Many parents believe that children only like “kid food” and therefore only serve things like macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, tater tots, etc when in actuality children can like a wide variety of foods, if done properly. The first time a child tries a flavor, they may not like it. Many parents will stop trying after this initial onset because they think this flavor preference is permanent, but it can take up to 13 times of trying something for a child to like it if they initially don’t. That’s a lot of taste testing !
The easiest way to make your child an adventurous eater is to begin them on a wide variety of foods at a young age, even as early as you introduce purées. Store-bought flavors are quite limited in the amount of fruits, veggies, meats, and grains available to pick from and don’t provide some unique but tasty flavors like avocado, lychee, papaya, parsnip, etc. Many pediatricians may suggest that you start baby off on rice cereal at 3-4 months old mixed with either breast milk, formula, or water. My son hated this flavoring and rejected it every time I tried, so I decided that I would feed him flavored purées right from the get-go. He had good head control at 3 months and I began giving him small amounts (2.5oz or so) at a sitting, once a day. I monitored for allergies for 3 days after introducing any new flavor and we’ve not had a problem since ! He’s 6 months now and likes everything from avocado to peach to sweet potato to green beans to pear to spinach and corn. Many of the pureées I feed him are my homemade ones (I wrote a whole blog article on how to do this- it’s SO easy !) and I use the store-bought ones to see what I should be making more of for the homemade ones.
Building good eating habits starts at birth and extends throughout childhood. By eating at the table as a family as often as you can (with baby in a high chair or held on a lap if fussy) will help them learn that the table is where the family eats. This also instills quality time as a family, leads to interaction, helps kids feel connected to each other and to their parents, builds good manners, allows discussion and sharing of stories of each person’s day, and lets kids see that you are also eating the food you expect them with delight and they may be more likely to try it.
I got this idea from my book “French Kids Eat Everything” and it talks about how you can get kids to try many different flavors of things easily. If you have any “paint pallettes”, put a dab of purée in each little compartment and have the children try them (if old enough, ask them what flavor they think it is, ask them to describe the flavor, if they think it’s a fruit or a vegetable, what the texture is like, is it hot or cold, etc). This will give them a wide sampling of flavors and open the doorway to accepting new flavors.
If ever you go out to a buffet, a party, or event where there’s food, invite your children to take 1 piece of everything available and to try it all. This will get them exposed to adult food, flavors, and make them more likely to enjoy the food provided at events without you having to pack some Cheerios or dash off to pick up fast food for them.
Try Just One Bite of Everything on Your Plate
Many children are forced into eating something against their wishes and these children learn to dislike the food because of it’s negative overtones, even if they don’t mind the taste, because it’s associated with a bad memory. If you just ask the child to try one bite of each thing on their plate, this will eventually get them to try unknown things more easily and be more open-minded to foods than if you force them to eat something or to “clear their plate”.
Don’t Tell Children to “Clean Their Plate”
Not only does this give food a bad overtone, it can lead to overeating, unpleasant association at the dinner table, encourage deceptiveness (hiding food to throw away later), lying (about whether the food was liked or eaten) and an unclear sense about food.
Serve Veggies First
If the kids are super hungry and dinner still has a way to go, make sure you always have healthy snacks on hand that you can put on the dining table so they will be more enticed to eat them. You know they’re hungry and they are likely to eat food that is in front of them, even if it’s a veggie. Some ideas : carrots, broccoli, celery, green beans, etc. Or you can have fruits be the opening to a dinner- grapes, raspberries, strawberries, apple slices, peaches, etc.
How to Introduce a New Flavor
The easiest way to introduce a new flavor is to only have one new item at a meal or only one item that the child doesn’t like. This way they won’t go hungry but can still try the new or unliked item. In the beginning you may have to encourage a child to just take one bite and that’s it but eventually it’ll become second nature to them. For baby purées, the easiest way to introduce a new flavor or to re-introduce an unliked flavor is to mix it with an existing liked flavor. If you’d like baby to try broccoli, instead of doing just pure broccoli purée, do broccoli-apple or broccoli-corn.
Model Good Eating Habits Yourself
The whole “Do as I say, not as I do” method for child-rearing is ineffective at best. You need to model any type of behavior you want your children to have, and that includes manners, eating a variety of foods, and having good etiquette. Children mimic their caretakers and will take after you in all ways possible. The more they see you eating foods that they eat, encouraging them, modeling good table manners and table rules (“don’t talk with your mouth full”, etc), the more likely they are to do the same and eat a variety of foods. Show them that food is meant to be eaten, not thrown or played with. Show them how to hold silverware properly. Show them how to put a napkin on their lap and how to ask for something on the table to be passed if it’s not immediately in front of them. These are all good habits to build as soon as possible and will help the child fit into a social context much easier.
When Going Out to Eat, Order a Regular Meal for the Child
The more exposure kids have to real foods and not “kid foods” the better. Their favorites are usually salty, fatty, and sweet but that doesn’t mean they should have these things all the time ! It’s our job as parents to ensure that our kids are eating well and having the occasional treat. Most kids’ menus have little to no nutrition and there’s hardly a veggie in sight. A better option is to order something for the child off the adult menu, ask for 1 takeout box, and portion half their plate into the takeout box as soon as the food arrives. Cut up the rest of the food into small pieces for them to eat with their fingers or the kiddie silverware you keep on you (depending on age). Put on a bib if you have one or ask if the waiter can bring a disposable one out for you. Or you can always order a fruit cup and a side of veggie medley and cut all items into small pieces and have a variety plate for your child. Best to ask if they have a non-breakable bowl available (unless you have one with you for such outings).
If you implement all of the above categories and try your best to ensure exposure to new foods and to have everyone try them at a minimum, I’m sure that you’ll be surprised with what your child likes. Avoid “kid foods”. Don’t even introduce them if you can avoid it. Try your best to serve whole, natural foods and focus on fruits and veggies at the forefront and add in pieces of meat when it’s age-appropriate and when the child seems ready.