Many of my friends, knowing I’m a food professional, think that I must hold the secret to raising a “good eater,” as kids who aren’t picky eaters are called. They’re constantly asking me how to sneak more vegetables into their kid’s diet, how to convince their kids to sit at the table for longer than five minutes, or what to give them as snacks that won’t rot their teeth.
I don’t feel like I’m much of an expert in this respect: there are days when my daughter refuses to eat anything but grapes and graham crackers. But I do feel like I’ve done something right somehow, since broccoli is one of her favorite foods, and she turns her nose up at chocolate.
But since having a picky-eater child is my idea of hell, I did plenty of research and brainstorming on how to raise children who are adventurous, open-minded and who are partial to healthy, fresh foods, rather than processed junk.
Here’s a rough guide to what you can do to stack the odds of having a “good eater” in your favor.
- Be an adventurous eater yourself. Kids learn by example, so if they see you enjoying spinach and brown rice, chances are they’ll think it can’t be so bad. As a busy parent, it’s easy to fall into the trap of serving bland, processed foods because they’re easy to make and you know everyone will eat them. But try to have at least one or two meals a week where you’re trying new fruits, vegetables and grains.
- Never underestimate your child’s taste buds. In my 2-year-old daughter’s circle, I’m always shocked at some of the foods the kids love. Black olives, edamame and tofu, for instance, are big crowd pleasers. Even if something is unusual, moderately spicy or otherwise unfamiliar, let your child try a taste. You never know what might become their next favorite food!
- Don’t make mealtime a battleground. My friend Kelley is one of the most adventurous eaters I know (to wit: she loves offal like sweetbread, kidneys and liver). I give a lot of credit to her father, who had a household rule: Kelley had to take at least three bites of everything on her plate. If she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to eat any more. Most kids will find taking a bite (or three) a reasonable request. On the other hand, fighting and arguing to get your child to clean his or her plate is only going to build unhappy associations with mealtime and make them detest whatever they’re eating. (I personally believe this is why I hate lima beans to this day.)
- Be sneaky if you must. There’s a kids’ cookbook trend about sneaking healthy ingredients into mealtime favorites — i.e. stirring cauliflower puree into mac ‘n cheese, or (gasp!) concealing spinach in rich chocolate brownies. If all else fails, and you still feel like your child is not eating the wholesome food you’re putting before her, then you might need to resort to such tactics. You can gradually increase the amount of the good-for-you stuff until your kid develops a taste for it without even realizing it.
- Make food a learning experience. Grow a garden, go apple picking, visit the farmers’ market, or even just get your child involved in choosing tomatoes and cans of soup at the supermarket. As your children get older, the more they feel involved in the family’s grocery shopping and meal preparation, the more willing they’ll be to eat what’s on their plate. When I was growing up, my mom flattered me into believing that I was the best salad-maker in the family, and making the salad at dinner became my responsibility. Of course I would eat my own creation with pride. Now, I wonder if she was just practicing her own picky-eater insurance. If so, I have to thank her. And, of course, I’ll be counting the days until my own daughter can become the resident salad-maker! For more ideas to make kid dinners, get them involved in the meal planning process.