The Simple Art of Teaching Kids to Eat

CC BY 2.0. Oleg Afonin -- A young child enjoys a cucumber

It starts with understanding that pickiness is nurtured, not natural.

In recent months, my kids have had four different friends over to play and stay for dinner. Each time, the friend's parent has warned me in advance that their child is unlikely to eat what I make. (I'm starting to wonder what kind of reputation I have as a cook.) Each time, I reassured the parent that we'd be just fine -- and we were. Those kids ate exactly what I served them, without complaint.

They were initially reluctant, of course, looking at the steaming pots and pans I brought to the table -- vegetarian Thai red curry, coconut-braised lentils with rice, oven-roasted potato fries, and bean chili. But when they saw the rest of us digging in with gusto, they did the same. Each of them told me how delicious it was, and two of the parents asked for recipes. All of the parents said with disbelief, "He would never eat that at home!" What I wanted to say, but didn't, was, "Actually, they would eat it, if it were expected of them."

Therein lies the biggest problem of what I consider 'the picky child myth': This strange Western notion of kids not liking the majority of our species' normal, healthy, adult foods has far less to do with a child having "sensitive tastebuds" or "disliking textures" than it does the parent's response to their child's reactions. Kids in other cultures will happily eat foods that are shunned here in North America as non-child-friendly (think legumes and spices), but that supports the idea that food preferences are a matter of culture, rather than physical development.

This understanding has shaped the way I've taught my own three children about food. Kids are masters of manipulation (I say that lovingly) and they will always push boundaries, just to see where they get. For a parent, this is utterly exhausting, and it's no wonder that many parents give in when the fight revolves around food. But in that moment, the child discovers that they can get away with it, that their parent will give them fish sticks instead of figs, bread instead of broccoli, and goldfish in lieu of grapes. The slope is long and slippery at that point, and that's how families end up cooking multiple meals for different members, with oversimplified plates for little ones.

The alternative, to which I've always subscribed, is simply to understand that there is no other option. Kids are expected to eat what their parents eat, and that's the end of the discussion. My husband and I cook one meal each evening, and it is divided according to stomach sizes and preference, but no additional foods will be prepared that not everyone at the table is eating. The food is fresh, wholesome, and delicious. It's that both my husband and I take pleasure in eating, so I'm not being unrealistic in expecting the kids to like it, too.

Within that chosen meal, there is some flexibility. For example, a spicy curry can be tamed for a toddler by adding spoonfuls of plain yogurt, or nasty mushrooms can be hidden in a forkful of tortellini, or they can opt out of pickled jalapeños on a taco if they dislike the heat. They can have as much as they want or as little as they want, but they have to try everything, even if it's just one bite. But opting out of the entire meal? I don't think so. What good would that do, other than teach them it's OK to turn up one's nose at someone else's hard work and to reject perfectly good food?

The wonderful thing is, once that norm has been established, there is no more fighting! Life becomes gloriously simple. Mealtimes are a breeze and a pleasure, as are trips elsewhere. You can take kids who eat to restaurants, to other people's homes, to foreign countries, without worrying about how they'll do. Best of all, you'll know your child will be healthy because he or she eats a balanced diet, and that is the fundamental responsibility of every parent to ensure their child's physical wellbeing.

There are a few other tips I'd give to parents, after they've wrapped their heads around the most basic concept of there being no other option on the table.

Get kids involved. Let them help you shop and cook. The more invested they are in food, the more eager they'll be to eat it.
- Serve a variety of foods. Keep it interesting and keep repeating, even when there's protest. Never give up. Just because a kid doesn't like boiled Brussels sprouts (I don't blame them) doesn't mean they won't love them roasted.
- Be positive! My kids hear me talking all the time about how much I love food, which helps. Eat with enthusiasm yourself, and your kids will be inclined to copy you.