Some subtle strategies can help convince a child to try new foods.
Two friends stopped by yesterday for a quick visit. They noticed a pot of curry sitting on the table and helped themselves. Between mouthfuls, one asked with disbelief, "Your kids can handle this level of heat?" As I nodded, the other said, "They've been raised on it!" She was right – my kids have been exposed to curry spices since they started breastfeeding at birth – but her comment got me thinking about all the things I do to keep my kids eating anything and everything.
There's more to it than just constant exposure, though that matters too. While mulling this over, I realized that I use a number of strategies, often subconsciously, to ensure that my kids eat. I don't claim to have the solution to every family's picky-eating problems, but this has worked for me three times over, with three drastically different children. I like to believe the fact that none of them is picky has more to do with training than genetics or personality.
1. Get the timing right.
Good luck trying to convince an exhausted child to eat something weird! It's not going to happen. That's why I try to get dinner on the table as early as possible. This means we sit down at the table anytime between 5 and 6, but never later than that because the kids are usually in a downward spiral by then.
Another timing issue to keep in mind is not to feed kids who aren't hungry. If they don't have the slightest twinge in their bellies because their last snack was too recent, there's hardly any point either – hence my capping post-school snacks at 4 p.m. Trial and error will make you better at determining where that sweet spot lies between hunger and fatigue, and once you figure it out, you'll defend it fiercely.
2. Always eat together.
The whole family should sit down at the table and eat together. I realize that extracurricular activities may make this difficult, but then seat the maximum number of family members at the table to eat. (And cancel your extracurriculars because they don't matter as much as this.) Kids have to see their parents eating the same food as them and enjoying it, if you ever expect them to do the same.
3. No special meals
I don't make special meals. If the kids dislike something on their plates, they are welcome to eat less of it and more of something else that's being served, i.e. more mashed potatoes and fewer Brussels sprouts. But they still have to taste everything and eat an established minimum that applies to everyone. For example, I will say, "Everyone has to eat at least 3 mushrooms." It doesn't have to be a lot; it's the symbolism of the act that matters.
If a meal is particularly adventurous, then I will make sure there's something familiar on the plate, just to make it a bit more accessible. Jenny Rosenstrach, cookbook author and founder of the wonderful website, Dinner: A Love Story, calls this the 'psychological latch' food. It creates a comfortable springboard from which a kid can try something new – and go back to, if needed.
4. Tough love is OK.
I used to think my approach was old-fashioned, but I recently learned it's quite European. A friend who studied nutrition in France told me that children are often told not to "disgust" the others at the table. ("Si tu n'aimes pas, n'en dégoûtes pas les autres.") That is, if they don't like the food, they shouldn't ruin it for others. This is basic etiquette. I put this into practice by temporarily banishing any children from the table who complain or make rude noises about what's in front of them. They go sit on the stairs, usually sob loudly for a few minutes, and then come back eager to eat whatever's served.
5. Don't tell them what's for dinner.
Do not give kids the opportunity to complain. When asked what's for dinner, Rosenstrach's response is, "I don't know yet." You could reply playfully, "Something delicious," or, as I usually say, "It doesn't matter." Dinner, as I tell my kids, is not about pleasing everyone all the time. It's about nourishment, seasonality, affordability, convenience, and so much more.