Getting Kids to Try New Foods: My Advice

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is the Food Issue and, if you’re a print subscriber, I need to apologize in advance for sucking much of the joy out of your Sunday morning.  First I shared on TLT the lead magazine story by Nicholas Confessore on school food politics (my companion New York Times Motherlode piece is here) and this morning on TLT’s Facebook page I shared a cool photo spread on kids’ breakfasts around the world.  So why not kill your suspense a little further by sharing another Food Issue article, this one from Mark Bittman: “Getting Your Kids to Eat (Or At Least Try) Everything.”

In the piece, Bittman tells us about raising his two daughters, now grown women, to be adventurous, healthy eaters.  While his girls did balk at a few foods here and there, Bittman tells us that in general they enthusiastically embraced whatever was coming out of his kitchen — even dishes like salt-grilled mackerel or squid.  Bittman says his and his then-wife’s approach to feeding kids was only intuitive at the time, but he now boils down his advice to this:

Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk, and they should set and enforce rules on what their children are allowed to eat. I can be even more specific: Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can. Worry less about labels like “G.M.O.” and “organic” and “local” and more about whether the food you’re giving your children is real.

Let me say up front that I enthusiastically agree with all Bittman says here.  (And I just loved the piece generally for a glimpse into his decidedly unhealthy, non-foodie upbringing, and how that experience played into his approach to feeding his own children.)

But as regular TLT readers know, I’ve also been “blessed” with one child who’s been extraordinarily resistant to eating vegetables ever since he proudly announced, at the tender age of three, “I don’t eat vegetables anymore.” At the time I just laughed but, as it turns out, this kid really meant it.  As in: entire years would go by when nary a carrot or pea would cross his little lips, despite my application of various approaches, from the hands-off method I endorse philosophically, to the “For the love of God, just take just one bite!” approach I’d resort to in moments of total despair.

And the thing is, I pretty much followed all the rules Bittman lays out above, from the time my kids were tiny.  Not only that, my husband and I are very adventurous eaters, we’ve modeled healthful eating at home every single night, and the vegggie-avoider’s sister, though she certainly has her own clear likes and dislikes, never dug in her heels in quite the same way over vegetables.

My point here is this: just as I had one baby who would drift off to sleep in minutes and another who nearly drove us over the edge with sleep deprivation, I’m really starting to think much of a kid’s approach to new foods may be entirely hardwired.  In other words, who’s to say what would’ve happened if Bittman and his wife had a third child?  Maybe that child, too, would have tucked into salt-grilled mackerel with gusto — or maybe he or she would have made Bittman and his wife nuts by refusing to eat anything but bananas and buttered pasta.

In this regard, I really liked the blunt honesty of this post by food writer and cookbook author Debbie Koenig, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen.”  Koenig’s supposed to be the expert on feeding families, so I respect her all the more for being willing to admit this:

Here’s my confession: Lately, I hate cooking. The frustrations and challenges of coming up with creative, appealing, and easily reproduced meals that my insanely picky kid might deign to eat have sucked all the joy out of my kitchen. That’s why things have been so quiet around here lately. I’m tired, and I don’t have much to crow about.

But now that I’ve thoroughly depressed all of you POTPs (Parents of the Picky) by letting you think it’s a lost cause, allow me to recount an episode that took place in my house just last week.

The veggie-avoider, now twelve, came to me unsolicited to offer a dinner suggestion.  He wanted — and I swear, this was the exact request–  “portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli.”  Now, that might sound totally improbable except that, thanks to my friend Sue’s fabulous mushroom tart (which I almost told my kid not to try!), my son realized about a year ago that hey, mushrooms aren’t half-bad.  And he now loves the complex flavor of Gruyere cheese from regularly eating this sandwich (thank you, Katie Morford).  (As for the “pesto aioli” thing, I have no clue.  That must have come from some fancy restaurant menu because it certainly hasn’t ever graced our dinner table before.)

So that’s exactly what I made for dinner and, yes, my son enthusiastically ate every bite.  But if you’d told me this story just a few years ago, I would have laughed in your face.  The veggie-avoider making an entire meal of a big, black and somewhat scary-looking mushroom? Not gonna happen in this lifetime.

So take heart, POTPs, and also take my advice:

1.  Embrace Bittman’s rules, not just because they may help your kids try new foods but because they make sense for all of us trying to eat well.

2.  Remember that you know your own kid better than anyone else.  So if an expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrible idea, but you suspect your child would react well to that little push, then go for it.  And if another expert says the “one-bite” rule is a terrific idea, but you know it’s only going to ignite an ugly mealtime battle that goes precisely nowhere, then forget it.  Your intuition is worth more than the tallest stack of “expert” advice books on picky eating.

3.  And finally, most importantly, please take the long view.  It took us twelve incredibly frustrating years to get there, but now, apparently, portobello mushroom burgers with Gruyere cheese and pesto aioli are here to stay on this family’s dinner rotation.

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