This month in the Eat Well, Spend Less series I look at how the group introduces new foods to their children, whether they eat the same food, and whether they think any of that is important at all.
Lights glare from the bubbles above the dining room table, sending yellowish streams through the room. Typical in the winter, when the sun sinks below the horizon before the food has a chance to be set out and the family called around the table. Banter across the warm oak includes sarcasm and teasing as well as requests to pass the bread or butter. A small lull in the usual dinner din prompts me to ask my children two questions.
“First, what is your favorite food?”
Eyes light up as if a light bulb has been turned on behind them, illuminated with the thought of their own personalized meal made just for them. The stormy-eyed girl in ripped jeans and a skirt, her hair a wild and crazy mess of sunshine that falls in tangles across her face immediately says, “Sushi!” in her typical knee-jerk response to this oft-asked inquiry. “Oatmeal,” pipes the smallest of the bunch. The older two are still contemplating their choices, when my brown-eyed boy with the hair hiding the brightness in his eyes decides, “Artichokes.”
“Okay, so what is your least favorite food?”
Unlike the previous question that came with enthusiastic responses, this question hangs in the stale air, hovering. “Well, come on. You don’t like everything we eat at dinner.”
The air remains silent for a second longer, until a small voice rats out her sister, “Kiera doesn’t like asparagus.”
“True, but she does like it-”
“When it is dipped in egg and baked with bread crumbs and when we make those prosciutto rolls.”
“Right. So, you don’t always enjoy it, but there are ways you do and are excited about eating it. Kjell, what about mushrooms?”
There is contemplative look that crosses his face, as if mushrooms might not be so bad, and then he answers, “But I like them on pizza and in spaghetti sauce. Oh, and they were good when we stuffed them.”
“So not mushrooms, then. What’s something you never enjoy eating?”
Again, the tangled web of golden locks brings her thoughts to our dinner table, “I don’t think I *hate* any food. I like all of them at least some of the time or some way, just maybe not all the time.”
I’m pretty passionate about the how and why behind creating a positive food culture within my family. I’ve detailed the hows and whys of getting my kids in the kitchen, and most recently I’ve talked about getting back to the basics of the feeding process. What is important for you to know, however, is I haven’t somehow uncovered the secret to getting your children to be small adults, perfectly poised at every meal.
My children still sometimes grumble at meals they don’t enjoy or those they aren’t particularly hungry for on Day X in Month Y of Year Z. They are children, and children are prone to changing their minds, being temperamental at times, and testing the sanity of their loving parents at every turn. Part of what I am trying to teach them, though, is to be appreciative of the food before them, to learn about what we’re eating, and to accept it gratefully, even when it might not be our favorite.
The food culture of our family is more than just what is served for dinner every night and getting my kids to eat it. I view food culture as a set of values and attitudes we have regarding the food we eat and how we eat together, but also as the process of sharing that with my children and exposing them to how the food system works. Still, one of the largest hurdles to teaching kids about food is their acceptance of the food itself you want to teach them about. New tastes and textures can be difficult to introduce to both small and large children. In fact, it often gets harder the older they get. Adults who have decided they don’t like a food can be far less receptive than a child filled with curiosity for the world around them.
I know how I deal with food and my kids, both the good and bad practices, successes and failures, and so I chose to ask the Eat Well, Spend Less group about their own ways of introducing new foods to their children.
How do you present new foods to your children? When introducing new foods to your kids, what are the hardest things to overcome? Do you make separate meals for children and adults, or does everyone eat the same food? (Do you think having them be familiar with a variety of foods is valuable?)
Mandi from Easy Homemade
“I hate wasted food, and it would be easy for me to prepare only things my kids like in an attempt to prevent waste, but I’ve seen how the power of exposure works to expand their taste buds, so I try to serve a few dishes each week that may not be as popular with everybody, and we’ve made some pretty big strides in the food they’ll eat through this method.
For us, the key is to serve something they love alongside a new recipe. We serve them a small portion of each dish (about 3-5 bites of each), and they must try everything on their plate. They don’t have to eat everything…unless they want more of the dish they like, in which case they have to clear their plates first.
I also regularly invite one of them into the kitchen with me (just one at a time!), especially when I’m making something new or chopping veggies, in the hopes that they’ll be more willing to try something they’ve helped prepare.”
These methods are surprisingly effective at getting them to eat those few bites without argument or fight (for everyone except for my very stubborn 7yo, who is convinced she doesn’t like any plant or meat!), and I’m counting on repeated exposure to work from there!”
