Kid-Made, Kid-Approved: Building Healthy Cravings with DIY Flavor

Meal planning is practically a part-time job. Between finding recipes, predicting cravings, building out the menu, outlining the ingredients, remembering what’s on your shelves and in your fridge, and then actually going shopping to between 2-3 different shops to find the best stuff… there’s nothing worse than plating up the meal only to have a snot-nosed picky eater push your exquisitely roasted brussels sprouts and beets around their plate, am I right?

I used to be that guy feeling righteous indignation any time there was even a hint of mealtime mutiny. There were only so many meltdowns I was willing to sit through before trying something new.

Kids are often shamed for being skeptical of “weird” (new) flavors or textures. But shaming is not an effective or loving way to go here. As my kiddos got older, the previously smushed baby food was sliced instead with more raw preparations for veggies to challenge those palates. But not every taste and texture was received with welcome arms. Sometimes “a few more bites” had to be coerced by a spoon-wielding stuffed animal complete with squeaky high-pitched voices by yours truly.

And sometimes a kid’s body is telling him that he’s not ready to digest a particular food. Observation over time might tell you something is up and a visit with a wholistic practitioner might be in order.

In any case, there’s no need for hysterics. My daughter loathes the texture of grilled chicken but has zero complaints on spaghetti night when the roasted apple chicken sausages roll down noodle mountain.

Even so, in a world where literally every storefront pushes processed nonsense in your face at every opportunity, we can’t expect to win every single battle about buttered noodles. No amount of coercion will get anyone’s little Timmy to like food he’s skeptical about.

What will do the trick is actively engaging the kiddos in the meal creation process.

Don’t believe me? Take the next 10 seconds and draw a stick figure on a sticky note and give it a name. Admire it for a moment and then, in your silliest voice, have your new stick figure friend say, “Thank you for creating me, Jane!”

Now, try to throw that sucker away.

I bet you can’t. I bet it’s going in your pocket or your monitor or on your desk for a while until the emotional attachment wears off.

What’s that about? Well, when you create something, even if it isn’t good, even if it’s silly, even if it just took 10 seconds, you develop an attachment to the thing and you’re more likely to appreciate it for what it is: an extension of your creativity and personality.

We’re not training mini-Michelin chefs and our expectations can’t start there. That’s not the level of commitment we’re looking for, though you may create a monster who wants to help with every meal.

Developing a life-long love of healthy food in kids requires fun and exploration. Tearing lettuce? Chopping with those goofy kid knives? Tossing everything in the bowl? That’s building confidence one tasty mess at a time.

Entry-level kitchen skills can’t start and stop with pouring cereal into a bowl and finding a clean spoon, and we also can’t expect picture-perfect knife skills either. We need a solid entry point that isn’t too gross, sticky, or dangerous – an equalizer.

Salsa and Hot Sauce are easy to make, easy to get to “tasty”, and can be incredibly fun to personalize.

You’re doing yourself a disservice if you start your kiddo’s salsa adventure at the kitchen counter—you gotta start at the store. Maybe get a massage first to make sure you’re in a calm and patient headspace. But it’s time to turn the kiddo into a connoisseur for fresh, healthy food and the only place to do that is at the grocery store (or farmer’s market).

Brace yourself, because to do this right, you must dive in with a kiddo’s understanding of how food and flavor works.

That means picking up and touching everything, taking big deep sniffs of produce and fruit, squeezing tomatoes and avocados, peeling the skin off onions, cracking open a carrot… you name it. Kiddo wants to try a starfruit and a dragon fruit? Hell yes, put it in the cart! And while you might get some weird looks, everybody can mind their own damn business if you pay for the groceries.

You’re not in pursuit of a healthier reputation as an upstanding steward of mental health in this moment, instead you’re after the holy grail of holy grails: building a healthy eating habit in a young human whose health is yours to safeguard until they can make those choices on their own. A few sideways glances from strangers as you huff a head of lettuce is a small price to pay.

I’ll also suggest the deep-dive of a pick-your-own style organic farm stand that will allow you to compare/contrast the experience of cracking open a pepper or biting into a vine-fresh tomato vs a more traditional big-box grocery store. This a mind-blowing experience for kiddos who don’t yet know the difference.

One bite of a fresh-picked sun-kissed organic strawberry vs a spoon of overly processed, shelf-stable strawberry jelly? No contest.

The path off the “processed food wagon” starts one bite at a time by curating an appreciation for the real deal (fresher, no pesticides, less sugar, closer to raw) any chance you get. Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here: better is always better than perfect – and perfect is rarely possible.

I’d never shame anybody for serving up a snack of goldfish crackers, especially if you’re in a rush. The trick is recognizing wins you can have in the moment: putting some real cheese on the plate or, when you’re not in a rush, butter and freshly baked whole grain bread as a snack next time. Salty, savory, crunchiness can be obtained in a lot of different forms. Some days it’s goldfish crackers, some days it’s buttery, crispy crusted bread.

Your shopping list will hover mostly in the produce department with a minor detour to the vinegar aisle.

Every salsa and hot sauce starts with a base.

For salsas: tomatoes, tomatillos, mangos, pineapples, oranges, strawberries, bell peppers, you name it. You can even roast or grill the base items to build more complex flavors (this is a great extension of basic kitchen skills).

