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How To Stop Your Kids From Eating Garbage According To The Stars Of "Top Chef Junior"

Curtis Stone, Vanessa Lachey, and Graham Elliot get real about kids and food.

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Top Chef Junior — the spin-off of Top Chef where kids aged 9-14 compete for the title and a $50,000 prize — had its Season Two premiere September 8th on Universal Kids.

Chris Haston/Universal Kids

Earlier this year I was invited on-set for a food truck challenge where I would get to try the junior chefs' culinary creations! I was excited, because I love food, but then this happened:

Columbia

That’s right — a rare torrential downpour in Los Angeles washed out the outdoor shoot. I was bummed (but surely not as much as the producers who had to cancel a day of production).

Thankfully, there was a silver lining — I got a chance to sit down with judges Curtis Stone and Graham Elliot plus host Vanessa Lachey (all IRL parents, btw) and hear them dish on the challenges surrounding food and kids.

Chris Haston/Universal Kids, Graham Elliot / Via instagram.com

BuzzFeed: One thing just about all parents struggle with is getting kids to eat well. Do you struggle with that? Or have tips to get kids to eat something other than, like, plain pasta?

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Curtis Stone: Well, first, don’t give them the plain pasta. I have parents ask me, “How do I get my kids to stop eating hot dogs, and I’m like, “Your kids don’t shop. They’re not in charge of what comes into your home.” So, if you don’t want them to eat hot dogs, don’t have hot dogs in the house — that way they literally can’t eat them. You’re not always in charge of what they eat outside the home, but you are when you’re at home. Kids eat when they’re hungry, and if you put good, healthy, nutritious food in front of them, they’ll eat it.

Graham Elliot: I have three boys ages 5, 7, and 11, and the 7-year-old will try anything in the world. He loves cooking, experimenting, and trying things. The 11-year-old is a little harder — he approaches things from the scientific, analytical perspective. And the 5-year-old won’t eat anything! And I don’t mean he’s like, “I’ll only eat chicken nuggets.” I mean he’s like the little brother in A Christmas Story when Ralphie says, “My younger brother hasn’t eaten voluntarily in years.”

BuzzFeed: So how do you get kids like that to eat well?

Graham: You try to find ways to add the healthy element. If we do Taco Tuesday, we ask, “How can we cook fresh beans with this?” If we’re doing something Italian, we ask, “Can we take veggies, purée them, and make a sauce?” Even though you’re an award-winning chef, it’s still very hard with your own kids. Few people are born with that kind of palate. So you bring them along for the ride, but I think all of us parents struggle with the same things.

Vanessa Lachey: I like to either mix the healthy element in a way they can’t tell (like cauliflower crust pizza), or make a fun face or theme out of the food. I do avocados with "blue chip trees.” There are so many cute plate ideas that kids have nowadays. Also, I distract them with flash cards and books sometimes. Haha. When all else fails, put cheese on it!

BuzzFeed: What’s a mistake parents make with kids and eating well?

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Curtis: We give our kids so many options. And we ask them their opinion! Even going out to dinner parents let their kids partake in the decision making, at least we do. And I don’t think it’s right! You’re asking your kids questions that, depending on their ages (I’ve got a six and a three-year-old), might be beyond their comprehension. As an adult you understand there are a variety of factors that affect your decision on where or what to eat, but kids don’t, they just think “Pizza!” But if you just say “Dinners ready” and put something healthy down, they’ll be like, “Alright, sweet, there’s my dinner.”

BuzzFeed: What if they won’t eat it?

Curtis: If your kids don’t want what you make, say “Don’t eat.” And if they choose not to eat, at some point they’re going to get hungry, so you reheat it, put it back down, and say, “There you go.” At some point they eat it. They’re not going to starve themselves. It sounds super controversial to let your kid go hungry, but there’s food there. I think we too quickly go to "Let me make you a grilled cheese sandwich or some plain pasta." But it takes work. It’s the same for us, if we go to a dietician or nutritionist and ask how to eat healthier, they will say to surround yourself with healthy foods.

BuzzFeed: My daughter is eight and wants to be a cook now thanks to watching your show. What can parents do to get kids like her even more into cooking, or to intrigue kids who are less interested?

