#61 – Kids and Food:
How You Can Help Your Kids Develop a Positive Relationship With Food & the Kitchen
Today we speak with Stephanie Conner, an expert in helping kids develop a positive relationship with food. You can find great ideas at her site, www.kiddoscook.com.
Highlights of our conversation include:
Why your wife might require a different diet when pregnant
Dad’s relationship with food
The chicken recipe that kids love to experiment with
How you can help your kids have a healthy relationship with food at a young age
Roses and Thorns- and other ways to get your child to talk about school around the dinner table!
How to approach trying new foods for your kids
Like this episode? You can check out more of our Dad Podcasts.
Will Braunstein, A Dad’s Path:
Hello, and welcome to another episode of A Dad’s Path podcast. I’m Will Braunstein. Today we’re here with Stephanie Conner, founder of kiddoscook.com and host to the podcast Kiddos in the Kitchen. Stephanie’ll give us an introduction, tell us more about the site and her podcast, but first, welcome Stephanie. Thanks for joining us today.
Stephanie Conner, KiddosCook: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate being here.
Will Braunstein: Awesome. First kiddoscook.com, Kiddos in the Kitchen, why? Why did you start the site and tell us a little bit more what they are?
Stephanie Conner: I started kiddoscook.com because I was spending a lot of time with my own son in the kitchen, and I think he was about 18 months when I started pulling him into the kitchen. I wanted to share more about that journey and remember it for myself and document it for him and share it with others. Part of the reason it was so important to me to cook with him is that when he was little, he was diagnosed with a number of food allergies.
He was allergic to dairy, he was allergic to eggs, to soy, to nuts, and to peanuts, which all started around the time he was 10 months old. At that time, we discovered that he was allergic to eggs and to dairy because he had broken out in hives, and so we took him to the pediatrician and the allergist, and then tested for all these other foods that he hadn’t yet tried. At that point, it was something that I then had to learn how to avoid all of those foods for myself because I was a nursing mother, and it was very hard to eat without those foods.
It was almost impossible to eat out and avoid those foods. It was something that even though I had enjoyed cooking before, it occurred to me that what if he doesn’t grow out of these allergies as he gets older? He really needs to know how to cook. It could truly, literally save his life. I will say he’s eight now and he has grown out of all of those allergies but that foundation of being able to be self-sufficient in the kitchen is still really important to me as a mom.
I discovered that in talking to other people around my age, we grew up in this era where maybe our moms were working outside of the home and dads were too and that nobody taught us how to cook. When it became time to teach our own children, we feel lost and we don’t know what we’re doing. That makes it harder to teach kids if you, yourself feel like you don’t know what you should know. I thought it was time to get over that, and so, I started the podcast because I was tired of just talking about myself.
I found that there are so many people out there on the same mission, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, we’re all out there trying to manage busy lives and teach our children to cook for a number of reasons. I love exploring those reasons and hopefully, being able to, through the podcasts and the blog, give moms and dads and anybody else out there with kids in their lives, some information, just basic cooking information so that they feel a little more empowered, but also some inspiration.
I feel like sometimes you listen to a podcast, or you read a book or an article, and it helps reinforce in you why you’re doing some of the things you’re doing. You read about exercising, and you’re like, “Oh yes, I need to keep doing that.” I feel that way about cooking too. If you hear stories about parents who are figuring this out, hopefully, you too will pull your kid into the kitchen and go for it.
Will Braunstein: That’s great. That’s inspirational, why you started the site originally. For dads out there, I know that when your kid needs mom for food, it can be challenging but just think about the position that Stephanie was in, where she couldn’t eat any food. Hopefully, I’m sure there are dads out there who are in similar but it can always be worse. Stephanie, good for you for making it through.
Stephanie Conner: It was tough but there are a lot more resources now than there used to be for people who have food allergies. I will say I was able to find quite a bit of allergy information and allergy-friendly resources. I’m lucky in that regard.
Will Braunstein: It has gotten easier, I’m sure but still, the resources that you put out are very helpful. It’s fantastic. One thing that struck me as we were talking is it’s not only about food, but it’s about confidence. It’s about leadership, it’s teaching a child, “Hey, can you do this?” First, they’ll say no, and then you teach them and it’s more than just cooking. How do you communicate that to them? Do you communicate that part to them like, “I want you to lead this,” or how do you approach that?
