Cook Up Family Fun With The 52 New Foods Challenge

As we inch closer to Thanksgiving and a new year, it's likely you're at least thinking about how to help your family, especially your children, eat better—and more nutritiously—after what will likely become an indulgent holiday season. To help you get your family into the kitchen to cook and prepare more healthful meals, the new book, The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year is here to help. Written by Jennifer Tyler Lee, creator of the award-winning nutrition game Crunch a Color and contributor at the Huffington Post, the book offers plenty of practical solutions to make meals fun, boost variety (and bust boredom) at the family table and to help families cook together (rather than having parents cook for their kids).

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Tyler Lee via email. Here are some highlights:

Why did you feel compelled to write The 52 New Foods Challenge?

JTL: This story begins at my family table. My daughter's diet was dominated by white foods. How was I going to get her to eat anything other than pasta? Parents across the country struggle with this same issue, and it can be immensely frustrating. But this is part of a much bigger problem. We are in the middle of a massive health epidemic, and at the heart of it is nutrition. Home cooking is at an all time low, and processed food intake is at an all time high. Diabetes and obesity are rampant. Most troubling is how this trend is affecting our kids—one in three children are overweight or obese. This is of great concern because researchers have seen the diets of children being related to risks of cancer and other conditions later in life. We need to get kids to eat real food to set them up for a lifetime of healthy habits. But parents are overwhelmed. What they need is a simple plan to transform the way their families eat. The 52 New Foods Challenge is my solution to that problem.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

JTL: Math is fun when it's a puzzle. Reading is fun when it's about decoding the words. Food is no different. I created a simple game with an easy to remember structure: try one new food each week. It's manageable, which gets families to take the first step. The book is designed to change your family's behavior the slow and sustainable way. It's all about taking small steps to make big changes.

The idea of 52 new foods may sound like a lot to parents. Can those who find that number overwhelming encourage their kids to try fewer new foods and still provide them and their families with some nutritional and other benefits?

JTL: I suggest that parents start by trying one new food, and cooking it together. Don't worry about how you're going to get through all 52 weeks. Start with one. Let the seasons be your guide. Remember that "new" can mean a familiar food prepared in a new way, like something as simple as Baked Apple Chips.

What are your two top tips to help families get started on the challenge?

JTL: First, let your kids lead. Put your kids in charge of your new food adventure. Head to the market together and let them pick a new food that they would like to try. Together, choose an easy recipe that you can cook together. Then let them serve it. Second, focus on the fun of the adventure, rather than forcing tasters, and you'll find that it's easier to keep going. It's about the journey the foods take you on.

How do you encourage your kids to eat their colors?

JTL: In the book I say, "Colors in your diet are like instruments in a symphony—the more you have, the richer the experience." There are a couple of easy ways to boost color at your table. At the market, challenge your kids to fill the cart with color. Aim for five. Bonus points if one of your colors is a new food. It's also helpful to set up a snack drawer for your kids, organized by color, to make it easy for them to grab healthy food even when it's hectic (this works equally well for adults). Plan your meals to feature three colors. To make it easy, offer one cooked veggie, like Ridiculous Radicchio Chips, and one raw veggie, like rainbow carrots. Dessert can be colorful too—try seasonal fruit on weeknights, simple treats made at home on the weekend.

JTL: Can you share a recipe to please parents and young children alike? 

Brussels Sprouts Chips* (see recipe below) are the current favorite at our family table. The crispy, crunchy chips are delicious and the recipe is super easy to make. They will definitely be making an appearance on our holiday table.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed (look for small, tight heads with no yellow or brown leaves)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Using your fingers, peel away the leaves from the sprouts.

3. Place the leaves on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the oil and salt and toss to combine.

4. Bake for 10 minutes, then toss the leaves in the pan. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the sprouts for 15 minutes more or until leaves are crispy and almost burnt. Let your kids watch closely to figure out the best timing for your oven.

Tip: The easiest way to peel the leaves is to cut off the ends, turn the sprouts over and gently pry the leaves away starting at the stem. Keep trimming off the ends as you go to make it easier to peel off the layers. This takes patience (and time), but it's a fun activity for your kids. As you get closer to the center, the leaves will become too tight to peel, so simply save the small pieces to saute or roast.

*Source: The 52 New Foods Challenge.

How do you encourage your family to try new foods?

Image of Brussels Sprouts Chips via Chris Chowaniec.

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