Is it really possible for kids to like whole grains?

(BPT) – We know. Whole grains are good for us, offering fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. But can they really be tasty enough for our kids to enjoy? And how do we add them to more of our meals?

The answers may be as close as your nearest elementary, middle or high school. Schools across the country are introducing whole grain breads, pastas, rice, pizzas and tortillas. Starting July 1, 2014, all of the grain-based offerings in the lunch line will be at least 51 percent whole grain.

Anthony Geraci, director of Nutrition Services at Shelby County Schools near Memphis, Tenn., oversees one of the country’s largest school districts, serving more than 155,000 students in 270 schools. In 2012, he proactively anticipated the USDA’s new school meal requirements and changed all of the district’s grain offerings to whole grains. Now, breads and muffins are baked fresh from scratch. Simultaneously, Geraci established a mandate of customer service, focusing full attention on serving the district’s daily student customers.

One of the most successful ways Geraci and his team have introduced new, healthy items is the “no thank you bites.” “Trying something new can be a bit unsettling to kids,” says Geraci. “We decided to ask our youngest customers to choose whether or not to try a new, healthy item by offering it to them in a small sample cup. If they choose not to try it, they simply say ‘no thank you,’ and move on. But if they do try the item, they receive a star sticker and are invited to a monthly ‘constellation party for the stars.’ We’ve found this to be a fun way to test new items as well as get feedback on our new offerings.”

Schools are offering kid-friendly favorites like pizza and stir fry with brown rice that fit into their whole grain-rich menus. For example, the new Big Daddy’s(R) Primo Four Cheese Pizza has a 51 percent whole grain crust and a slice is only 360 calories. It’s a great solution for familiar taste and nutrient-rich offerings.

You can easily carry whole grain “goodness” into your own kitchen too.

Consider whole grains your blank canvas, says Susan Moores, a Twin Cities-based dietitian. “They’re a great starting point for creating delicious meals that are incredibly beneficial to your and your kids’ health.”

According to Moores, whole grains are the type of carbohydrates your body wants.

“Whole-grain carbohydrates are an excellent source of energy for the brain,” she says. That’s important for kids at school. Plus, studies show whole grains contain their own, unique set of phytonutrients, which can rival the phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables. Phytonutrients are substances found in plant foods that research strongly suggest promote good health … think resveratrol in grapes and lycopene in tomatoes.

To add whole grains to your home menus, Moores suggests teamwork. “Kids are naturally curious about food, they’re interested in being in the kitchen and in learning how to cook. Leverage that and the fun when everyone is trying a food for the first time.”

To amp up the flavor of grains, cook them in broth or juice, and make a pilaf with chopped onions, adding chopped vegetables, corn or even dried fruit. Finish with seasoning. Whole grains work as a side dish, in a casserole, in soups or as part of a refreshing spring salad.

It might take time to make the change, but stay the course. “The rule of thumb: it can take 10 to 12 introductions to a new food before a child chooses to give it a go,” Moores says. “Whole grains taste best with the company they keep. Partner them with favorite foods and ingredients to make them a sure win on two fronts: taste and health.”

With the help of schools who are leading the way in introducing kid-friendly whole grain options, we’ll all be enjoying the benefits that come with eating whole grain foods.

Try this whole grain recipe from The Culinary Institute of America:

Brown Rice Pilaf recipe from The Culinary Institute of America

Yield: 10 portions

1 1/2 cups long-grain converted brown rice                
1 tablespoon vegetable oil                        
1 small onion, minced        
3 cups liquid – vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat the oil in heavy-gauge medium pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and translucent, 5-6 minutes. Add the rice and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until aromatic and heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, bay leaf and thyme sprig to the rice and bring to a simmer, stirring to prevent the rice from clumping together or sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cover the pot and cook in a 350 F. oven until the rice is tender and has absorbed all the liquid, about 30 minutes. Remove the rice from the oven, and allow it to rest, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover, and use a fork to fluff the rice, remove the bay leaf and thyme sprig, and set aside in a warm spot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on a warm plate.

* Several different dried fruits, nuts and herbs can be added to grains, such as dried cherries, dried apricots, slivered almonds, chopped pistachios, fresh basil, etc.
* 2 ounces of chopped, toasted walnuts can also be gently folded in with ½ ounce each of chopped parsley, chives and thyme.

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