Stephanie Conner: For me, with my son, it’s more of modeling. Then as he gains confidence, he can take over. I did an interview with one parent who calls herself the sous chef. She makes the child the head chef and I’ve always loved that. She’s sous chef mom and there’s the sous chef daddy. Her son is far more advanced than we are at this point but I love that. One of the things that she is trying to teach is leadership and making sure that her son has not just cooking skills but is a leader.
For me, I’m not quite there yet. We’re not quite there yet but I think that when my son sees me do something, and then he does it a couple of times, his personality is such that he needs to do it in more of a safe environment first. Then next time, he’ll take it and run with it. The first few times he cracked eggs, I was right there. Now, I just hand him the bowl and the eggs and I don’t need to watch. He’s got it.
Will Braunstein: That’s awesome. How old is your son, Stephanie?
Stephanie Conner: He’s eight now.
Will Braunstein: Well, okay. I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old, I better get the eggs over to him.
Stephanie Conner: It’s one of those things where, if he knows that I’m making something that has eggs, he will come in and ask to do and that’s just one example.
Will Braunstein: No, that’s awesome.
Stephanie Conner: Can I share another example?
Will Braunstein: Please, yes.
Stephanie Conner: There’s one project that we’ve done a few times that I love it. I love telling people about it because anyone can do it. I feel like the risk for failure is almost zero, but we do a chicken marinade. I pull out all my herbs and spices and then for our chicken marinades, we do almost equal parts herbs and spices, oil, and water. In that one part that is the herbs and spices, we start with a little bit of sugar and a little bit of salt.
The amount of herbs and spices that they’re putting into that third of a cup is actually a pretty small amount, but I just tell him to go crazy. He smells all the herbs and he smells all the spices and he just puts in whatever he wants. The first time he did it, I think there were 12. It was like the Colonel, 11 herbs and spices. It’s just a little a dash of this, a dash of that, but when it was done, we marinated the chicken.
I grilled it and it was Conner chicken. That was Conner chicken number 1. Then the next time it was Conner chicken number 2, and I’ve started actually, I’ll jot down what it is we put in it. We’ll never be able to 100% recreate it because we’re not measuring. We’re just having fun and putting it in but as long as you have regular herbs and spices, probably stay away from maybe, don’t put the cinnamon out.
Will Braunstein: Chili pepper.
Stephanie Conner: Nutmeg. Well, my son loves spicy. He pulled out a Penzeys chili 3,000, but it’s such a small amount that it’s for our family. He was never going to overdo it because of the nature of the way that we make this marinade. It was something that he felt he had ownership of and once the first one was good, then he said, “Okay, well, next time, I’m going to make it spicier.”
Then the next time it was going to be more of an herby marinade. He had ideas in his head of things he wanted to try each time and it’s fun for him and it gives him that ownership. Again, it’s something that I’m there but he’s leading that project. That’s one that I feel like is a good thing for kids who maybe aren’t ready to be the head chef.
Will Braunstein: That’s great.
Stephanie Conner: He is not ready to delegate tasks but he is ready to own a dish. If you can create something that is a safe environment. He’s not going to make something gross, it’s almost impossible, I think. If you have just mainstream herbs and spices that you’re presenting, he’s not going to make a mistake. He’s not going to make something disgusting and it gives him a foundation of confidence where he knows that next time he can continue to make adjustments or create something all-new, and it’s his.
Will Braunstein: No, that’s great and it’s fun. It’s almost like a game in a way. He tries it. He sees how it works, and experiment and then he can change it each time. You said you’re writing down the recipes at this point. You have number one, number two?
Stephanie Conner: Yes. Number two. I know what went in them. I don’t know the exact proportions because we’re just shaking them in.
Will Braunstein: You’re right. That’s why you’re here.
Stephanie Conner: Yes. He has asked if we could make Conner chicken number two again and it’s like, “We can try.”
Will Braunstein: Maybe.
Stephanie Conner: We can come close.
Will Braunstein: That’s funny.
Stephanie Conner: If we want to measure it, we can.
Will Braunstein: That’s not the point as much. I see.
Stephanie Conner: Right. I like the idea that, for mommy chicken number one, I know what goes in it. It’s never the exact same either, but I like the freedom for him to know that he doesn’t have to pull out a recipe book, every time he wants to make a meal. He is understanding how flavors come together and then he can build on that. I think that’s a good skill for him.
Will Braunstein: Absolutely. I think it’s a good skill for any child. Beyond the cooking and the tactile, the taste, all that, it’s a relationship with food which I think is pretty important. At the very least, I think you’ve written about this, he might not appreciate a McDonald’s hamburger or something because he can make a good hamburger or something along those lines. Right?
