I’m back. The flu has finally left our family, I hope.
Today I’m talking about getting children to eat foods that are good for them, and different from what they are used to.
I mentioned once my friend and neighbor Queenie the nutritionist. She once told me that it takes up to 20 exposures to a new food before a child or adult is comfortable trying it. So if your kids or spouse have never eaten kale before, or sushi, or Chinese food, or lentils and you put it on the table one night as the main course, they may very well refuse it completely, and you may conclude that you just can’t get your family to change their eating habits and give up right there. This is especially frustrating when you’ve put a lot of time and effort into making something.
Now there are a lot of ways to hide things from your family and get them to eat it while none the wiser. Pureeing is usually the simplest. If it’s too small to see it doesn’t exist and they will therefore eat that spinach in the tomato sauce. But today is about getting them to know what they are eating and try it.
We have a one-bite rule at our table. I you have never tasted something before you may not push it aside disgustedly and declare that you don’t like it. You must taste it first. You may not be excused from the table until it has been tasted. After that they can leave it untouched if they prefer, most of the time.
Right now I’m trying to get my children to like leeks, because I like leeks, and I want to be able to cook with them at dinner. My steps to leek enjoyment begin at the grocery store with children in tow. I pull it off of the shelf, call them to examine it, ask them what they think it is. We name it, smell it, describe what it’s like and they help me put it in the cart. This is their first exposure. I use words like tasty and yummy when I talk about it. At home when I’m making dinner, I let them help me in the kitchen. They can wash it for me, and watch me chop it. I’ll first introduce it in a side dish next to something I know they will enjoy. I may sauté it with some baby carrots, and corn or cashews. They will taste a piece or two, declare their dislike, and we’ll move on, I’ll allow them to pick it off of the carrots, knowing that they are getting used to the flavor even if they are rejecting the texture thus far. Next I will make potato and leek soup, I’ll chop the leeks small so they just look like floating green bits, which my kids are used to because I cook with a lot of green herbs. They will probably eat the soup, especially since it will probably have bacon and cheese to top it, and some kind of tasty bread. After they have enjoyed a few bites I will tell them that those are leeks in there. Next I may make a leek frittata that I love and have been craving, and now the strange and dreadful leeks are showing up in eggs and cheese, two of their favorite things. They may pick them out, because they are large pieces, or not, either way there has been another exposure. As time goes by and leeks continue to appear at our dinner table, they will become accustomed to them and eventually accept them as part of the normal dinner fare. They will express preparation preferences and I will accommodate. For example, my children don’t like cooked broccoli, at all, but they will eat it raw, so I only offer it in raw form now. They don’t like green beans raw on the other hand, but they will eat them steamed with butter or in a particularly tasty spicy dish I invented once. So my husband and I enjoy the green beans raw, and the children get them cooked.
This method builds on several ideas that I hear repeated all over the place when it comes to getting children to eat. First, model good eating habits. They will eat what they see you eating, so eat well. Second, involve them in shopping and food preparation, children are almost always more willing to eat something they decided on and helped to make. Third, make healthful food the only thing available in your house. What you buy at the store is what your family will eat. If you have to have that junky treat, or your spouse does, don’t do it at home, and don’t do it often, choose to make healthful eating commonplace. My friend Queenie, granted she’s Chinese, could get her children to eat bok choy, lotus and beef soup, this really kind of bland and runny rice soup thing, and all sorts of other things that you or I may not enjoy, okay, I like bok choy, but still. The interesting thing was, the more my children ate lunch with her children, the more they were willing to eat that stuff too. You set the standard for normal, set it high.
One last thing. Don’t make the table a battleground. If a child is forced to eat something they may never like it, because it goes beyond trying things and to an emotional involvement; that clouds the whole issue. I know the one bite rule sounds like it contradicts this, but it doesn’t, because it’s always there, it applies to everyone, they can expect it, and they don’t have to eat more than that. It never becomes personal, at least not so far.
And one last last thing, if your child wants to try something new, by all means let them. My son has found pumpkins fascinating this fall; he’s never really eaten one. So I bought a small one. We will prepare it together, taste the seeds, taste it raw, taste it cooked, taste it in muffins and in the pie we are taking for thanksgiving, and he will add another item to his food experiences.