Every meal with 18-month-old Estelle starts the same way. I lift the fork to her lips... just as she clamps them shut. “No.” There’s twisting, frowning and eyebrow-furrowing, and it would be maddening if this lasted for more than five seconds. But I'm onto her. At this stage (and there will be many more), the trick is to take a bite myself first. After that, she’s open for business and eats like a hearty little field hand -- one with a head full of ringlets in a high chair.
And that’s the key right there: figuring out what works at whatever stage you’re in. Since kids are changing all the time and I have three rascals under the age of 4, I’ve got tons of tricks up my sleeve for dinners between now and those 18th birthdays, (which seem far, far away right now).
In the meantime, I’m on a mission to teach my kids about eating a variety of good food. Wholesome, fresh, nourishing and, above all, delicious food.
It’s not OK with me if they eat fast food or pasta most nights because we can’t get them to try anything else. There’s so much to enjoy about wonderful meals -- from eating well to learning the art of telling a great story -- that I consider it another important part of parenting. But it’s complicated. Part discipline, part health lesson, part social science, this task is not easy. So with all this in mind, I’ve put together a list of what that works for my husband and me. These are our house rules and habits, some homegrown and others picked up from authors, experts and friends. But every one of them is tried and true. Good luck.
- Be calm. Even if you’re frustrated or worried about a picky eater, try to at least fake a carefree front. It matters because if you are casual about it, they’ll be casual about it. You don’t want to turn the dinner table into a war zone. The larger goal, even beyond begging the kids to just take a bite of Brussels sprouts, is to make the dinner table one of your family’s happiest places.
- Make it the first or second bite, when the kids are hungry. This comes from Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything. And to that end, don’t allow snacks closer than two hours before dinner. A hungrier kid is more willing to try something new.
- Don’t insist that they eat an entire serving. Since the lesson is about introducing variety, cultivating curiosity and encouraging healthy eating, it’s not important whether or not the kids eat a full plate. At our house the rule is this: You have to try one bite of everything. If you don’t, you’re not eligible for dessert. And it’s not a big deal either way.
- Make it a habit. I love cooking and write about our greatest hits (and misses) on foodlets.com, so my kids are very used to new foods. You don’t have to blog about it, but the sooner your kids get used to trying new things, the sooner they’ll accept the experience as part of your dinner routine.
- Let them help… in the garden. Jennifer Carden, author of The Toddler Cafe, says that her two girls eat tons of fresh vegetables in the summer because they’ve invested their own time and effort into helping the garden grow. (The same thing can work by just enlisting the little guys in the kitchen. Anyone who’s prepared even part of dinner will be so proud that you’ll have another food evangelist at the table urging everyone to try it.)
- Don’t offer substitutions. This was a scary one for me to give up, but finally I realized I had to. If kids know that plain pasta is available as a backup, why would they try something else? My husband and I used to offer yogurt as a plan B because we were afraid that the kids would go to bed hungry -- or worse, wake up even earlier than they already did because of hunger. It never made a difference; they woke up at 6 a.m. every day no matter what happened at dinner. (Trust me, otherwise we just might scrap this whole “variety” thing and continuously offer whatever will get me an extra hour of sleep.)
- Eat new foods and enjoy them yourself. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re not especially into roasted carrots but you know they’re good for the kids, just take a bite or two yourself. And either way, set an example by saying appreciative things. “This looks so good!” Even one little “mmm” can go a long way toward forming a sweet family habit.
- Start at the store. Carden says she gets her kids interested in the produce aisle. “Hey, look at the color of this food! Isn’t it amazing?” Or give them a fun fact, like, “Did you know coconuts are giant nuts that grow in palm trees, and they're filled with sweet water? Let’s try one. You put it in the cart, OK?”
- Spin off proven favorites. Any time we have success with one thing, we replicate it somewhere else. Pumpkin spice muffins turn into carrot spice muffins. Grilled beef skewers were a hit, so we tried pork and pineapple kebabs, then homemade Hawaiian pizza. Sometimes just one ingredient makes its way somewhere new. Kiwi has long been a favorite dessert item, so I was thrilled to see a recipe for kiwi endive salad… and thanks to those familiar little green gems, they ate it.
- No complaints. Cori, mother of three kids under age 9 in Vienna, swears by this one. If you have older kids, enforce a no-complaining rule. It’s monkey see, monkey do at the dinner table, so if one child refuses, you’re likely to see the rest follow suit.
- Get them excited ahead of time. If your kids are older than toddlers, announce your plan. "We’re going to start trying new foods as a family. This week we’ll try baked risotto with bacon and peas and carrot cake pancakes. It’s going to be fun!" Then give it a whirl. How bad can one bite be?
- Try soups. Regan, my former Martha Stewart.com colleague and mother of two from New York, swears by this technique for getting lots of veggies into her kids. Purees are perfect for introducing new flavors, like roasted tomato; it’s also easy to throw a few cubes of something new -- say, zucchini -- into a pot of your family’s favorite chicken soup recipe.
- Fancy is fun. Kids love new things, especially when they’re miniature or personalized, so consider a set of special bowls, spoons or even napkins. Anything to make the dining experience more special.
- Be patient. It’s been reported that kids will need to try new foods anywhere from seven to 15 times before acquiring a taste for it. That’s a lot.
Charity Curley Mathews is a former Vice President of Martha Stewart.com turned writer, consultant and mother of three with a dream: to have children who eat food, real food, natural food, often organic, rarely processed, sometimes ethnic, food. She'd like to do all of this eating together, at a table, making polite conversation and happy eating sounds like "mmm" and even "thanks for dinner!" She chronicles the ups and downs of this adventure on her blog, Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making…Maybe, and is a regular contributor to Food Network Dish, The Huffington Post, BabyZone and more. Visit her Facebook page to find out what's cooking (or on the floor) this week.