Stephanie Conner: Yes. Between his food allergy history and just a lack of exposure to certain other foods, he’s probably going to be a bit of a food snob. He’s already a chocolate snob because he doesn’t like milk chocolate, because he just never acquired a taste for it after not having dairy for the first seven years of his life. He’s going to have a different palate, I think, than some kids.
Will Braunstein: There’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s, but I think if you think about processed food or food that probably is not very good for you, we could agree on, though also at the same time, it’s not necessarily healthy food you’re making because you can make a triple cheeseburger at home.
Stephanie Conner: We sure can.
Will Braunstein: That’s fine too. Anyway, I do think the relationship with food is interesting and that’s something that I think we all struggle with, at least for myself and other dads. That also goes back to modeling, which you had mentioned earlier. What about eating, how you eat food? Is that something you think about or do you make sure you’re eating at the table together? Do you make sure you’re not on your phone?
Stephanie Conner: The family dinner is very important to us. I will say that I have just the one child, so that’s only one child’s school schedule, sports schedule, activity schedule to manage. It’s really hard to get four or five people at the table at the same time every night. For the three of us, it’s doable and so we do it. Sometimes, it’s takeout. Sometimes, it’s leftovers and sometimes, it’s something we made. It’s really important to me that we are at the table once a day. I’m not a big breakfast eater.
In the mornings, my son has a little something before school, and I have my tea with him and we chat for a few minutes, but mornings are usually pretty rushed. In the evenings, we really do our best to make sure that we are sitting down and talking and having dinner. Then, on the weekends, we usually have a brunch meal and a dinner meal together. Those are just important to us.
Will Braunstein: I like that. I think it does. Just eating together and having at least one meal a day, the dinner, saying, “Hey, this is a family time.” I don’t know if you’ve experimented with different conversation topics. That’s always something that we’re playing around with in terms of, “How was school today?” “Good.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.”
Stephanie Conner: Nothing.
Will Braunstein: You’ve probably heard the apple or onion thing. Give me your apple, the good thing, and the sweet thing, and onion, the not so good thing that happened today or something.
Stephanie Conner: We talk roses and thorns.
Will Braunstein: There you go, roses and thorns. It can be hard to dig deep. Then, also, for both my kids– I have almost eight-year-old and almost five-year-old, often don’t have any thorns. I feel weird asking about it because I’m like, “Anything bad happened at school?” It doesn’t feel like I need to push there either. I do love the rose thing or maybe just focus there. You need to have both, right?
Stephanie Conner: Yes, you do. Sometimes, I find that I ask my son, “Tell me a story from your day.”
Will Braunstein: Oh, that’s good.
Stephanie Conner: It’s agnostic to, was it good or bad? I just want to hear a story because like your kids, mine just says, “Good, fine, yes, no.” I like to give a little more open-ended. I don’t care if it’s so and so did something to somebody else at school. Sometimes, that’s what I get, is I get the classroom gossip, but that’s okay. I just want to know what’s going on and what’s on his mind. Sometimes, just, “Tell me a story,” gives him the freedom to share something that he might not, because it wasn’t the best thing that happened or the worst thing that happened. It was just a thing.
Will Braunstein: That’s a great approach.
Stephanie Conner: I’ll bring this back to the kitchen because that’s my thing. I think that sometimes when we create new spaces and places to have conversations, kids naturally share in different ways. I walk my son to school every day. We’re in Phoenix. When the weather is nice enough, we start walking to school. Three-fourths of the school year, we are walking to school every day. I find that on those walks, he shares things that he didn’t share the night before at the dinner table.
Things just come to his brain or he’s processed them overnight. I find that in the kitchen too that sometimes, we’ll just be making something and he thinks to share something that he hasn’t before. Those new environments that where you open up the opportunity for them to share, they surprise you with more than just, “Good,” and, “Fine.”
Will Braunstein: I’d never thought about that. Absolutely, it makes sense because I talked about that in the car. That’s a big advantage of, same as you, you’re walking, which is a little nicer than driving. We have 15, 20 minutes in the car together with both my kids, and often we’ll be playing a game or something. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, there’s this like, “Zoe’s not my best friend,” or whatever it is. You’re like, “What?” That’s when they’re comfortable talking. It makes sense though, that happens in the kitchen as well.
