My kids—ages 2 and 3—are good eaters. And by “good,” I don’t mean plentiful (though they are), or polite (often, they are not). Instead, I mean that when it comes to food consumption, they are adventurous, enthusiastic and joyful. Raw sushi, Indian food, colorful veggies, braised tofu—you name it; they gobble it up.
I am the first to admit that I didn’t come in with some master game plan when it came to getting my kids to happily and unquestioningly eat a wide range of foods. Nor did I possess a track record of my own worth boasting about; in fact, my mom can attest that I ate spaghetti and plain, non-chunky tomato sauce nightly for a solid year growing up.
Nonetheless, I have been praised for my kids’ eating habits more than I ever imagined, or probably deserve. And I have listened to countless tales of woe from parents of “picky” eaters. So obviously this is an area of child-rearing that is giving a lot of parents a lot of trouble.
Here are some things we did that seemed to work, at least for the infant/toddler/preschool age. (One note: Our children, fortunately, do not suffer from food allergies, so this is aimed at families who aren’t grappling with dietary restrictions.)
- Present meals as a fact, not a question. The food my kids eat is the food I choose to serve them that day. Unless we are at a restaurant, there is no multi-page menu of options to choose from, and food can’t be sent back or swapped out. No one needs to clear his or her plate, but what you see is what you get, so do with it what you will. Things you won’t hear in our house: “What do you want to eat?” “Do you like [insert food item here]?” “Would you care to try a bite of [insert unfamiliar cuisine here]?” Instead, you will hear: “Here’s your dinner! Enjoy!”
- Embrace peer pressure. In the context of eating, at least, the desire to fit in (or maybe toddler FOMO?) can work to a parent’s advantage. If your child sees you munching on something, chances are he’ll want to try it. Same goes for a sibling, a nanny, a friend at the park, etc. Again, don’t ask timidly if child wants a bite—just offer one as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world, because, I mean, who wouldn’t want a bite of these delicious Brussels sprouts? Snack time at daycare or preschool can be a great setting for exposure to new foods. Try to keep up the momentum at home and make the consumption of a wide variety of foods a commonplace thing under your roof.
- Get your kids involved in the process. Whether it’s enlisting them as sous-chefs or simply “navigators” of the shopping cart, you can get your kids excited about their meals in advance by making them feel like they had some hand in what later appears on their plate. They will then be a lot more likely to ingest it rather than “accidentally” dropping it on the floor.
- Don’t negotiate, but be willing to compromise. It’s unrealistic to think a child will accept all new foods without question. My 2-year-old possesses an iron will, and it was clear early on that she would go hungry if she had to in order to make a point. I opt for a “Let’s Make a Deal” approach: If she tries one bite of the new food, she can then decide to be all done or keep eating. This provides the illusion that she has the upper hand, but in fact, either outcome favors me: If she tries the food and likes it, that’s another step away from picky-eater territory; if she decides the food isn’t her taste, at least she gave it a shot, and I still haven’t agreed to let her trade her seafood paella for a hot dog. More often than not, after that initial resistance she ends up grinning and shoveling more in her mouth, proud of her culinary discovery. That’s right, I tell her, what a smart, independent kid you are.