If your child is a picky eater or has sensory issues when eating, summer is a perfect time of year to let them have fun playing and experimenting.
“There’s so much to explore and do now that there’s so much food,” said Annmarie Cantrell, Birdsboro-based healing foods chef and wellness consultant.
Cantrell works with children ages 18 months through teens and their parents to help them build a solid nutritional foundation that focuses on a healthy relationship with food.
Building strong eating habits at a young age serves as a building block to continue after working with Cantrell.
“Starting them at an early age connects them to nature, the land, their bodies and the food they eat,” she said.
Before founding her consulting company, Cucina Verde, Cantrell worked as an early intervention teacher for twenty years, focusing on young children with special needs from birth to age three.
“I went into the house and helped the family help the child with functional activities, language, and play during the day,” she said.
During this time, Cantrell fell ill in 1995.
“I had emotional, physical and psychological symptoms that conventional western medicine had no solutions for,” she said.
Turn to food to heal
It was at this point that Cantrell began turning to food as a remedy, helping her combat the side effects she was experiencing to certain foods.
“I found an integrative doctor who helped me with an elimination diet and supplementation,” she said.
This personal journey led her to study at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. She also began to look at her work as an early intervention teacher differently. with a focus on whole foods and wellness.
“As I went through my health challenges, I saw that kids showed many of the same symptoms as me,” Cantrell said. “That lightbulb went out.”
This enlightenment led her to work with parents to help them take a closer look at their children’s diet and environment, as they may be contributing to things like behavioral and sensory issues.
Today, Cantrell works with children and young people across a wide range of developmental abilities. As a consultant, she offers the opportunity to walk into a client’s home or have them come to her home in Birdsboro, which has an expansive garden where you can experience food first-hand as part of her food and farming program.
“You can use it to help plant, harvest and cook,” she said of some of the activities she will be doing with children. “Children who have aversions to certain foods are more willing to engage in food tasting and exploration that they would not normally explore because it is a non-pressure environment.”
Since it’s a very casual environment and they aren’t expected to eat anything, this is where the fun part for the kids comes in.
“They can intervene in all parts of growing and consuming, which will hopefully encourage them to try something new,” she said. “It’s a nonjudgmental environment for kids to explore and expand their horizons around food.”
For kids who tend to be picky eaters, Cantrell has a scaffolding technique that she teaches parents.
“It can be really hard to sit down and eat with a kid that’s crying all the time,” she said.
The scaffolding approach focuses on how the food is presented to the child.
“The idea is that you change picky eating in small increments,” she said.
Cantrell, who has also served as the Chester County chapter leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation for the past 18 years, gave an example of how she would develop a solution for a child who only eats fast food chicken.
“As a first step, we give them a healthy homemade dip to go with the fast-food nuggets,” she said. “Then for step two we make a nugget at home, cut it up and put it on a plate next to the fast food nuggets, hoping they will try and like the homemade version – it’s very slow step by step.” ”
The food game is another aspect of counseling that Cantrell uses for all of their tiny clients.
“I’m going to make homemade playdough and add spices to it so they can absorb all the different smells,” she said. “We make our own paints with beetroot or red cabbage and paint with a slice of apple or carrot tops, or we could pick tons of mint and smell it.”
Then there’s a time for the kids to prepare and cook foods like salsa and other dips, which includes a tasting opportunity.
“I made an eggplant dip a week and a bean salad a week,” Cantrell said. “It takes a little getting used to as it may contain cumin, but it allows them to explore their taste buds.”
Basic cooking skills
When children turn seven, Cantrell begins teaching basic cooking skill development and kitchen safety. For parents with teens who may find themselves in a position where they feel resentful about their limited tastes, Cantrell has a tactic to get them engaged in the kitchen.
“For teenagers, it’s really about the dining experience,” she said. “It means being able to teach them kitchen skills like dicing and frying.”
The introduction of new nutritional techniques makes them feel like they have a hand in it.
“If they love pasta, they’ll get the best version of it, but maybe add chickpeas and veggies to up the traditional value,” she said. “Why wouldn’t they eat it after they’ve put all the work into it?”
For more informations
Annmarie Cantrell, healing chef and wellness consultant