My husband and I love food. We love cooking it; we love eating it, we love talking about it and thinking about it. So naturally, getting our kids to enjoy food and try new things has been a priority in our parenting journey.
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I often dream that we live in a society like the one Pamela Druckerman writes about in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, a book that details Pamela’s journey of being an American in Paris raising children under a French influence. The French way of eating encourages long, delicious meals, with a large number of fresh fruits and veggies and tons of variety.
In fact, in the free daycare system that is available to any child, meals are planned and curated by professional chefs. No meals are repeated within a month, and the ingredients are dependent upon what is in season.
They also walk everywhere, and their culture places a practically religious emphasis on meals and food.
Instead, however, I live in a country that puts more of a religious emphasis on actual religion. And when it comes to food, there’s a practically endless supply of goldfish, cheerios, buttered pasta, dino nuggets, and mac & cheese. I’m not complaining. Mac & cheese is fucking delicious. So are dino nuggets. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we had a different setup.
Luckily, so far, we’ve been able to encourage a bit of foodie experimentalism with our toddlers. Some of this is just because we’re stubborn AF when it comes to food, and we like what we like, and we want what we want. But a lot of it is through sheer perseverance and a commitment to wanting to raise the kind of kids who could eventually, have dinner at a friend’s house and be willing to try a new, potentially very unusual meal without complaint.
Before I get into how we get our kids to try new foods, first a disclaimer: Toddler palates are notoriously tricky and sometimes just getting them to eat anything, period, is a monumental feat. I am by no means an expert in behavioral issues, particularly that relate to food. If you’re concerned your child is not eating enough or that they may be nutritiously deficient, please consult with your pediatrician.
This blog post is meant to be for the parents of the kids who eat, but who tend to want to stick to the familiar foods they know and love, and are hesitant about branching out.
Here’s how we do it:
No Snacks Between Lunch and Dinner
Okay don’t starve your child. But in theory if they’re hungry, they’ll eat anything. For several years I insisted that my boys did not get a snack after the nap at daycare, because if they did, they’d come home and not be hungry, much less be open to trying something new.
Since they’re older now and can understand the concept of “belonging to the group” they do get snacks at school. But I secretly hate that they do. On the weekend we don’t offer snacks after the nap, and instead, we serve dinner 30 - 60 minutes earlier than during the week.
Not shockingly, these are the nights my kids are most open to trying new foods.
Variety Is Key When Introducing New Foods
Yes, we serve a lot of the same meals just because it’s easy and we know how to make them quickly, especially with our busy schedules. But knowing that our end goal is to encourage trying new things, having a strategy to incorporate new and creative meals into our routine is essential.
I used to spend hours on Pinterest, or Google trying to find new meals to include every week and I got burnt out. A few months ago we started trying a meal delivery service and found it to be a game changer. Two meals each week are always new and unique. My hubby and I also learn cooking techniques that we can make part of our regular routine.
Consistency Is Also Key
Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, and it’s important to acknowledge that even on our best days we may not have success. Early on I read somewhere that it can take more than ten times of trying a new food to decide if you enjoy it. For example, every week, for weeks, there sat broccoli on their plates (for at least one meal each week.) Thankfully both my hubby and I love broccoli, so if the kids didn’t eat their portion, into our bellies, it would go. The same has been true for every other meal we serve them and every other ingredient. Guess which veggie they love now?
If they say, “I don’t like it!” I try to reframe it and repeat it back to them, “You don’t like it yet! Someday, maybe, you’ll like it.”
You Don’t Have to Eat It
Working in tandem with this consistency notion is the idea that they don’t have to eat anything they don’t want to eat. Period. End of story. However, they must, at the very least, try it.
I fully respect and empathize with the development of taste buds and of toddler distinctions of things that are texturally “yucky” - a technical term. But in our house, the one rule we have is that they must try it.
You don’t have to eat it. But you do have to try it.
The hope is that we’re training these future foodies to have adventurous palates.
Balance the Toddler Taste Buds
Once a week we serve one of their favorite go-to meals: Breaded Trader Joe’s chicken, macaroni & cheese, and peas. I try to time a simple, enjoyable meal to occur the night after we have served something more experimental.
In fact, anytime there’s a new meal or ingredient on the menu that our children have never experienced, we try to balance it out with something we know they’ll love and eat.
I Am Not A Short Order Cook
I refuse to make a special meal for my children simply because they won’t eat what we’re eating. This is another reason I always try to include something that I know they will love. At the very least they will drink milk, eat fruit for dessert/as a side dish, or something like rice, pasta, or bread (that toddler carb diet game is strong.)
As they get older, I intend to involve them in the planning and cooking process more so that they can take ownership of the meal and hopefully understand the work included as well as the joy of cooking and eating delicious, home-prepared meals.
Eat As a Family As Often As Possible
A surefire way to get Sammy (almost 2) to try a new food is for Jack to show him how yummy it is. And vice versa. Thankfully they are both experimental with different foods.
There are so many reasons why eating together as a family is important. But it doesn’t take much to recognize that the socialization involved in sharing a meal can encourage an openness to try new things.
But What If They Won’t Even Try It?
I respect my child to know what he likes and doesn’t like when it comes to food. But I don’t trust him to know what he wants, without ever having tried it. And that’s where it’s my role as a parent to help him understand this.
If they absolutely refuse trying something new, then we move into a three-step process to encourage exploration.
The first stage of “trying something” is just having our kid touch the item in question that he refuses to try. He only has to touch the food item with his finger and it has to be on purpose (like, not an accident.)
As a reward, he will get the item of food he does know he likes and usually really wants (because he’s also generally quite hungry.)
Once we’ve moved past the touching stage, the next step/next time we introduce this particular food is to encourage them to kiss it. The same rules apply as above. The reward is a portion of food they love and want to eat.
The odds are good that if you've gotten past the kiss-it stage you’re going to have a successful “try the food” experience. This was actually at play when we first introduced ice cream to Jack. He refused it, screamed and thrashed and said “No, no, ice cream!” (I know can you believe it?)
Once he kissed the ice cream, a little got on his lips and voila, suddenly he was eating ice cream (and has never looked back, huzzah!)
If he still isn't up for actually eating it, then he does have to lick the food item to "try it." We encourage them to do this from now on until they actually start to eat it. Or until it's clear AF that they do not like this particular food with the expectation that we'll re-introduce it again maybe in a few months.
It’s important to note that a calm, patient conversation with your child will help encourage the desired behavior. We never demand they do any of the above out of anger or frustration. We say something along the lines of, “If you would like the grapes, you must first try the pork (or whatever we’ve served.)"
They may cry, scream, thrash, refuse. We ignore all of this. We continue eating our meal, maybe even a bit overdramatically enjoying it with lots of mmm’s and yum’s until they calm down.
Then we say again, “If you would like the grapes you must first try the pork. You just have to touch/kiss, etc.”
Surprisingly you will learn a lot about your child and their personality through this experience. With Jack, he's always been relatively eager to please and has a healthy appreciation for authority. Sam is far more stubborn. What would take Jack a few minutes to understand and agree to, can take Sammy 30 minutes to do.
Introducing New Foods is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
My kids are toddlers. A lot is going on in their little minds at all times of the day and night. Growth spurts happen. Developmental growth spurts occur. And sometimes teething pain can interfere with our best intentions when it comes to introducing new foods to our kids.
Add to that life and the stress and unique challenges of work and various schedules and these best intentions can quickly become just that: Intentions. When life is feeling balanced and more normal we try to do as much as we can to keep moving forward with our plan.
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