How I Teach My Kids to Eat Everything

A mother (and food lover) shares her strategies for training kids' palates.

Mother serves vegetables to child

Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt

Several weeks ago I posted a picture on Instagram of homemade calzones filled with rapini, kalamata olives, and mozzarella. A follower sent me a message: "Do your kids actually eat this stuff? If so, you're lucky." The answer is yes, they do eat it, albeit a bit reluctantly because they'd prefer pepperoni over rapini, as most kids would. But I wouldn't say it is luck so much as years of hard work spent training their little palates.

Friends are often curious about my three children's broad-ranging appetites, which strike them as odd and unconventional. They ask me how I do it, and I'm not quite sure what to say. It's just how we do things in our house, a way of life—but in order to be more helpful, I've tried to break down my approach into several concrete concepts. 

To be clear, I do not assume these rules would work for everyone. I happen to love cooking and am willing to dedicate time to it daily, which may not work for others' interests or schedules. Some families have allergies and dietary restrictions to contend with, which make things harder. But if you are eager to establish new habits and to create an at-home atmosphere that discourages fussy eating, this is my advice to you.

1. Cut the Snacks

Snacking has a hard cut-off time in our house, and it's 4 PM. This gives my kids time to eat something after school, but then they're expected to hold off until dinner is served around 6 PM. Yes, this does result in dramatic complaints about impending starvation, but it also ensures real hunger when they sit down in front of a full plate of food. As the old adage goes: "Nothing cures picky eating like hunger and good hike!"

2. Eat Together as a Family

Make dinner an official sit-down occasion that happens every night in your home. When all family members are sitting around a table together, kids are more inclined to eat what's in front of them because they want to be part of the action. This is your chance as a parent to model the eating habits you want to see in your kids, so eat the same foods and be vocal about your appreciation for its flavor and nutritional value.

3. Expect Them to Eat, Don't Hope for It

Not eating dinner isn't an option in our house, unless a child is sick or exhausted. They can have tiny quantities, but they must sample everything on their plate and cannot eat anything that isn't being served. If they're still hungry, they can have more of whatever they did like, such as steamed rice or salad, or possibly a piece of whole fruit, if I'm feeling particularly lenient.

I am careful with words. I have never used the word "picky" in front of them because I don't want to give them a label to latch onto. I never express doubt that they'll like something; instead, I serve it with enthusiasm, saying, "You're going to love this!" or "I worked so hard to make this!" This puts doubt into their minds as to whether or not an item is actually unappetizing and they're more willing to try it.

4. Involve Them in Menu Planning

I make a weekly menu plan before going to the grocery store and I like to ask the kids if they have any special requests. If they request classic kid foods like pasta, pizza, and hamburgers, I add those to the list, but in healthy homemade form. That way, they feel invested in the week's meals and can't argue with the fact that we're all getting what we want—and, by extension, are required to enjoy the other family members' picks as well.

5. Make Good Food

At the risk of sounding like a food snob, there are a lot of meals that I don't blame kids for not wanting to eat. Cooking good food doesn't have to be complicated: It can be done with very simple ingredients, but it does take attention to detail and care for proper procedures. Use good seasonings, enough salt, fresh ingredients. Don't overcook things. Invest in a few reliable cookbooks with tasty recipes or look at reputable food sites. Cook things for your kids that you'd want to eat yourself, otherwise what you're asking them to do is unfair. (For further inspiration, read "Cook Like You Mean It.")

6. Modify as Needed, and Only Slightly

If food is too spicy for a child, stir in some yogurt or hold off adding hot sauce or chili flakes until you're sitting down. If your child despises an ingredient you're using to garnish, like cilantro or mushrooms, don't force it on them; set it on the table and allow each person to add their own quantity. Do insist that they keep trying it, however, even if it's very little. 

7. Use Bribery of Sorts

Kids shouldn't get dessert if they haven't eaten all their dinner. Old-fashioned, perhaps, but it's a hard and fast rule in our house and a marvelous motivator. Again, to be clear, I do not load up my kids' plates with food they hate, but simply require them to sample it while enjoying more of the dishes they do like. With the above-mentioned calzones, they each ate half and called it quits, politely asking me not to make the rapini filling again.

I make a big deal out of trying strongly-flavored new foods, praising my kids for their efforts, and cheering them on. A bucket of kimchi, an anchovy-laden Napoletana pizza, pasta tossed with bottarga (Sardinian fish roe) and olive oil, and tofu-stuffed dumplings all made recent appearances on our table, and trying them was a game of sorts. The littlest boldly delved into the kimchi first, pronounced it tasty, and then the others wanted it, too.

8. Talk to Your Kids About Nutrition

Don't underestimate the ability of older children to grasp concepts that you're willing to explain. Instead of fighting vaguely about what they're eating (or not eating), check in to see if you've had a frank conversation about why eating a variety of whole foods from different food groups matters. Explain to them about protein, fats, and carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins, dietary fiber, seasonality, local food production, and organic versus conventional agriculture. Discussions about industrial meat production have made my kids far more open to tofu and tempeh. It may not create instant willingness, but it will initiate a lifelong awareness of health that can have a lasting impact.