I’ve been cooking dinner for picky people for a long time, now. Thankfully, my husband is not one of them. He’s a pretty low-key kind of guy who has followed along on all manner of food adventures (Let’s try kombucha! Fermented carrots! Maitake mushrooms!) And has often come away embracing the once exotic.
But my kids are a different story. From the get-go, even though I made my own baby food, even though we’ve grown a garden their whole lives, even though I’ve repeated the you-have-to-try-something-ten-times mantra as if it were our family’s central dogma, I have managed to raise three finicky eaters. As luck would have it, they’re not even partial to the same foods. My son is a meat and starch kinda guy but nearly every vegetable is a struggle. One daughter is, in general, a decent eater, but passionately dislikes foods that are mainstays at our table — onions, green peas, broccoli. The youngest would exist on pasta and cheese alone if left to her own devices.
So our family dinners — that hour every night that I strive so hard to make happen — are filled with complaining, with teens drinking glass after glass of milk to choke down a half-serving of salad. There are no more tears or real tantrums, no plates are flung across the room like in the good old toddler days. But it’s not pretty either. I’m always left feeling like we should be farther along than this by now.
So today I’m reaching out to ask for your fail-safe ways of feeding a family. And I’m sharing our more successful strategies, the ones that have gotten us as far as we’ve come. Whether you’re working to expand your own palate or gently nudge a grownup sitting at your table or hoping to instill good eating habits for your kids, perhaps these tips can help. But know that I am far from having all the answers….
- Require that everyone try at least one bite of everything. This teaches that tasting something unappealing doesn’t kill you, which may be the most important lesson of all. There’s always the possibility that an unsavory looking dish might surprise. Especially my youngest will often say: You know, that’s better than I thought it would be. I consider those words a major victory!
- Serve a food over and over. This is a variation on the Try a New Food 10 Times rule of thumb. Sometimes I think my kids’ resistance wears down, especially when we are in a growing season and dozens of cucumbers are coming in from the garden or stacks of tomatoes are piling up on the counter. These foods wind up on our table again and again and eventually the kids find some way they can stand to eat them.
- Invoke the magic of the sauce. For my oldest it was ketchup, for my youngest it’s sour cream, as a family, I can encourage more vegetable eating if I also stir up a pot of Makes Everything Better Cheese Sauce. I have no problem with a spoonful of sauce helping the offending food go down.
- Find new places for veggies. Kale or spinach in smoothies. Carrots, pumpkin and zucchini in muffins and breads. Homemade marinara sauce with extra carrots or greens blended in. Whenever I can add an unsuspected vegetable, I go for it!
- Give them choices. This is really my secret weapon. My kids know they will be required to eat at least one vegetable at every dinner. Sometimes I can score a big win by letting them choose which veggie it will be. You don’t like broccoli? No problem, how about this spinach? As they munch away on their spinach, I’ve got the bigger picture in mind.
- Engage them in a conversation. After an exasperating week of someone being unhappy with dinner every single night, I invoked a new tool. Each family member was to write down five foods they would be excused from eating. They would have to choose ONLY five. In exchange, they would happily eat the rest of the foods served to them forever and always. This tool became known as The List. Honestly, it was a complete failure. Five turned out to be too small of a number. (Do I write down sardines? Liver? Even if mom never makes those foods? What happens if she does?) Pretty much every night, my nine-year-old wanted to change what was on her list so she could be excused from eating ingredients that didn’t please her. Five also turned out to be too high of a number. With five of us eating, that meant that I could be trying to cook while banned from using 25 foods. The upside of The List has turned out to be its role as a conversation starter. In the months that it has hung on our fridge, we’ve had many, many discussions about what it means to eat dinner as a family, why I ask them to eat foods they don’t like and to how to eat meals (more than just a bite) that might include offensive ingredients.
- Give them (some) control. My kids watch me meal plan every week. I look at our calendar to see what days I need to make easy meals and which nights we’ll all have time to sit down together. I take into consideration anything that might be coming from the garden or food in the pantry or the freezer that needs eating and I craft a week’s worth of meals around these parameters. One evening my youngest announced she would like to plan the next week’s menu. Her choices were predictable: pasta and cheese, pasta and cheese, pasta and cheese. But with my guidance, we were able to find seven dinners that met my requirements and that she looked forward to every day. Sharing my meal planning has turned out to be a much better tool than The List.
- Give them (some) control, part 2. You’ve likely heard that having your children help you grocery shop, garden and cook will make them more invested and interested in what eventually ends up on their plates. I have found this to be totally true. Just like the meal planning, the more involved my kids are in creating their dinners, the less likely they are to complain. They aren’t available to take part in all dinner planning and preparation every day, but when they show an interest, I try to accommodate it.
- Don’t give up. Yes, there’s whining at my table. But when I take a deep breath and remember my larger goals, I can see that my kids have tried many, many foods. A few they’ve actually come to like (salsa, avocados, tofu, spinach, quiche, mushrooms). I still believe that one day they’ll grow up to be adventuresome eaters in part because of all my years of exposing them to different tastes and textures. Maybe I need to find a way to not hear the complaints, to just soldier on. Maybe this is how it is at everyone’s table. Or maybe you’ve got the secret to the whine-free dinner. If so, I really do want to hear it.
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