Monday, April 13, 2009

Raising an Adventurous Eater

Try it, try it, and you may!
Try it and you may, I say!
~ Sam-I-Am

My husband and I love to cook. It's a pretty frugal alternative to eating out. We have some tried and true recipes, but we also love to learn new ways of cooking. That can mean making Thai or Indian or South American meals, or our most recent favorite, foods from the Middle East.

Friends wonder how on earth we get our children to do it. They complain about their kids' preferences for hot dogs and Kraft macaroni and cheese or wonder whether it is possible for a toddler to survive on carrot sticks and a bowl of Cheerios.

I will admit, our children like those kids favorites just as much as the next child does. But our oldest has an abiding love of Curried Brown Lentils. Our youngest gobbles up anything with Roasted Red Peppers in it. And our 6 year-old son, the most conservative eater in the family, considers fajitas with homemade salsa and guacamole "A 5-Star Meal."

To answer a couple of questions in advance: Yes, we started offering our kids a variety of foods early on. But No, I don't think that kids who eat nothing but grilled cheese and applesauce are too far gone to be brought back on track.

Here are some hints to get your kids to branch out:

Start Small: Introducing one new food at a time is the best practice for babies just starting to eat solid food. It's also the best way to ease a timid eater into unfamiliar taste territory. Offering one taste -- even a lick -- of a new food at every meal can help to wake up your child's palate.

When in Doubt, Choose Fresh: Fresh blueberries or raspberries, baby spinach, or cherry tomatoes are great foods to incorporate into your child's diet. They offer new textures and flavors without requiring a lot of preparation by you. The fresh foods you use to help your child branch out now may become tomorrow's healthy snacktime favorites.

Use Color: Offering a rainbow of foods can be so appealing to a child. Lightly blanched broccoli is so green -- a favorite for my children. Roasted red peppers are brilliant red, equally appealing. Toasted pecans offer a light, nutty sweetness -- and a beautiful brown color. Red Lentils start out orange and cook to a soft, golden yellow. When you create foods for your children that appeal to them visually, they are more likely to give them a taste.

Some Assembly Required: My children are inherently suspicious of foods that are all mixed up. (Something my Mother In Law is reminded of every time she serves them up a lovingly-prepared all-in-one casserole.) When I want them to try new things, I will often cook and serve the ingredients separately and have them assemble the dish on their own plate and on their own terms. They can eat foods separately or together. The more adventurous they become, the more they will find the combination that suits their individual palate. Sometimes one of my children will say to the other, "try this and that together! They taste great!"

Feed them Hungry: I don't think my kids have caught on to the fact that on nights when we're introducing something new, we usually eat a little later. Maybe it happens because cooking something new takes us a little longer. Maybe it's because we know that hungry children will eat anything in their path. Regardless of the reason, it works.

Make Reliable = Neutral: We always offer a reliable dish alongside an adventure food, but we never make it more appealing than the food we hope the children will try. Having a dish of rice on the side when you're trying a new main dish or a brand new vegetable combination really works. Often, my children will try the new foods first, then move on to the rice. If I were to use Kraft Mac & Cheese as my alternate, you'd better believe they'd be asking for seconds of that before they tried anything new.

Use the "Try It" Mantra: We recite those penultimate lines of Green Eggs and Ham when our children start to dig in their heels. "Try it, try it and you may! Try it and you may, I say!" They laugh and relent. One small taste is all we ask. My oldest came up with his own (I think borrowed from Elmo.) "It's National Try a New Food Day!" he will tell his brother. Only occasionally will his brother grumble back something about him saying that every day.

Respect Choices: There is nothing more discouraging than your children rejecting a food you love or have lovingly prepared. But parents who want their children to be willing to try new foods have to listen when a child says they don't like it. I don't force my kids to clean their plates, especially if they have already told me they aren't crazy about the adventure food taking up residence. I tell them, "different people like different things." My husband is crazy about beets; I can't stand them. I love feta cheese; my sons think it tastes like stinky socks. If I want them to trust me at the table, I have to be sensitive to their palate.

Try, Try Again: With that said, there is something to be said for persistence. Two years ago, my boys wouldn't touch spaghetti (one of my favorite meals). There was something about the sauce that just didn't hit their palate right. I experimented with the recipe, adjusting the spices or the sauce-to-noodle ratio. I found a combination that works for all of us. Now they ask for it.

Model Adventure: Finally, adventurous eaters usually don't come from parents who eat nothing but chicken and mashed potatoes. The more willing you are to try new things, the more curious your children will be about what, exactly, is on your plate. Why is Dad crazy for curry? Why does Mom flip over tabouleh? How would this taste with a squeeze of lemon like my brother uses? Do parsnips really taste like cauliflower? Mom, can I have a bite of your grapefruit? Children love to imitate. Take advantage of it.

Appreciating food is such a fun part of living. I hope you will have a little food adventure with your child soon. Don't be nervous. It doesn't have to be a battle. Just relax and start offering alternatives. Have fun with it.

Pretty soon, you may have an adventurous eater on your hands.

- Midwest Mom


  1. Great advice--my sons adore couscous (with leftover meat mixed in) and stromboli was a huge hit too. Adventure makes them healthy:)

  2. This is good advice, I know eating is a huge power struggle between a lot of parents and kids. My son will eat anything put in front of him but I get the feeling that he wouldn't mind if we fed him dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets for every meal ...

  3. Now that cooking class is done, stop by my place and pick up your award. Cheers!

  4. Great tips! I think you and your husband also have the no-quit attitude..persistent. I'm sure many of us parents give in just from the exhaustion of prodding..hehe..I don't know. It's just a guess.

    I also noticed that your kids don't mind spicy, although maybe not hot-hot. I once heard an expert on children and nutrition years ago state that kids love garlic, even though they don't know what it is. The advice was to sneak a little garlic in appropriate dishes, and their palates love it! Especially small children. I also think that kids love a little spicy, and maybe more than we may believe.

  5. Good advice.
    I, too, tried my son on a large variety of foods from the time he started eating and he still eats most anything.
    I was always a really picky eater, up until a couple of years ago when I had a taste bud change, but I didn't want him to be.


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