Graham: I’m always trying to teach the idea behind things, the weirder the better. So if I see a steak, I immediately think of the animal — the muscular structure and skeletal system. I’ll say, “This is a strip steak,” then literally trace along my kid’s back and explain that’s where it comes from. I’ll say “This is a pork shoulder, and the muscle is used a lot when the animal walks, so it’s denser and tougher so you’ll want to braise it.” I think if parents do things in a similar fashion it’s a lot better than than just showing your kids a piece of meat in cellophane and they have no idea what it is.BuzzFeed: It’s giving context for everything.Graham: Right. If we’re eating fish and chips, let’s look up a cod. You’ll see it’s from the North Atlantic. It all depends on the kids’ ages, but some kids are into history or science or geography, and you can get into that more philosophical approach. Like, with Italian food, you think of polenta and tomatoes, but they weren’t brought to Italy until Columbus went to the New World and brought them back. And when you think of Mexican food, you think of lard and braised pork, but same thing — pigs were brought here — they didn’t have them. And that’s not three thousand years ago, it’s five hundred. So it’s incredible to hit all of those things and make kids think about food and cooking.Vanessa: Also, invite your kids into the kitchen at a young age. I started cooking with Brooklyn at 3 years old. Curtis made a good point. He said “Yes, they are going to make a mess, but that’s with whatever they do. So you can either clean toys in the living room, or clean their mess in the kitchen.” He’s right! She makes a mess but is interested in what I’m making and how our meals come together. Plus now I get some one-on-one time with my little girl.Curtis: I grow vegetables with my kids, which takes some time and effort most of us don’t have, but it got my kids interested in ingredients. If kids are in any way, shape, or form a part of the process of growing the vegetables — and it can even be as simple as taking scissors out to the yard and snipping some oregano or rosemary — they will really want to know what it tastes like. My kids would look at the veggies and be like, “Are we gonna cook it? What’s the next step?” Letting them understand where their food comes from is really cool. Graham: I was horrible at math growing up, so the idea of “one teaspoon of this mixed with two tablespoons of that” wasn’t something I liked or able to get into. But if you say to your kids “Here’s a potato. We can roast it, bake it, steam it, fry it, purée it, whip it…" What do you feel like doing? it’s like a blank canvas. That’s what I find is a great way to get people — especially kids — excited about cooking. Whatever you teach them, you excite them.
Chris Haston/Universal Kids

Graham: I’m always trying to teach the idea behind things, the weirder the better. So if I see a steak, I immediately think of the animal — the muscular structure and skeletal system. I’ll say, “This is a strip steak,” then literally trace along my kid’s back and explain that’s where it comes from. I’ll say “This is a pork shoulder, and the muscle is used a lot when the animal walks, so it’s denser and tougher so you’ll want to braise it.” I think if parents do things in a similar fashion it’s a lot better than than just showing your kids a piece of meat in cellophane and they have no idea what it is.

BuzzFeed: It’s giving context for everything.

Graham: Right. If we’re eating fish and chips, let’s look up a cod. You’ll see it’s from the North Atlantic. It all depends on the kids’ ages, but some kids are into history or science or geography, and you can get into that more philosophical approach. Like, with Italian food, you think of polenta and tomatoes, but they weren’t brought to Italy until Columbus went to the New World and brought them back. And when you think of Mexican food, you think of lard and braised pork, but same thing — pigs were brought here — they didn’t have them. And that’s not three thousand years ago, it’s five hundred. So it’s incredible to hit all of those things and make kids think about food and cooking.

Vanessa: Also, invite your kids into the kitchen at a young age. I started cooking with Brooklyn at 3 years old. Curtis made a good point. He said “Yes, they are going to make a mess, but that’s with whatever they do. So you can either clean toys in the living room, or clean their mess in the kitchen.” He’s right! She makes a mess but is interested in what I’m making and how our meals come together. Plus now I get some one-on-one time with my little girl.

Curtis: I grow vegetables with my kids, which takes some time and effort most of us don’t have, but it got my kids interested in ingredients. If kids are in any way, shape, or form a part of the process of growing the vegetables — and it can even be as simple as taking scissors out to the yard and snipping some oregano or rosemary — they will really want to know what it tastes like. My kids would look at the veggies and be like, “Are we gonna cook it? What’s the next step?” Letting them understand where their food comes from is really cool.

Graham: I was horrible at math growing up, so the idea of “one teaspoon of this mixed with two tablespoons of that” wasn’t something I liked or able to get into. But if you say to your kids “Here’s a potato. We can roast it, bake it, steam it, fry it, purée it, whip it…" What do you feel like doing? it’s like a blank canvas. That’s what I find is a great way to get people — especially kids — excited about cooking. Whatever you teach them, you excite them.

You can watch Top Chef Junior on Universal Kids on Saturdays at 6 p.m./5 p.m. central.

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