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7 ways to raise adventurous eaters

Little girl making salad for dinner
How do you raise a child with an adventurous palate?

Well, you don’t do what I did. Oh, I did fine with baby foods; I did it just like the parenting books said and introduced them one at a time and waited a week or so before trying another new food, in case she had an adverse reaction to a food. But when my oldest was ready for finger foods, I didn’t offer her anything beyond standard “kid-friendly” foods such as toasted oat cereal and goldfish crackers. Eventually we added white bread, chicken fingers and cut up hot dogs. Vegetables were pretty much limited to corn, peas and maybe the occasional serving of green beans.

Really went out on a culinary limb, didn’t I?

I repeated this approach again with my next daughter and eventually my two boys. Then, when my brother and his wife had their first child, they did something I’d never considered before: they gave their daughter the same foods that they ate. They started doing this as soon as it was safe to do so (with notable exceptions of honey, popcorn and nuts for safety reasons).

While my toddlers chased Cheerios around on their hairchair trays, their kids happily popped garbanzo beans into their mouths. What exactly were my brother and sister-in-law up to? Here’s what they did:

  1. Introduce new foods enthusiastically. Our attitude and confidence speaks volumes to kids. If we’re tentative and anxious, they will be too. Having a positive attitude reinforces a child’s belief that you know what you’re doing. (Even if you don’t.)
  2. Ask for kids’ help with menu planning and in the kitchen. My brother and his wife are both great cooks. They tell stories around the dinner table about previous culinary successes, and even a few bombs. They have created a food culture in their house where trying new things is an adventurous and exciting family affair. Starting at a young age, they expected their kids’ input and help with meal planning and preparation.
  3. Involve them in gardening. Whether you’ve got a tiny urban garden, room for raised beds, or just a container garden, kids appreciate food more – and are more willing to try new things – if they’ve had a hand in growing it.
  4. Don’t eat to the “lowest common denominator.” Guilty as charged. This was my mistake for years; whoever was the pickiest eater in the house got to dictate the menu for the rest of us. In my defense, I did it because I was a harried working mom who was exhausted and didn’t feel like fighting about what was on my kids’ plates at the end of the day. Still, it’s no way to eat for the long haul. There’s always a way to find compromise without caving to the most finicky eater.
  5. Don’t shy away from sauces. By the time my niece and nephew were preschoolers they were eating spicy curry dishes, delicate white fish with béchamel sauce and enchiladas with green chili sauce. What my brother and sister-in-law knew that I didn’t know is that kids get used to having sauces on things and having foods “mixed together.” My kids were definitely “islanders” (each food was separated into its own “island” on the plate) when they were little because that’s the way I served it.
  6. Don’t assume they won’t like it just because something’s spicy or “weird.” Again, a positive attitude and a willingness to listen to a little bit of grumbling goes a long way. When my dad comes to visit we always go out to eat and he loves to order some sort of funky appetizer and challenge my kids and my brother’s kids to try it. Over the years they’ve tried everything from frogs legs and muscles to kimchi and venison because Papa asked them to try it.
  7. Insist on a “thank you” bite. Even though little ones probably won’t be begging for kimchi, you can ask that they try a one-bite sample of a new food. A big part of raising adventurous eaters is encouraging them to just try.

On our end, as parents, we encourage kids to try new things but we do so in a way that is patient and respectful of their own innate palate and appetite. We also go a long way toward raising kids with a positive outlook toward food by setting a good example ourselves. If we eat a variety of healthy foods, our kids will follow suit.

Small servings of a new food, along with some familiar foods on their plate, give kids the opportunity to be adventurous in a way that doesn’t feel punitive or threatening.

Lucky for me, my kids have all become much more adventurous on their own as they got older. No need to play it safe with them anymore! I’m hoping that someday I’ll be helping them introduce foods to their kids in a whole different way when I get the chance!

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