How to Raise an Adventurous Eater
By Rachael L., Mom of Two Happy Eaters, ages 5 and 8
Raising a child who is open to experiencing the world around them is an invaluable trait that’ll benefit them throughout life. It’s a challenge to get kids to do anything not on their agenda (I’m still working on getting my youngest to sleep in his bed all night!), but I’m happy to say that my littles—ages 5 and 8—are known as will-gobble-down-anything eaters. Crab cakes with creamy dill sauce? Check. Carne asada served with quinoa, black bean and corn salad? You bet. Grilled pineapple and shrimp skewers with steamed broccoli and brown rice? Bring it.
When one of my frustrated mom friends asks me to share my secret, I usually offer one or two of the tips below. Different tactics work for different kids, but if you want them to venture beyond corn dogs or mac ’n’ cheese, give a few of these a go. Adventurous eaters make mealtime more fun for all!
THEY EAT WHAT YOU EAT
No separate meals. No special requests. Your kids must share in the meal you’ve made. Sure, I might tone down the crushed red pepper or fresh garlic on my kids’ portions, but the main meal is all there. I won’t lie…there have been standoffs. But the moment I back down is the moment they’ll see me as their personal short-order cook. No, thank you.
TRY, TRY AGAIN. AND AGAIN
I read somewhere that tastes change about every 7 years. Maybe true for some, my kids’ tastes seem to change every 7 days. They turn their noses up at eggplant Parmesan one day. A week later? They can’t shovel it into their mouths fast enough. That’s why I always make them take at least one bite of everything I put on their plate, even if it’s something they’ve pooh-poohed before. If anything, it shows them that simply trying a new food won’t kill them.
LET THEM WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
I can’t tell you how well this works for my son, who is obsessed with all things animal. If I’m making salmon, all I have to do is remind him how grizzly bears love plucking them out of Alaskan streams. Or steak…“Pretend you’re a T. rex enjoying a tasty triceratops,” I say. And he’ll go through a whole pan of my homemade granola if I tell him how much the cardinals (his favorite bird) out back would enjoy it.
SERVE UP MEALS IN STYLE
My kids and I love stir-fry. I do because they get the protein, veggies and complex carbs they need all in one dish. They do because I serve it in fancy Asian dishes with chopsticks alongside. I also pour their milk into tiny teacups that I bought in Chinatown during my pre-kids vacation to San Francisco (not exactly what I had in mind at the time). Same goes for fresh-juiced veggies and fruit. If there’s a fancy straw or drink umbrella, they think it’s something special.
COZY UP TO CONDIMENTS
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to slather on ketchup, sour cream, melted cheese or ranch dressing to get our brood to try something new. But sometimes, parents need a helper…and a dip in this or a squirt of that may just be what’s needed to make a new food feel more familiar. And once they get used to the new food, you can usually cut back and then eventually do away with the special sauce.
START WITH SALADS
I’m not exaggerating when I say that my family has a salad before dinner about 70 percent of the time. That’s how we started introducing a variety of veggies and fruits on our kids, and now it’s just habit. We started with mild greens, such as Buttercrunch Bibb lettuce or baby spinach, and sweet dressings like poppy seed and honey French, then topped it off with sliced fruit, mild soft cheeses and sunflower seeds. Now they’ve moved on to spicier varieties—even arugula—with most anything mixed in.
SWEETEN THE DEAL
Speak to their sweet tooth with good-for-you foods made more appealing with a little sugar—think honey-glazed salmon, brown-sugar roasted carrots, teriyaki chicken, and oatmeal topped with peanut butter, dark chocolate or flaked coconut.
KIDS LOVE BABIES
Baby carrots, grape tomatoes, mini peppers, fingerling potatoes, baby squash—the mini versions of our favorite veggies are generally sweeter, more tender and easier for little ones to nosh on. I always make sure to have a bunch cleaned and ready to roll for when snack time or the need for a healthy side dish comes around.
LET THEM EXPERIENCE PLOT TO POT
Being an adventurous eater is about more than eating a variety of food—it’s also about nourishing your body inside and out, and learning where your food comes from. To teach the latter, I let my kids help with our backyard vegetable garden. From planning to planting and watering to harvesting, they’re part of the process every step of the way. They especially like sampling the fresh herbs I grow in the pots on our patio. To them, growing and knowing their food makes it seem less scary. Same goes for cooking—I always encourage them to help.
WHEN DEFEATED, BRIBE
That’s right, we’ve paid our kids to eat. “Mom will give you a nickel if you try a bite of chicken curry.” And you know what? It works! Last summer, when all my kids wanted to eat were ice pops and hot dogs, I kicked off my “Superhero Summer” idea. I’d prep and store fresh veggies and fruit in Pyrex® storage containers adorned with superhero stickers. Every time they chose a healthy snack from the container, they would get a point. Fifteen points in a week earned them a fun (and healthy) family activity of their choosing.
HIDE AND SNEAK: MORE TIPS FROM MORE MOMS
I don’t know everything there is to know about tricking tykes into eating what you want them to, so I asked some conniving friends to weigh in. You get the benefit of their combined wisdom:
“We use fun names—broccoli stalks are ‘trees’ and spinach smoothies are ‘Shrek shakes.’ ” —Dyan, mother of a daughter (3) and son (10)
“I use my ricer to break down cooked cauliflower, then add it to pizza dough and mashed potatoes.” —Jackie, mother of three sons, 8, 13 and 16
“I add pureed apples and bananas to pancakes. I also add bits of sweet dried fruit, such as apricots.” —Melissa, mother of two sons, 3 and 6
“I add new things to their favorite staples, so they’re more apt to try it—bell peppers on pizza, spinach in tomato soup and sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms in my mac ’n’ cheese casserole.” —Kim, mother of a son (5) and daughter (8)
“I once made ‘meat muffins’ with ground turkey and broccoli slaw. It tasted like the inside of a pot sticker. My youngest daughter, who is convinced veggies are bad for her, loved it!” —Amy, mother of two daughters, 8 and 10
Some of these ideas might work for you, some might not, but it’s worth the effort to encourage an open-minded eater. After all, you never know ’til you try…
YOUR TURN: How do you get your kids to try new foods—and make pickiness go “poof”?