Amy from Kingdom First Mom
“This is something I am really working on right now. I have two who are in a very particular stage when it comes to food, so I have a hard time getting them to try new things. I do not make special meals for anyone; what I make is what we all eat. If I have made something new, I always pair it with family favorite so there is something familiar, and also so that they will at least have something to eat. I don’t like for anyone to go hungry, but I also do not like wasted food! I don’t serve a huge portion of the new dish, and everyone has to take at least three bites. While this is working, it isn’t working as well as I would like. I have also tried to include my children more in the meal prep. It definitely encourages them to try something if they made it!”
Aimee from Simple Bites
“Around our table, we all eat the same base meals, from Danny to our baby-led solids girl, Clara, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I may include a special topping (such as salsa or chopped scallions) for Danny and I without insisting that the kids include the ingredient also.
If I’m introducing something new, I try to give the children a rundown of the dish/ingredient and include some cool fact about how it benefits the body or how we enjoyed it when I was a kid. Then they have to try one bite. They may say ‘it’s not my favorite’ but we don’t allow words like ‘gross’ or ‘yuck’ in our food vocabulary.
Kids have peculiar pallets. My eldest doesn’t like berries (though he has to try all of them again, each season) but goes bananas for guacamole, simple lentils & rice, and large green salads. I know things improve with time; I’m not worried about their relationship with whole foods.”
Jessica from LifeasMOM
“I read French Kids Eat Everything and that was an eye-opener. I realized that I was letting my kids get away without trying new foods. So, I started adding more vegetables to the table and requiring at least a bite or whatever amount that I put on their plates. I don’t let them leave or have dessert. It’s old school. But, they’re learning to eat new foods without too much drama. Plus, I make juices with funky fruits and vegetables sometimes to expose them to new tastes without the new and alarming texture or look.”
Carrie from Denver Bargains
“I don’t really have a method for presenting new foods to my kids. They are pretty good eaters overall, but when we are having something they don’t care for, I give them a very small serving – they are usually required to eat all of it but I try to give them some slack by not giving them very much! I never cook them something different just because they don’t like what we are having. There have been quite a few dishes that they downright hated the first time we had them – Gumbo and Szechuan Green beans, for instance – that are now their favorite dishes, so my philosophy is to keep feeding it to them and they’ll learn to love it eventually! One thing I don’t make my kids eat is fish – for whatever reason, they all really, truly detest it (everything from salmon to shrimp to tilapia!) and when I serve it, it usually ends up with someone gagging. (It’s not an allergy; I use fish stocks in gumbo and they’re fine – I guess it’s the texture!) We don’t like to deal with the gagging so I just don’t serve it! On a rare occasion, I will fix salmon for Jeremy and I and the kids will just eat the side dishes. Like Jessica, I just read French Kids Eat Everything and that was a thought-provoking and inspiring read!”
Katie from Kitchen Stewardship
“I have to start backward because your easy questions are at the end. Undoubtedly the more variety of foods my kids have been exposed to, the better life is. As far as making separate meals for kids and adults, I feel like that is so wrong for many reasons: (1) way too much work, (2) enables kids to get a “free pass” to not try new foods, (3) teaches kids that they don’t deserve or can’t handle real food, (4) sets up a bad pattern – when do you switch? Will your kids be eating chicken nuggets and buttered pasta in college? (I’m sure many do, but I don’t want that fate for mine.)
When our kids honestly don’t like a new meal I’ve made, we’re sort of at a loss. We don’t have bread in the house, so the old, “Make yourself a PJB sandwich,” that many rely on is out. Sometimes we’ll allow a bowl of yogurt instead, but usually there are enough raw veggies and dip or a side dish that no one starves if they don’t like the main course. My kids are excellent at eating around their green beans or slimy spinach or whatever they don’t like in a casserole or soup.
We do insist on a “no thank you” bite before one is allowed to say ‘no thank you’ to the entire dish, and often if we feel like a child is really just making a power play by saying they don’t like something, they have to take a few more bites (‘Four because you’re four’ is a very common refrain currently).
When I introduce totally new foods (not just new recipes) sometimes it’s just, “Here’s dinner,” as if everything is normal and see what happens. Sometimes I make a big deal of how we got the new food: We picked it at the farm, ‘Our CSA included this wild new such-and-such, let’s try it!’, say it silly like ‘bok choyyyyyyy!’ and even take a family taste test bite on the count of 3. It’s okay not to like things, and that’s an important part of creating a positive food culture (which I don’t always do well, to be honest).
I do continue to serve things people don’t like. They just have to deal with it and learn to pick stuff out! I’m glad you asked this question, because I do need to continue to serve homemade fermented foods to the whole family. That’s one instance I’ve kind of let it drop after an initial poor reaction from everyone but the toddler.”
As always, you can check out what others are writing in the Eat Well, Spend Less series and the answers from all of us to each of their questions: