Raising Fearless Eaters

As a kid I remember feeling disdainful of the kids whose mothers cut the crusts off their sandwiches.  My mom would never let me waste 20% of my bread, and I didn’t really understand what was so bad about a bread crust anyway. I mean, really – save your dislike for something truly disgusting. Like liver.

My preferred approach with liver was to cut it into pill-sized bits and swallow without chewing. I never have served liver to my kids.  But I grew up truly enjoying most food.  And fairly early on in our parenting career, my husband and I decided to encourage our children to have a broad range of food likes.

Home cooking right from the start

One of the first choices we made towards that goal was to skip commercial baby food. Except for rice cereal at the very start, our kids just ate well-mashed bits of what we ate at every meal. I think that got kids used to the flavors of family cooking right from the
start. That was back before I even knew that a lot of commercially prepared baby food contains a fair bit of high fructose corn syrup – not the healthiest ingredient in the world.

Just a couple bites

We encourage kids to taste everything offered at a meal.  The standard rule at our house is that you need to eat at least as many bites as you are old.  So a 3 year old would eat three bites of carrot.  A 6 year old would need to eat 6 bites of spaghetti. The only exception to this rule is true gagging aversion, which does happen occasionally with some kids and some foods.

Limit junk

Soda pop and potato chips come with us on vacations, and also occasionally when company visits.  But in general we avoid high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed food that serves to dull taste buds to the deliciousness of real food.  For more on this idea, check out Recultivating Our Sense of Taste.

Mix it up!

Because I love to cook, we eat a huge variety of food at our house. One day we may have Korean sushi (kimbap) for dinner.  Another night we’ll serve Mexican tortilla skillet.
Because our kids routinely see new  things at the dinner table, they’re used to jumping in and trying things.  I always try to serve a familiar thing or two along with the less familiar.  For example: rice, bread, green salad, and carrot sticks appear frequently, and serve to fill in the cracks if a kid doesn’t love whatever the main dish happens to be that

Don’t give up

Studies have shown that kids need to taste a new food 10 times to acclimate their taste buds to something new.  Many times a kid will initially dislike something new, but after tasting it a few times will change their minds.  We have a couple kids who have persistent, strong dislikes to one or two foods. That’s OK, and again, I am lenient when a kid really, truly hates something.  But the vast majority of our kids quickly grew to like most food, even our two older daughters who came to us from Ethiopia at age 9 and 11, and had to try a whole slew of new things.

Try ‘Salad-Bar’ style meals

Serving tacos, fajitas, or baked potatoes with lots of possible toppings gives kids control over what they eat.  My kids know that mom expects them to choose some veggies, and occasionally I’ll need to remind a kid to take some tomatoes along with all that cheese.  But when given choice, they will usually happily serve up their favorite veggies, and sometimes kids will surprise me by taking veggies I thought they didn’t like. For example, the other day one of my older Ethiopian daughters served herself mushrooms, which she despised when she first arrived in America.

The problem with raising brave eaters

And the down side of success at this venture?  Well, some day you may have just little pizza dough in the fridge.   You’ll spread it out on an oiled cookie sheet, and you’ll pile it high with fresh spinach, sweet peppers, mushrooms, sliced avocado, and mozzarella cheese.  By the time you’re done, this pizza is a masterpiece.  You’re happily picturing inhaling it almost single-handedly.  You set out nachos to decoy the kids.  If you had normal kids, this would work.  After all, just look at all the scary vegetables on this pizza! But your kids, veggie-lovers since babyhood, barely look at the nachos. They head straight for the pizza, and happily gobble down almost every speck of it. Leaving just one piece of veggie-pizza heaven to mom.

Ah well.  No plan is perfect.

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  1. I love, love this article!! That’s a mistake I made from the beginning with the first two kids was to feed baby food and immediately cater to “young” eaters for lunch, etc. with sandwiches, mac n cheese, etc. I’m starting to figure it out with the third, and now with this baby on the way, I’m pretty sure there will be very minimal baby food and he/she will be jumping right into the meals that I’m desperately trying to have the 5 and 3 year olds eat! 🙂 It’s become increasingly important to me to serve the children more diverse, homecooked, and healthy meals. Thank you for the tips! 🙂

  2. They don’t get much of a choice around here. I fix good food and we eat at home most of the time. The rule is that you have to at least try whatever we are eating. There is usually at least one thing on the table that everyone will eat. If you don’t eat your dinner, no treats later. Sounds mean, but my kids eat almost anything. They love asparagus, adore spinach, gobble up eggs and are looking forward to trying the brussel sprouts we are growing in the garden.

  3. I have a crew of fearless eaters here as well. We practice many of the same things you do, but I think a really important thing is to model adventurous eating. I know plenty of families who have picky eaters, and after discussing it a bit, it turns out that the father, or both father and mother, have a huge list of things that they don’t like. Watching a father turn up his nose at a lot of different types of food says far more to a table of children than trying to convince them with words that the food before them is godd.

  4. What a great article, Mary!

    I’ve found that even though you treat your kids the same, inevitably one will be more adventurous. My younger daughter will eat anything, and loves spicy food. My older daughter just doesn’t, and she’s more likely to go a little hungry at times (I don’t cook two dinners)! But she doesn’t complain. She just eats bread and cream cheese if she has to.

    It’s funny how when you do exactly the same thing, you don’t always get exactly the same result.

    But the good thing–when we spent three weeks in Africa at an orphanage, they didn’t complain one bit, and jumped in and ate because they knew it was important to be polite to their hostess. So we went three weeks with no meat and no refined sugar, and just lots of kale and tomatoes and potatoes and lentils. They did good!

    Sheila from To Love, Honor and Vacuum

  5. Meghan says:

    Interesting. My husband and I like many types of food, we’re quite adventurous. So, we make whatever we like to eat and serve it up to the kids. I did rice cereal and homemade baby food for my older 2. It was usually whatever we ate mashed up. With my youngest I waited until she was about 8 or 9 months and then gave her real food, no mashed up stuff or cereal, and that’s my plan with the next.
    My oldest will eat pretty much everything you put in front of him. My second would be classified as a picky eater. No matter what we try with him (and trust me we tried EVERYTHING!), he will only eat specific things. We still offer him whatever I make and he has started to broaden his chosen foods (very slowly and sporadically). My third is a vacuum cleaner. Occasionally she finds something she doesn’t like, but in general eats fabulously.
    You can do your best, but every child is different.

  6. Mmm. That looks good!
    We thought we had it figured out. We moved ’em to Africa where they happily ate goat intestines. This is true. But then, they got older, talked to American friends, and are now much more fussy. I do believe they’ll grow out of it…eventually.

  7. I never understood cutting off the crusts, either. Sounds like we had similar experiences with liver, although I have served it to my son a few times who was equally unhappy about it. I’ve decided that even as an adult, whether it is fried up with bacon and onions or cooked in a stroganoff style, I just really do NOT care for it. No more for this house.

    I mostly mashed up the adult food for him when he was young, but I did also have jarred stuff sometimes. Whatever I serve for dinner is what he gets; he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to eat it, but he’s not getting anything else either. I’ve always told him he has to at least try two bites, no matter how yucky it may look or sound. That’s backfired on me a few times as he’s gotten older, though. Now that’s he’s 15, he’ll make some atrocious concoction and tell me I can’t comment about how nasty I’m sure it must be because I haven’t tried it. Smarty pants!

  8. We had similar rules at our house when our kids were growing up. My oldest would eat just about anything as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. It is amazing to me now that he is an adult, that he is pickier than he used to be. His wife will tell me that he won’t eat a certain food and it surprises me because he used to eat it no problem. I asked him about it and he told me that he never liked that food but ate it because he had to, but now he doesn’t have to so he doesn’t. It will be interesting to see what happens with their children now that they are getting old enough to see that daddy doesn’t always want to eat what is put in front of him!

  9. When I worked as a TA at a daycare center, we had a wonderful cook who loved to try new items for the menu. I’m always ready to jump in to try new foods, the free meal at lunch was part of my income, and besides– we had to set a fine example for the youngsters.
    As you mentioned, kids need several times to be able to try the dish.
    Well, one lunch time was a casserole layered with potatoes, and a red sauce, and maybe some cheese in there. It looked ugly, even to me, but I scooped it up, and commented about how hard the cook must have worked, and we should all try a bite or two. The taste was not nearly as bad as the looks, but it was quite difficult to persuade 3-yr-olds for the better side of it.
    Meanwhile, the other TA, a college student working just part time, made quite a show about how she would NOT be putting any on her plate, she would leave more for the children. There was more words spoken, right in front of them.
    It was really really hard to get them to finish lunch after that.
    Before I left for the day, I reported the scene to the center Principal, and mentioned that I would refuse to work in the same room with that girl again. Apparently, other teachers had the same reaction, she worked there less than a month.

    My husband and I tried to put forth a united front for our own 3 sons, even when he doesn’t like liver, and I hate curry flavor anything. I like to cook, and have a shelf full of cookbooks.
    Middle son developed an allergy to peanuts when he was in college, then married a girl who is Vegetarian– he really got his eyes opened about food.

  10. Amen SISTER! I crack up when mom’s tell me their kids wont eat something. I don’t say a word but i would bet you there was “kids meals” being served while the parents had more sophisticated meals when they were toddlers. We always made our take “no thank you bites” and just like you…one for each year of their age. When they get to about five they eat everything. Now my older boys brag that when they take a girl to a restaurant on a date they wont have to order chicken fingers. Ha ha ha! They eat everything because they were served everything.

  11. Fearless eaters abound here! I remember eating liver, one time in specific for some reasons, and it taking what seemed like hours for my brother and I to get it down. We buried it in ketchup and that still didn’t help! I swore my kids would never have to eat it and they haven’t. John also does not like so from the beginning we knew it would never be cooked in our home. Our kids eat anything we put in front of them. I’m amazed at the parents that make food to order!

  12. Until recently potatoe chips were not an affordable item in our house. too costly and too much junk in them.
    I recently purchased the potatoe chip maker from Pampered Chef and boy do we love it. The ones I make are now ‘pure’ potatoe chips and good for anyone.
    Potatoe chips are now a regular while watching movies!!!

  13. Love this post! Our kids like most foods and we try to eat healthy. But I had to laugh out loud when you talked about the downside as I can relate – I hate it when they steal my veggies!