That’s cool, that’s cool. The other area I want to push on a little bit is new foods. My kids love mac and cheese pasta and they’ve slowly developed loves for other food. It’s been challenging. The way they have is because we’ve pushed the food on them, “You just have to try it, not have the whole thing.” What’s your approach there in terms of cooking or in terms of also beyond cooking, but just how you introduce new foods and how hard you push on it, that sort of thing?
Stephanie Conner: Oh, new foods. I will tell you that I had my parents over this weekend and had grilled steak and made twice-baked potatoes and a cauliflower gratin. It’s like a cheesy cauliflower. I will tell you that I am the only person who ate the cheesy cauliflower. I could not even convince the adults in the room to try it, much less my child. We have a generational issue of people in this family not trying new foods. I had always thought that one of the benefits to teaching your kids to cook was if they cook it, they’ll eat it for sure. That is 100% not true.
Then, I also thought if they grew the vegetable in the garden, then they would definitely eat it. That is also, absolutely not true. I grew tons and tons of vegetables and nothing guarantees anything. I have found that pushing doesn’t work with my kid so I consistently make food available and I ask that he try things, but I don’t force. Also, especially now that our allergy issues are behind us, I do not feel meals. There was a time when I would have something in the freezer that like, “If he doesn’t like this, I will get something I know he likes.”
I’m cognizant that there’s something on the table that I know he’ll eat. There will be roasted sweet potatoes or rice or a chicken I know he will eat. Otherwise, what’s there is there. We’ve had nights where he doesn’t eat very much, that’s just okay. Then, some nights he’s hungry enough that he tries things that he might not have otherwise, and discovers he likes things. It’s fun when he discovers things that he likes. Unfortunately, the pushing, it hasn’t gone well so I’ve backed off.
I’ve also given myself a break and said, “I’m not making two meals for a family of three. I’m just not doing that anymore.” One thing I have found that has been somewhat helpful is introducing something new that has an air of familiarity like, “We know you like grilled chicken breast. How about if we do a new kind of marinade that maybe you’re not familiar with?” He discovered he really likes jerk chicken which, it’s a different kind of spicy. It’s like, “Hey, you already said you like spicy chicken. Try this one,” or, “You like pizza, what if it were stuffed pizza?”
Just different formats of things. Making it a slower build to accepting foods. I will say that I interviewed a dietitian who told me that you had to introduce kids to foods 20 times before they would start to eat them. It gave me relief honestly that, okay, the fact that he doesn’t eat asparagus after three times, that’s okay. I’m just going to keep putting it on the table and one of these days it’s going to be okay. He’s going to try it. He’s going to like it.
Will Braunstein: I’ve heard the same thing and that’s the right attitude, just try. I also liked what you were saying about we have that same rule, make sure there’s one primary thing that kid will eat but then encourage, “Hey, try it.” I love your ideas of slowly integrating. Then, it can also be external forces. That happened to my child where he came home from school one day asking about hamburgers like, “We’ve been trying to get you to eat hamburgers. Maybe you’ll like the taste.” Now, he likes hamburgers.
You also mentioned something interesting that involves food but cooking and more the relationship of cooking, like relationship between you and your husband, and for us dads, who’s doing the cooking, who’s cleaning because we have a lot of dads who listen, who make meals most nights. We have a lot of dads who do the dishes but I think the kitchen is still always a source of potential, not conflict, but there’s some tension there.
Stephanie Conner: You mean for dads or for all of us?
Will Braunstein: I think in general. It seems like a lot of it can be solved through communication, but just for us dads being maybe more active and moms too, if you’re listening, be more communicative and say, “Hey, should we be planning more meals? Do you want to do a schedule?” I think that’s what I’ve found in my experience, that it can be easy to fall into a pattern and not realize the other partner’s doing a lot more, something like that.
Things can build up if you’re not communicating about it, talking about it, saying, “Hey, are you comfortable with this arrangement? I’m working all day and I’m making dinner. I’m not,” or vice versa, whatever it is. Do you approach that at all? Have you thought about that, coming here?
Stephanie Conner: I am the grocery shopper and the meal planner and the meal preparer, and I’m actually very hard on myself when I don’t get dinner on the table. For me, it’s a source of failure if I haven’t cooked enough this week. My husband, if it were his night, he would do takeout. He knows how to order takeout and that’s what he would do. I don’t think that we need to do that every night. We can’t afford to do that every night and I don’t want to.
