4 Ways to Help Your Kids Try New Foods and Dishes
A mom of two shares how she encourages her kids to try new things — and why she doesn't worry if they don't take to them immediately.
As an intrepid eater who also happens to be the mother of two children, I can tell you that the hopes and dreams most parents have for raising foodie children go out the window the minute those kids toss their first vegetables on the dining room floor. So how do you get children to expand their view of what's tasty and what isn't?
The key is cooking. Surrounding kids with new and interesting flavors has surprising results.
1. Try Not to Cater
I don't force my children to eat anything that I cook - but I also don't operate my kitchen like a restaurant, either. If my kids are disinterested in the vegetables, proteins, and starches I've cooked, they can eat food that's readily available in the fridge (say, leftover pasta, fresh fruit, or a yogurt).
But I'm only one woman, and I can't make separate meals for every member of the family. Not cooking separate meals for children may seem cruel at first, but it has yielded some surprising results. My four year old - by far my pickiest child - will often sit down next to me after complaining about what I've cooked for dinner. Carefully, when he thinks I'm not looking, he'll steal a spear of asparagus. Then another. Then a third. By meal's end, he's eaten vegetables that I never forced upon him. Seeing my plate makes him interested.
2. Offer, But Don't Force
Whenever I prepare or order a food that's unfamiliar to my children, I offer them a bite. Half the time, they say no, and I don't make them try the foods I like to eat. I was also a picky child, and certain textures, colors, and flavors made me anxious, so I empathize with what my kids are going through. (Some studies have shown that people need to try a new-to-them food at least 20 times in order to change their perceptions about it.)
When my kids are interested, I give them small bites of what I'm eating. Sometimes they turn their noses up in disgust; other times, they tentatively ask for a second bite. Both circumstances are wins, because it means that they've tried something once (19 more times to go before they'll tolerate it).
Offering - rather than forcing - is a positive reinforcement. I don't want my children to view food as negative, so I don't push the issue when they're uncomfortable.
3. Spice It Up
Introduce your kids to new flavors by letting them experiment with the spice drawer. When I'm cooking with something that's particularly aromatic, I ask my son to come and smell it. Smell is one sense that will make foods that are not in his regular rotation more recognizable.
Start with spices and flavors that may be more palatable to young kids. Garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cumin are good entry points; my own kids shy away from anything they perceive as "spicy," like black pepper or ginger. Connecting sense of smell with sense of taste is just one more step in getting your kids to eat as completely as you do.
4. Cook Regularly
My kids may not be eating the fruits of my labor, but what they are doing is seeing how frequently I'm in the kitchen. We sit down to eat a meal that I've cooked five to six nights a week, meaning that they recognize as normal the habits of cleaning and cutting vegetables, sautéing food, and eating together as a family.
Normalization is just one of the many tactics I use to expand my kids' palates. By seeing vegetables over and over again, for instance, my kids will know that vegetables are just a normal part of dinner. Eventually - and it may be next year or five years from now - that asparagus they've been eating in stealth will occupy a prominent place on their plates, because that's just normal in our house.
5. Listen to Their Concerns (and Don't Lie)
When my son tells me he doesn't like mushrooms, I listen to him. I don't try to sneak mushrooms in when he's not looking, and I don't lie about what a dish contains. I want him to trust that I'm looking out for him, and I very much recognize that food aversions are real (and, to many, scary!). I won't necessarily exclude mushrooms from my cooking, just because he doesn't like them, but I will tell him where they are in a dish so that he doesn't happen on them by mistake.
Listen to your kids' concerns about what they're eating. Be honest with them when you're trying to get them to try new things. Sneaking vegetables into muffins may get your kids to have a more balanced and nutritious diet, but it won't get them to love zucchini, no matter how hard you try.