1. Lead by Example
Remember when your baby was still on a liquid diet, and she would sit at the table, looking enviously or curiously at your plate (and your mouth) at dinnertime? Well, she’s still watching you, so set a good example – cook new dishes and include ingredients that might not be your favorite either. My parents are not fans of beets so I never even tasted them until college. Tastes are always evolving so show your kids that you have a sense of food adventure, too.
It’s often hard for kids to separate why something is okay for Mom or Dad, but not for them. Take one for the team and give up your soda or post-dinner ice cream sundae habit and try replacing it with something healthier. Our family generally avoided checkout line tantrums because my son had no idea what was inside those shiny candy bar wrappers.
Big brothers or sisters can be helpful in enticing younger, pickier kids to try something new. Likewise, having a dinner playdate with a peer who is known to be a “good” eater can also have a positive effect on your little one.
2. Refuse to be a Short Order Cook
Your kid is not going to starve if you refuse to make her a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread. Again. Nutritionists and pediatricians agree that making a separate meal for your child that features only his or her “greatest hits” isn’t doing anyone a favor. And no one has ever gone through grilled cheese withdrawal. Don’t expect that your child will eat everything you give them, but give them a variety of healthy options and then let them choose. It’s simple, and you can spend the time you would have spent cooking them another meal, doing something fun together like coloring or staying a few extra minutes at the park. Set them up for success by giving them something you know they like and then let their bellies guide them. Of course, we make exceptions to this rule occasionally, such as when I’m cooking spicy food (which many little ones have a hard time digesting).
For older kids, encourage them to personalize their own meal: Offer dipping sauces, ketchup, hummus, salsa, etc. Have them test the sauces and condiments to see what they like best. In our house, a little sprinkling of vegan cheese works like fairy dust: The cheese as well as anything it makes contact with disappears!
3. Make Veggies the Main Event
Let’s be honest. Those naked, lonely stalks of steamed broccoli thrown on the plate aren’t fooling anyone. If vegetables are treated as an afterthought, kids sense it. My family is vegan, so vegetables are usually the stars of the meal by default. If you aren’t vegan or vegetarian, you can easily incorporate veggies into the main component of a dish — think pot pie, lasagna, soups and chilis. The kids are still getting to eat their favorite foods, with an extra nutritional boost.
Veggies are not second-class citizens. When well-meaning parents coax their children to eat “just one more green bean” before they can have dessert, they send the message that vegetables are something to endure, not enjoy. Check out some of the amazing cookbooks out there that focus on vegetables, from high end tomes by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse to very kid-friendly cookbooks from Molly Katzen.
4. Get Kids Involved
Depending on your child’s age, this approach can look very different. Starting a garden, even just a tomato plant, is a great way to get your kid excited about growing his own food. Being a part of the “seed to table” process is very empowering for kids, and they are much more likely to try something that they’ve literally had a hand in growing.
If gardening is not your thing, take your children where there is fresh food a plenty. Farmer’s markets are an awesome place for kids and their parents to explore. Allow them to pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try each week. They won’t all be winners, but everyone (including Mom and Dad) may find a new favorite. You can even make a game of it with their kids: How many kinds of tomatoes do they see? How many different colors of fruit are in season? Even a trip to the grocery store’s produce section will work the same way.
And don’t forget to include them in the actual cooking. My son loves being a “taster.” He doesn’t know the difference between basil and cilantro, but he loves shaking, stirring, and adding flavors to our dishes and then testing the final product. Make kids feel like they’re a part of the whole cooking process (even if it’s just pressing the “on” button to the blender). A possible side bonus: They may gain appreciation for all the work that you do.
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