For hot sauces: you’ll need a base flavor and tomatillos or red bell peppers are a really good default. You can even use mild pepperoncini’s.

Then you need some acid – a zinger to elevate the base flavor.

Typically a citrus fruit is a great start – lemons, limes, grapefruits, tangerines, and oranges.

Then you need a finisher – the whomp of umami to bring the taste home.

I always like to pair sweet with something savory unless sweet is the goal. Onions, garlic, almonds, mushrooms, fennel, mustard, or horseradish can all do crazy things in a salsa or hot sauce. Any of the finishers can be roasted or grilled as well.

As you’re shopping for each of these items, explore the smell, the heft, the texture, and yes, the taste. Compare and contrast – go weird and wild and wide so you can experiment with variations on flavors as you go.

Nobody has time for scrolling past 5 miles of personal story from a fussy food blogger about the time they saw a butterfly at a lake and thought about a fun fettuccini alfredo recipe.

Salsa and hot sauce are about unleashing YOUR inner flavor ninja. Exact measurements are less important than proportions, eyeballing amounts, exploring the textures – and every kid, big or small, loves chips to dip in things.

Remember the most important skill in any tricky task involving kids: fail forward. Failing forward recognizes that even if something turns out different or disgusting, you still learned something.

If the sauce goes sideways, celebrate the oddity (or disgustingness) of the thing you just created. There’s no easier way to teach a kid perseverance than to acknowledge a failed experiment as one step closer to a success.

This is also a great time to teach kids to use smaller servings so they can experiment with more flavors and to demo all the cool measurement tools, if you want.

As Marie Curie said, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” You don’t get to a Nobel Prize without making a few messes along the way (that’s what the dishwasher is for).

Two key lessons of playing with peppers: use gloves or goggles (definitely fits with the SCIENCE! theme) or wash your hands with good dish soap and have milk at the ready. Even a humble jalapeño pepper can end a fun taste-test session in a lake of tears.

Start simple with one kind of pepper that looks cool. Have milk at the ready for taste-testing peppers (the casein protein in milk helps break down capsaicin). Remember that on their own, fresh peppers can be exceedingly bitter followed by spicy, a combo that most kids can’t usually tolerate much of, so a bit of roasting or having the additional ingredients on hand can be key – and younger kiddos may not benefit from the “extra” step of tasting every single pepper to learn the flavors like a teen or tween might.

Vinegar, citrus, and yoghurt are helpful additions to any sauce or salsa to space out the heat (acids dissolve capsaicin – which is suspended in oil), and you can always mix and muddle prior to tasting by younger tastebuds.

Games are fun because the rules give you bumper lanes to bounce off. Ever tried to play Uno without following the rules? Snoozefest. When working with my kiddos in the kitchen, I start it off with 3 rules everybody should play by:

  • Rule #1: Everyone is on the Safety Squad! – Stay Alert and Speak Up
  • Rule #2: Find the Fun – Ask Questions, Try New Things
  • Rule #3: Everyone is on the Cleanup Crew!

While a blender or a food processor can be a fun experience for a kiddo to use, ultimately no fancy gadgets are necessary and certainly no stressing over perfection. Customize your experience to the skill you’re trying to curate.

If it’s knife skills, focus on a chunkier sauce that you dice and muddle by hand. If it’s measurement, a runnier sauce might be in the mix.

Kids *love* to use all the fancy tools, so be prepared and don’t stress about the mess. Cleaning up can be fun: the sink is a great place to play with tons of bubbles.

Keep the tasting options simple until it’s time to shine: chips are fine, tacos don’t have to be on the menu just yet. The point is exploring flavors, making it TOGETHER, and ditching that boring food routine for something way more rewarding.

  • Tropical Throwdown Salsa: Dice up mangoes, tomatoes, red onion, and a quarter of a jalapeño. Squeeze a lime, toss in some cilantro, and add a pinch of salt.
  • Kid-Approved Hot Sauce: Roast a bell pepper (any color!) and a few cloves of garlic or half an onion, then blend it smooth with a splash of vinegar, a spoonful of honey or agave, and garlic (fresh chopped is fun, roasted is great too).

These will keep for a few days at most, so small serving sizes are best. If you want them to last longer, you can experiment with fermenting a mash of peppers to add a blast of beneficial bacteria that will fight off the bad food bugs as long as there’s a proper pH. (Check out this particular food science in Phyllis Quinn’s Udderly Cultured and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

For more fun in the kitchen you can also check out my book, Men In Kitchens: A Good Day to Dine Hard, coauthored by Michael Adams and Patrick Earvolino. Each of the recipes are made to be accessible for nascent cooks who want to jumpstart their culinary skills.

Want to try out some unique hot sauces? Check out my very own line of sauces at FTW Hot Sauce.

Easy, fun, and your kiddos are in charge of the tasty outcome. You just might find that this approach can bypass their skepticism and open them to trying new foods more easily.

Let’s hear about what crazy flavor combos you come up with!

Images from iStock/Prostock-Studio (main image), evgenyatamanenko (mother and kids), KatarzynaBialasiewicz (boy looking upset at his food).

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