The Joy of


The care and feeding of little tummies in today’s faster food world

By Paris Giles • Photos by Lauren Jeziorski

From before that first swaddle, parents spend a lot of time and energy on food. Not only shopping for and preparing it, but thinking about it: Are my kids getting enough of it or too much? Are they the “right” kinds? When is it appropriate to fight to the death at the dinner table or should you concede the battle for the sake of the war?

Pediatric feeding expert and author Melanie Potock says the No. 1 concern she hears from parents is that their kid never grew out of the “picky eater” phase, or what Potock likes to call “the chicken nugget rut.” Potock is a mom of two daughters and a speech language pathologist with 20 years’ experience helping everyone from babies to teenagers expand their palates and “find the joy in food.”

It is one way to help fight the obesity epidemic in the U.S., with one in five kids falling in that category and putting them at lifelong health risks. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now says one in five kindergartners already carry extra weight.

She shares a few of her tips, tricks and philosophies around food in the pages that follow.

FUN FOOD FACTS ———> The U.S. grows about 200 unique varieties of apples. //// Chicken nuggets were invented in 1963 at Cornell University. //// A third of U.S.-grown potatoes become frozen French fries.

Baby’s First Bite

If you’ve got an infant at home, you may be considering when to start introducing solid foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 6 months, but your pediatrician may give you the OK a bit sooner. As for what to feed your infant, Potock says, “My philosophy is that you can feed your baby any way you want, as long as we present safe options and it fits in with your family’s food culture.”

Speaking of safety, perhaps you heard about and were weirded out by the February 2021 report by the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on economic and consumer policy that found dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals — including arsenic and lead — in popular baby foods. Among other changes, the committee recommended that baby food manufacturers test their finished products, not just the individual ingredients, and that the FDA require levels of toxic metals to be listed on labels.

In the meantime, many parents are opting to whip up their own baby food, and luckily, it’s pretty easy. Experts recommended starting with simple fruit or vegetable purees.

FUN FOOD FACTS ———> Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was the first marketed breakfast cereal. //// In 1928, the Gerber family began producing strained vegetables for infants in Michigan.

The Great Sugar Debate 

Sugar or no sugar: that is always the question. Potock doesn’t ascribe to the philosophy that sugar and sweets should be some sort of elicit reward only accessible to a kid if they’re “good.” She says, maybe the dinner plate even features a little cookie each night. “That’s beautiful, because what that does is takes dessert off the pedestal and just makes food, food. There’s none of this, ‘Well, eat your vegetables, and then you’ll get dessert.” 

Potock says: “You can have a cookie on your plate, like you can have yummy green beans on your plate. When kids start to see that food is food, they no longer see dessert as the ultimate reward.”

It’s all about good, sustainable food habits. Place sugar under lock and key and there’s no opportunity to develop a healthy relationship with it. Still, of course, too much sugar can be a problem and lead to issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for children 2 and over. 

You already know that you probably shouldn’t let your kid chug four Cherry Pepsis a day or scarf a dozen doughnuts in a single sitting, so we’ll skip that part. But note that these not-so-sweet kid favorites can have a lot of added sugar: 

  • Marinara Sauce 
  • Ranch Dressing
  • Crackers
  • Yogurt
  • Canned Fruit
  • Ketchup
  • Barbecue Sauce 
  • Canned Soup
  • Canned Baked Beans
  • Bread 

The Veggie Breakdown

Potock suggests introducing kids to vegetables in fun, creative ways like using beets and the help of mini cookie cutters to apply temporary tattoos. That’s right! Beet juice will temporarily stain skin making for a fun afternoon in the kitchen. “​​I always say follow the three E’s: expose, explore, expand,” she days. Her book Adventures in Veggieland is all about setting kids up for a lifetime of healthy eating. Maybe you take your kid with you to the farmers market and let them help you pick out the perfect bunch of carrots, and then back at home, let them help you scrub, peel and prepare those carrots. 

Potock doesn’t think parents should make sneaking pureed veggies into recipes a habit. “If you want to add some black beans to your brownies, that’s OK. But really, ideally, we want to get the kids in the kitchen, learning about black beans and saying, ‘We can even make brownies with these.’” After all, veggies are versatile little nutrient bombs.

FUN FOOD FACTS ———> The average American consumes about 22 gallons of ice cream per year.  //// Hawaiian pizza was invented in Canada in 1962. //// The Girl Scouts started selling cookies to finance troop activities in 1917.  

Lil’ Chefs

Metro Detroit kids pull out the stops with weird but yum food concotions. 

