Practicing Prevention: Cooking with a Toddler

A few weeks back, we took our toddler to see Sesame Street Live – a groan-inducing rite of passage for many parents of toddlers. This year’s subtitle was “Elmo’s Healthy Heroes,” and the show followed Grover in his efforts to locate his “superness,” which he regained through 4 healthy habits: eating right (in this case, eating fruits and vegetables), exercising, taking a bath and sleeping. A good message. The irony came in that said event was at one of those big sports arena, which offered a kids meal for the event. Said kids meal contained: a hot dog, chips, a cookie, a crispy marshmallow rice bar and a juice. Now granted, there was a “healthy” kids meal option. It contained some sad (truly) looking celery sticks, a few slices of orange, an orange juice and one of those prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that are crimped together with the crusts cut off. This was my first encounter with this particular food-like item and one I hope to not repeat (the peanut butter was of an unnatural consistency and there was about 5 times as much jelly as I think is reasonable for a sandwich all together on a really dry “bread”). My PB&J loving toddler ate about half and lost interest.

This got me thinking about the need for our behaviors to reinforce our words when it comes to raising kids who will make healthy choices and like healthy food. A number of food writers and bloggers (not to mention researchers, advocates and NGOs) have discussed that kids who participate in food growing and preparing are more interested in eating the food, even when it contains things previously considered “yucky”. (For some resources on this, see this PDF from our colleagues at Planet Health & the Harvard School of Public Health)

With that in mind (and it being winter so we aren’t growing anything), I wanted to make more of an effort to include my toddler in food preparations. I figured that the best way to start was to involve her in cooking something she DOES like. And my kid LOVES cake, which is, according to Cookie Monster post-2006, a “sometime snack.” That said, me being me, I wanted to find a cake that was healthier than the average standby. I found Martha Rose Shulman’s flourless carrot cake, which featured a few things I liked: it didn’t make a gigantic cake that would have us eating this “sometime snack” for days; it didn’t have a ton of sugar; it didn’t have any oil (other than what you use to grease the pan); it didn’t have white flour, relying on grounds almonds instead and instead; and it wasn’t covered in a sickly-sweet frosting. The last one being a significant “con” in my daughters eyes.

Sunday morning, we set up shop in the kitchen. It turns out the bags of whole almonds at the grocery store have 1 ¼ cups and the recipe calls for 1 ½ cups, so we tossed some sliced almonds we also had in the food processor. The recipe calls for turbinado (raw) sugar. We have white sugar and some demerara sugar so we mixed the two and hoped for the best.

Warning: pulverizing nuts in the food processor may scare the heck out of a small child.

but it looks tasty

(next time, I’d grind it a bit more, but we needed to cease the loud noise making!)

Toss in the flavor adding goodies

Shulman then has you grate carrots on the smallest holes of your grater. If I’m going to go through the trouble of getting the food processor out and washing all those parts, you better believe the carrots are getting grated in the food processor. So I dumped the almond meal mixture into a bowl, swapped in the grating attachment and we went to work. (My daughter didn’t mind this noise – it wasn’t quite as loud.)

Thankfully, we grated a lot of carrots as my daughter was quite interested in sampling at this stage and I was happy to oblige.

I tried to involve my daughter in as many of the steps as I could including measuring, pouring, grinding and mixing. Here she is adding the carrots to the beaten egg/sugar mixture (remember, this is healthiER food…)

When it comes out of the oven, it doesn’t look super pretty

A quick shake of confectioners sugar solves this, but takes you one teensy step away from the healthy part of healthier. I like my desserts a bit pretty so I did it.

As you might expect with a toddler adventure, this one involved some clean-up, but we had so much fun it was well worth it.

The end result was fantastic. My whole family, including the most important voter, my daughter, LOVED it. I brought leftovers into the office, and it got good reviews there, too. This isn’t the carrot cake you find in the dessert case at your local diner or coffee shop, but it is a tasty “sometimes treat” you can make with your kid.

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