NEW YORK – Camila Alves McConaughey has co-written a new children’s book about a bunch of picky eaters. Only in this case, the picky eaters aren’t the children.
“Just Try One Bite” (Penguin Random House) follows three kids as they try to get their parents to put down the ice cream, cake and chicken fried steak and embrace healthy, whole foods. Actually, all the kids want is for the adults to take a single bite of anything healthy.
“It’s not about preaching being perfect. I know I’m not. I know my household is not. We’ve got a ways to go, ”says the model and entrepreneur. “It’s about making small changes.”
The rhyming book – co-written with Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Mike Boldt – features well-meaning kids confronting their junk-food-loving parents (who somewhat resemble Alves and her husband, actor Matthew McConaughey) about giving kale a chance, a role reversal with plenty of humor.
“Oh Papa, oh Mama, please be open-minded. You can’t say kale’s gross if you won’t even try it, ”they plead in the book. “A well-balanced dinner really ought to be more than some French fries you found in your car on the floor.”
A breakthrough occurs when the parents finally eat some cauliflower – and like it. That opens the door for yams, linguini with clams and, as a reward, donut holes. Yes, treats are allowed, in moderation.
“One of the most important conversation to have about doing better for yourself is early on,” says Alves from her home in Texas. “If you start giving kids the understanding and the knowledge, all of a sudden you start seeing them feel empowered and make better decisions on their own.”
Alves – mother to Levi, 13, Vida, 12, and Livingston, 9 – is candid about the challenges parents face with picky eaters, noting that siblings go through different stages at different times. Her youngest recently would only eat beans, prompting her to call the doctor.
Boldt filled the book with big movements and expressive faces, saying he was paying homage to Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” which also has kids taking charge and creating a bit of chaos. “It’s much easier to draw something when the words are incredibly descriptive and visual, because that feeds your imagination,” he says.
He also has three children but, thankfully, they aren’t that picky. “They actually like a lot of vegetables and foods that I wasn’t sure they were going to,” he says with a laugh. “Stuff I didn’t like when I was a kid.”
Alves has tips for parents of picky eaters beyond the classic one of making plates more fun by arranging the food into faces. One way she keeps the household happy is by sticking to good dietary rules all week and then having free-for-all-Friday, when everyone can eat what they want.
She also endorses letting each child choose a “throw-up vegetable” – one item they can skip as long as they try all the others. (Her throw-up veggie would be okra, a lifelong slimy enemy, she says.) Another tip: Encourage children to help cook in the kitchen to learn about ingredients.
“My daughter would say, ‘I really don’t like onions.’ And then once I’ll get her to cook this meat sauce with me, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I can’t eat this. You put onions on it. ‘ I’ll say, ‘I put onions on this every time I cook it.’ “
The Brazilian-born Alves grew up on a farm and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. “The relationship with food and what it came from – from seed to table – was very vivid for me growing up,” she says.
She tries to replicate what she grew up with by adding lots of colors to her plates – beets, beans, hearts of palm, tomatoes, roots and legumes. She prepares them simply, puts them in the middle of the table, and lets her kids and mother-in-law graze.
While she was growing up, her family never talked about moderating sugar, something she still struggles with. Her husband’s family did talk about it, and she says he has a healthier relationship with sweets and dessert.
Alves advocates making small changes and embracing the notion that no one’s perfect. She admits her kids have busted her on her chocolate addiction, and she’s moving toward less sweet, darker versions.
“No matter what stage you’re in, there’s always room to do a little bit better.”