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FUN FOOD FACTS ———> Boston and Philadelphia were the first U.S. cities to attempt to implement school lunch programs, in 1894 and 1910. //// In 1812, the first recipe for tomato-based ketchup was invented in Philadelphia.

Feeding Kids with

Special Needs

Children with special needs like autism or disorders that affect sensory processing or fine motor function may require extra attention at mealtime. Potock explains that even children who’ve experienced early trauma around food — say a severe allergic reaction — can develop difficulties. 

Children with anxiety may also have trouble eating. “We’ve seen the shift in mental health thanks to the pandemic, where I have a lot of children who will just stop eating and swallowing their own saliva, because their anxiety has become so elevated that they are trying to figure out why they feel that way.” 

If the issue is severe, talk to your pediatrician about feeding therapy. For anxiety, Potock says, treatments may include yoga, deep breathing, belly breathing and positive affirmations. She explains, “We, step-by-step, replace all those negative memories with more positive experiences with food until kids find the joy.” 

FUN FOOD FACTS ———> Bell peppers have more vitamin C than oranges.  //// Cheetos were invented in 1948 in a test kitchen in Dallas, Texas. Flaming Hot Cheetos came along in 1989. 

Here are some key vitamins and their benefits and where you can find them easily

Vitamin C =

Benefits: Immune health, skin health, tissue repair

Foods: Broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, brussels sprouts, leafy greens, cauliflower, squash, potatoes 

Fiber =

Benefits: Digestion, cholesterol control, blood sugar control

Foods: Carrots, beets, broccoli, artichoke, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes

Vitamin B =

Benefits: Eye health, brain health, energy

Foods: Leafy greens, green peas, black beans, sunflower seeds

Vitamin K =

Benefits: Bone health, blood health

Foods: Spinach, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leafy greens

Potassium =

Benefits: Heart health, digestion, nerve health

Foods: Mushrooms, cucumbers, zucchini, green peas, potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, broccoli

Iron =

Benefits: Energy, blood health, immune health

Foods: Green beans, leafy greens, green peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes

FUN FOOD FACTS ———>White chocolate isn’t actually chocolate; it doesn’t contain chocolate solids. //// The Popsicle was invented accidentally by an 11-year-old in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1905. 

Packing Healthy Lunches

Like with vegetables, Potock recommends that kids pack their own lunches so that they’re connected to the process. She suggests creating a “packing map” where a picture of the inside of your little one’s lunchbox is pictured on a big piece of paper or poster board. (By the way: Potock recommends an easy-open, Bento-like box with one latch where everything is immediately in view in individual compartments, but not in separate packages or containers). Kids can choose what goes into their lunch each day, but parents present the option of two fruits, two veggies, two snacks, two drink options, and so on. 

And if you’ve got a kid who’s flat-out not into fruits or veggies, Potocks says try putting just a single, say, raspberry or pea in your child’s lunch each day. “If you want your child to learn to eat a fruit, you’ve got to expose them to the fruit. And it’s never a waste when it’s just a teaspoon of fruit, because now they’re making friends with it. They’re getting to know it, and they just might try it,” Potock says. She also says that when the lunchbox comes home, avoid commenting on what was left behind. “That’s their choice to eat or not.” 

FUN FOOD FACTS ———> Gummi bears were invented in 1920 and their worm cousins on 1981. Gummi worm day is July 15.

Feeding a Vegan

Your tween or teen may come home from school one day and announce to the family that they’re now vegetarian or vegan. If you’re a pot roast-loving family, oof, now what? Potock recommends asking your kid the all-important question: why?

“Because sometimes kids don’t really understand their why. And that gets the conversation going, and then we’ll find out if this is really something they’d like to commit to,” she says. If your kid seems solid in their conviction, then Potock recommends a conversation with your pediatrician to be sure that they get all that they need nutritionally. 

“And then I would try my best to honor and respect it, but I also wouldn’t become a short order cook. So, I would expect the child to be involved, in the kitchen with me to teach me more about this, for this to be a team effort.” 

To help your herbivore take some agency, consider recommending these kid and young adult reads:

A Teen’s Guide to Going Vegetarian
by Judy Krizmanic 

Meat Logic: Why Do We Eat Animals
by Charles Horn

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian: How to Look Great, Feel Fabulous, and Be a Better You
by Rachel Meltzer Warren 

Living on the Veg: A kids’ guide to life without meat
by Clive Glifford and Jacqueline Meldrum 

Vegetarian Cookbook for Teens: 100 Fun Recipes to Cook Like a Pro
by Sarah Baker

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