The Easy Way to 5 a Day? 52 New Foods Challenge.

Hailed by Jamie Oliver as a ‘genius’, Jennifer Tyler Lee devised the 52 New Foods Challenge as a way to get her kids to move beyond peas and pasta. We decided to take up the challenge and see if we could get radicchio past a unsuspecting three year old.

Growing up, I triumphed at vegetable avoidance. Onions were meticulously extracted from a shepherd’s pie one by one. Peas would be tolerated only when mashed into potato and anything with even a passing resemblance to a plant was flatly rejected.

As a child of the 80s, it was something of a rite of passage. We were the generation of Coco-Pops, Lilt and Hawaiian pizza. Limiting our vegetable intake to the odd piece of cucumber, tomato and the occasional carrot was all part of the deal. We were children. We didn’t like veg. We’d probably still grow up to be OK. It was different for many of our parents. Victorian traditions of dining table comportment still prevailed in lots of homes, and many a strong-willed child of the 60s could often be found, alone, at the table long past bath-time seeing who would blink first in a ‘you aren’t getting down until your plate is clean’ stand-off.

Happily, by the time the mid 80s had rolled around, force-feeding was much less fashionable. Sure, I got reminded incessantly how lucky we were to have food when millions didn’t, but it was more a case of going hungry if I didn’t eat than being made, at all costs, to finish. I could scuttle back to making my Huey Lewis mix tape having deftly sidestepped another unfortunate encounter with a Brussels sprout.

But things are different now. If your child shovels down half a head of cauliflower and some asparagus you have truly won at parenting. You get extra points if they do so when other families are present: competitive vegetable consumption has overtaken comparing Range Rover specifications and 7+ results as the middle classes’ preferred battleground. It doesn’t matter if your kids do such passé things as share or say please and thank you – if they willingly embrace kale, then your work on this planet is done.

Getting our children’s diets right is a source of endless concern, guilt and pressure for millions of parents. We are told relentlessly how much we, as a nation, are failing at it. Certainly, something has got to give. Many experts believe that our children’s generation will be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Around one in 500 children in Great Britain will develop cancer by the age of 14. Childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes are already rife.

Am I saying you can protect your children from all this by persuading them to eat a green bean? Of course not. The jury is still out on what is behind these worrying trends in child health. But trying to argue that the modern Western diet isn’t failing our children (and us) is like trying to revive the flat earth movement.

For all the noise surrounding nutrition, the truth is that nobody really seems to know what is right or wrong. But there is one fact that continues to unite nutritionists, scientists and doctors – we should all be eating more fruit and vegetables.

So that’s that then. Feed our kids more plants. Easy. Job done. Except it isn’t that easy, is it? Our children aren’t abnormal for not embracing cabbage. Those of us who struggle to get them to try something other than peas, carrots and one floret of broccoli (and that’s if we are lucky) are not the statistical outliers. Most children simply aren’t keen on the green stuff. So how do we go about changing it?

Image: 52NewFoods.com

Image: 52NewFoods.com

 Enter Jennifer Tyler Lee, American mother of two and Huffington Post contributor. She devised an award winning game (Crunch a Color) after struggling to get her kids to eat healthy balanced meals. Even our very own Jamie Oliver is impressed, lauding her as a ‘genius’ in helping to get kids eating fresh food.

Jennifer tells a familiar story. Her first child ate pretty much whatever was put in front of her as a toddler; lulling her into a false sense of security, sure that she had avoided the picky-eater syndrome that most of her friends grappled with. But then, as her daughter edged toward school age, the time-old backlash began. Broccoli and bananas, once relished, were resolutely rejected and the slow creep toward a plate of uniformly beige food and the regular mealtime rotation of the three Ps (pasta, peas and pizza) began.

Determined to fight back, she devised a dinner game where her kids earned points for eating different coloured fruit and veg. Entry level species (think fruit and potatoes) scored 5; moderately challenging contenders (such as broccoli, green beans and peppers) racked up 10; and the really uncompromising stuff (the kale, sprouts and radicchio that most adults also avoid) amassed a whopping 15 points. Bonus points were available for trying new things and for switching juice for water.

At the core of Jennifer’s strategy is an oft repeated nutritional principle – variety is key to ensuring that our kids get enough of what they need, and less of what they don’t. Picking and rotating fruit and veg by colour is any easy way to do this, without having to think about vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. But, perhaps more fundamentally for our purposes, talking about colour, rather than cauliflower, engages children in a way they understand and can relate to.

In her new book, The 52 New Foods Challenge, she challenges the reader to try one new food each week with their children, choosing from a seasonal list and giving brilliant recipe ideas and advice as to how to negotiate bok choy and rhubarb into your child’s dinner. Most of the foods are fruit and vegetables – with a few honorable exceptions, such as black beans, wholewheat flour and flax seeds.

I grabbed a copy when it was released last month. Jumping straight into the autumn section I was smugly confident – sweet potato, pumpkin and garlic? How hard could this be? My son eats the garlic butter at Pizza Express with a spoon after the dough balls run out. And what child doesn’t like sweet potato? It’s basically a pudding. This was going to be a walk in the park I thought, complacently, as my son crunched avocado on toast.

But then I turned to winter section. There to greet me were kale, radicchio, grapefruit and romanesco cauliflower, all quietly eyeing me up, confident in their ability to crush all pretensions I had as to the sophistication of my 3 year old’s palate.

And that was it. The 52 New Foods Challenge was on. I’ll be back soon with my first report. After some 30 years hiding from kale, I can hardly let it win now.

MrFoxmag_52newfoods1.jpg

The 52 New Foods Challenge, by Jennifer Tyler Lee is available from Amazon UK
More information can be found on her website www.52newfoods.com

Kate Douglas-Hamilton is Mr Fox co-founder. A recovering lawyer, she now spends most of her time staring at a screen and occasionally writing about learning to love eating plants on her blog The Buckwheat Adventure. She has one son, aged 3.

Will you take up the challenge? Let us know which recipes have gone down well with your children in the comments below.