with black beans!] (Urban Suburban Mommy says: And they’re delicious! Your child will never know. We taste tested two batches “on the kids” lol. So good!)
7. With the peanut butter ban in most schools, is there a good way to get protein into their diet in another easy go-to sandwich?
Yes, besides the usual sandwich fillings of meat or fish you could instead go add sliced boiled egg, or slices of cheese.
I like making a sandwich spread in the food processor combining one can of drained chickpeas or black beans, a clove of fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and some seasoning. It’s very handy to have this in the fridge as a handy source of protein. You can make a spread like this out of edamame too.
8. Making lunch is time consuming, any tips on short cuts?
So many tips! At home my mantra is “Cook once, eat thrice!” We’ll cook with a plan to have leftovers so that meal prep during the week is easier. Eat at Home is full of what I call Loveable Leftovers – ideas for how to turn what’s left from one dish, into another meal. One of our favourite lunch box items is a savoury muffin I make from leftover chicken or ham, cheddar and little chunks of green apple. It’s so good! I’m the kind of person that would take leftover blanched broccoli and chopped leftover roast potatoes and turn it into a salad with the addition of whatever else I could pull from the fridge.
Other tips: We pre-cut veggies so that we can whip up a salad easily. We cook extra rice, pasta or quinoa at dinner to add to lunch and we regularly roast skinless chicken thighs or breasts to have in the fridge to add to mix in with our grains and veggies.
Another thing I find that comes in handy for lunch is finely sliced cabbage or Napa cabbage –it holds up so well and provides great crunch and nourishment to any salad or grain bowl.
9. What is the hardest part about feeding kids?
I think the hardest part for all of us, is time.
It’s hard to come home at the end of a long day, deal with homework and then have time to prepare a tasty and nourishing meal. So what to do? First, start having conversations as a family about foods you like – and involve children when you can in mealtime prep. You can learn a lot when you are all hands-on in the kitchen.
10. What is the best advice to parents on how to approach feeding kids healthy meals? Sometimes it’s chicken nuggets or pizza slices just to avoid a fight, how can parents move past that?
Involve them! Go to the grocery store as a family activity one day – when you aren’t stressed and racing against time. List favourite foods and talk about how to incorporate them into meals you will all enjoy. And during the week, keep it simple – it’s okay to cook the same things, or variations of the same, more than twice or three times in a month. If you can, create habits that help you – like making extra portions of favourite things to freeze and freeze leftovers in single servings that can go from the freezer to the lunch bag.
And yes, sometimes it’s going to be pizza or chicken nuggets – not necessarily to avoid a fight, but because you feel confident and good that you have established overall healthy balanced eating at mealtime so occasional convenience foods are perfectly A-OK!
EAT AT HOME contains over 150 recipes that show how easy it is to cook fresh, healthy, tasty meals every day of the week, including how to buy only what you will use, use everything you have on hand, swap ingredients without sweating it, and transform extras into Loveable Leftovers so you waste nothing.
Voula Halliday is a chef, writer, and artist with diverse and extensive experience in the food industry. A proud graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, she has presented her work on morning television and radio shows, and was one of the chef experts on CBC Television’s award-winning daytime show Steven and Chris. Most recently, she appeared on CTV’s Your Morning to whip up her yummy Apple Cheddar Chicken Muffins (see recipe on UrbanSuburbanMommy.com) and Bacon and Cheddar Quinoa Fritters. You can view the segment here:
Voula’s first appearance on Steven and Chris came about after she was discovered by one of the producers who was volunteering at a Public School where Voula served as the executive chef and program coordinator. She brought Voula onto the show after being taken by her warm personality and the way in which she transformed the usually mundane and unhealthy school lunches into fresh, nutritious and delicious meals for the students and faculty. Voula’s work has appeared in print and digital formats in a variety of publications, including Chatelaine, National Post, Reader’s Digest, and Bon Appétit.