He’s very like, “Don’t be hard on yourself, we’re going to eat,” but it’s like, we need to eat good, healthy, homemade foods, but that’s all on me. That’s my personal ethos that I feel we need to be eating more homemade. My husband does do the dishes. Even when I use every dish in the house, he does them all without complaints. He’ll support me as much as possible, but when it comes time to cook, he is like–
Will Braunstein: Sounds like you guys are okay with that, like you figured out, “Hey, this is a–“
Stephanie Conner: Yes. This is the way it is and I’m going to teach my son to cook so that he is more helpful or perhaps the lead cook in his own house when he is an adult.
Will Braunstein: Can your husband cook?
Stephanie Conner: I had never seen him.
Will Braunstein: Right. Fair enough.
Stephanie Conner: Yes, we’ve been together for 16 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him even scramble an egg.
Will Braunstein: Okay. Well people like that, I suspect he’s waiting, he’s got one big meal and he’s saving it up. Yes, you got it coming.
Stephanie Conner: Well, I will say that my son wanted to make me breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day. He said that he had to tell daddy how to make the pancakes, but he was very impressed that daddy could figure it out. He had to help him. I believe that there’s an ability there that he just hasn’t tapped.
Will Braunstein: Okay. No, I like that.
Stephanie Conner: Maybe our son will pull it out.
Will Braunstein: Maybe he’ll be the one, yes. You teach your son and there you go. The last thing I want to just mention is on your website, kiddoscook.com, you have these kitchen rules-
Stephanie Conner: Yes.
Will Braunstein: -which is just a fun PDF. If you want to go to Stephanie’s site, you could see them, but print them out as she suggested, hang them in your pantry, has things like, make memories, everyone gets to help have fun, but then some things like, measure or not, or it’s okay to be messy. Yes, really. The messy one I wanted to address because it’s super important to clean up. It doesn’t upset you seeing flour everywhere, or how do you approach that?
Stephanie Conner: It does, but I will tell you, I am a messy chef and mess does bother me but I don’t want my house or my kitchen to be a place where we are afraid to live. My son plays baseball and a couple nights a week, we come home from games and I say, “Just take your clothes, drop them on the floor, I’ll wash them when I get to them.” If people come over today, there’s like a pile of laundry in front of my front door, and that’s just how I have to manage my life right now.
I want us to live, I want us to go to baseball and I want to get the laundry done. We’re just going to do what we need to do. I feel that way in the kitchen too. If I’m too busy yelling at my son because he spilled flour, we’re not having fun, we’re not having conversations. He’s not telling me about his full day because he’s too busy worried about whether, he cracked the egg on the table instead of can he talk to me about what’s going on?
I want him to learn how to do things in a way that’s not super messy because we do have to clean it up eventually, but in the process, in the moment, I want him to be savoring the experience of cooking and I want him to feel free to create. Sometimes that’s messy and that’s something where I think dads often can be a real asset in the kitchen.
Stereotypically, I think as moms, we’re a little more concerned with that mess. I think dads have the opportunity to just say, “Let’s have fun.” Dads tend to be the more fun parent in a lot of households and again, stereotypically, and I really think that for moms, sometimes we have to reign in that Type A personality and, “Don’t worry about the mess. You’ll clean it up, it will be fine.”
They’re learning and my son is going to get neater and neater, but when I think about what I want him to take away, I don’t want it to be, Mommy is stressed in the kitchen. Mommy doesn’t like to be here. Mommy doesn’t like the mess. Mommy’s yelling at me. I want it to be, we had a fun time, we made a cake, we talked. I want that to be what he walks away with.
Will Braunstein: That’s right.
Stephanie Conner: Yes. Make a mess.
Will Braunstein: No, I like that a lot, and what you’re talking about is a mindset shift, right? When you’re in the kitchen alone, you’re going to be cooking in a different way.
Stephanie Conner: 100%.
Will Braunstein: Focused, I’m not going to make a mess. I’m getting, dah dah dah, but if you’re in the kitchen cooking with your child, it’s not, “Hey, I’m trying to cook this meal.” It’s, “That’s one of the things that I’m trying to do but there’s a lot of other, we’re trying to bond together. I’m trying to be a teacher and who knows what’s going to happen.” We’re talking about, he might open up, they might open up to you. Well, awesome, Stephanie, I really appreciated you joining today again.
Stephanie Conner: Yes. Thank you so much.
Will Braunstein: Kiddoscook.com and host of Kiddos in the Kitchen, which, awesome podcast. Hopefully, my listeners will check it out, and thanks again for joining us.
Stephanie Conner: Yes, please do. Thank you so much.