How to Turn Your Kid Into a Person Who Likes Food

It's not always easy, but with these clever and practical tips, you might have some luck convincing your kids to eat their vegetables and try new things.

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Growing Good Eaters

Getting kids to become good eaters is a noble and ardently sought-after goal for many parents. We want them to want to try new things, to share in the pleasure we get from different foods and cuisines and dining experiences. We want them to grow up big and strong, to be able to go to a friend’s house and dig into whatever is being served. We want to wean them off the children’s menu and find life beyond chicken nuggets and buttered pasta.

Parenting in general comes with few guarantees, and searching for the holy grail to get our kids to become “good eaters” is no exception. The good eater/picky eater pendulum may swing back and forth quite a bit along the way. But while you are waiting for your child to order the ceviche, here are a few nuggets of advice to play around with.

Illustrations courtesy of CopyPress

Give Them Choices

In the market, let kids pick out the fruit they want in their lunchbox and the vegetables they want in the stir-fry. At home, let them decide if the simmering tomato sauce needs more oregano or basil, or if it’s good as it is. Let them pick out what they want to fill their lunch wrap. Let them flip through a cookbook and decide on a dinner for the week. Whatever you can do to give them power and choice will help invest them in the meal.

Elizabeth Fassberg, owner of EAT FOOD, a food and nutrition consultancy in NYC, says, “As a mom and a dietitian, I’ve tried to make food a fun part of our lives. I’ve never forced my almost 8-year-old son to eat anything — even when at age 3 he stopped liking many foods. I didn’t cave and feed him boxed chicken nuggets because I was worried he would starve. Instead, I continued to prepare different foods and let him try what looked and smelled appealing to him. Because of that, he’s back to eating more foods than many adults. Exposure is key, and so are games; when I make a sauce or something in the blender, I always ask him to taste and guess what’s in it.”

Serve Colorful Fruits and Vegetables as Snacks

When my kids were little, and even now that they are big, I often put out a bowl of sliced apples, or a pile of Clementine oranges, or some sliced bell peppers and carrots, while they are watching TV, doing homework, hanging with friends. And they usually get completely devoured. If I asked, “Who wants some bell peppers?” I would probably get a shrug or a no, and it might remind them that there is a drawer of tortilla chips and pretzels. But when the fruit or vegetables appear magically by their side, they get eaten.

Try out these tips from Robert Schueller, the Produce Guru of Melissa’s Produce:  “To introduce color, buy a variety of produce at the supermarket or farmers’ market. Color adds interest and encourages your kids to try new things, like red, yellow and orange peppers; green and purple cauliflower; purple, orange and yellow carrots. Also, bring home the new — let them try fruits and veggies that aren’t ordinarily served at home, like tropical fruits for instance, such as dragon fruit, papaya, or how about a coconut?”

Eat Together as Often as You Can

There are so many reasons why family dinners are important, but in terms of getting your kids to become good eaters, sharing a moussaka or a pork roast or tacos starts to connect good food with togetherness. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen says: “I think the only actual weapon at our disposal is to offer a wide variety of things, whatever we want to eat ourselves, and not skipping a recipe because we fear the kids won't like it. Some kids won't eat what we're making either way, but at least we didn't suffer without the, say, bo ssam or chicken tikka masala we were craving, in a failed attempt to get the kid to eat.”

Let Them Share Meals with Bigger Kids

When plunked down at a meal with older kids who are slurping down Thai curry, my kids tend to forget any culinary inhibitions they might have brought to the table and follow suit. Who wants to look like a picky eater in front of your cool older cousin?

Ditch Preconceived Notions

One of the pitfalls many of us encounter is the assumption that our kids will or won’t like certain things. We might assume they will hate Brussels sprouts, for instance, and serve up baby carrots on their plates instead, without waiting to see what might happen. We might even serve up some foods while saying, “I don’t think you’re going to like this, but…” which is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bobby Flay says, “My experience with my daughter, Sophie, was simply to expose her to everything good to eat. Sometimes she loved the most unexpected things like capers, oysters, mussels and clams, and sometimes she rejected things I was expecting her to like such as strawberries and coconut. The bottom line is kids' tastes will change over their childhood and you must continue to feed them 'adult' food, meaning they should eat what you eat — as long as it's not processed food. Also, don't make them a separate 'kids' meal, or they will never expand their horizons at the table.”

The One-Bite Rule

"No, no, no, no, no. Oh wait ... you’re right, Mom. Rutabagas are delicious!”

This may not always work, and frankly it rarely works the first time. But since many experts, including Jennifer Glockner, a registered dietitian and the creator of the Smartee Plate e-book series, say it can take up to 15 times for a child to like a new food, repeated exposure is key. Glockner says we need to “be patient and remember that small steps count.” Asking the kids to try one bite, even if it makes them cringe a bit, is paying it forward. But stop there and save your pleading for another day.

Forget the Clean-Plate Club

Resist the urge to pull a "You Are Not Leaving This Table Until You Have Eaten Every Last Pea on That Plate" moment. Did that work on you when you were a kid? It could actually backfire, and cement antipathy towards peas or whatever is congealing on the plate.

Be Patient

Changes won’t happen overnight. Know that there will be ups and downs, and that it’s an uneven progression. Liz Neumark is the founder of the Sylvia Center, and organization dedicated to helping children eat better, and author of Sylvia’s Table. Neumark is a huge proponent of getting kids into the kitchen and showing them how food is raised and grown. She says: “Cooking can be an amazing learning experience — with new skills, vocabulary and of course, tasty results. Listen, encourage and be open. Good eating might not happen overnight; it is a learning process for both parent and child.”

Try Not to Care So Much

Counterintuitive? Sure. Difficult? You bet. But kids sense your pulsating desire to have them try fava beans, and because they are developmentally wired to push back, your desire magically becomes their resistance. So, if you can’t actually care a bit less, try to appear as though you do. In power struggles over food, there really aren’t any winners.