This is Part 3 of a 4-part series about kids and food. Part 1 is about establishing and encouraging healthy attitudes toward food, Part 2 is about ways to make good food fun, and today’s post is about expanding kids’ food preferences.
In Part 1 of this series I mentioned not labeling kids as “picky eaters” because when you do that, kids get the message that they’ve already failed to live up to your expectations. But avoiding that language is very hard - I know it firsthand – as I was drafting this post the last week I was calling it “Expanding Picky Palettes” because let’s face it, that’s how we usually describe it. It felt familiar and it got the point across, and I totally fell into that trap.
But that doesn’t make it right.
So in tackling this issue with your kids, please be mindful that language can have more of an affect on them than it does on you. Don’t start off at odds with your kids. Tread lightly and be positive.
Here are some strategies for you to try with your own family when trying to widen their menu choices to include healthier and/or more exotic choices:
- Expect it to take time, lots and lots and lots of time. And by lots of time I mean years. Some kids are adventurous eaters and if you have one, enjoy it – lucky you! (though you’d probably not be interested in this series then…) But if you have more typical kids like the rest of us, remember that change takes time and pushing it will not help you or your kids. Go slowly.
- Don’t pressure your kids into eating unfamiliar things they’re hesitant about. Keep the vibe of “food is an adventure” and keep the atmosphere fun.
- When serving new things, expect your kids to have a taste (that’s our minimum requirement) but give them a little bit more than a taste on their plate. If kids have only a tiny taste on their plate, they have no incentive to do more than gulp down their tiny serving to get rid of it, and they’ll probably think “out of sight, out of mind.” But by putting a small serving on their plate and asking them to have just a taste, they just might go back for another taste after the first one. Don’t pressure them to do so, but if it’s there on the plate, they just might give it another try (and they just might like it after all!).
- Explain to you kids how a different foods are nutritious. For example, if you’re trying to get your kids to eat avocado, explain to them the healthy fats avocados contain and what they do for the body. Try to give the (relatively specific) benefits of every new food – the platitudes of “try this – it’s good for you!” or “it’ll put hair on your chest!” (tell me I’m not the only one who was told that on the regular? and yet no one could explain to me why I’d actually want hair on my chest?) really don’t fly. Explain how the protein in quinoa helps build strong muscles, how the vitamin A in carrots helps keep good eyesight, etc. If kids understand why something is good for them, they’ll be more inclined to give it a try (the old “what’s in it for me” affect).
- Investigate fun facts about new foods. Find out where things grow, how they grow, how they’re prepared, or interesting tidbits. Did you know lobster was seen as a mark of poverty and served to prison inmates until the mid-1800’s when it finally gained popularity in the cities of New York and Boston?
- Take your kids to the farmers’ market and let them explore the various fruits, vegetables and products for sale. Big grocery stores can be overwhelming for kids with a paralyzing array of sights, sounds, and smells, making it hard for kids to decide what to try. But by seeing the owner or farmer at the market, kids begin to associate a human being with the food they eat, making it more personal and less overwhelmingly commercial. Most farmers are thrilled to talk to kids about what they grow (just don’t hit them up at their busiest time of the day).
- Start a “one new food per week” ritual. Let you kids take turns and each week, one person picks a new food for everyone to try. Start slowly if you need to – if your kids are really hesitant, start with something low on the risk scale like a new kind of apple you’ve never tried before, or familiar salad greens with spinach mixed in. Remember, take it slow, keep it positive, and just work on keeping it up with forward momentum. And don’t be afraid to share your own hesitations if your kids pick something you’re nor sure about – don’t be negative, but if you have your own misgivings, voice them (politely of course!). Kids might actually take that as a challenge, so why not?
- Temper your own reactions to food. If you taste something and you really don’t like it, don’t say “Yuck, that’s so bitter!” Instead say “Wow, I wasn’t expecting it to taste like that. For some reason I thought it might be sweeter, but I guess not.” Kids take a lot of their preference cues from you, so try to keep your reactions non-judgmental and neutral to allow them the space to formulate their own opinions.
- Over time you can work up to taking your kids to various international restaurants. If your kids are already adventurous, then by all means start this right away! Several years ago we started a tradition of trying a new international restaurant each month. Over the year we had food from Brazil, Spain, France, Ethiopia, Austria, Germany, Nepal, Turkey, Korea, among many other places. Do plenty of research online and you’ll probably be surprised at what’s around you that you haven’t noticed before (we sure were!). If you really live in an area where you can’t find a wide variety of restaurants, look for recipes online to try at home.
Again, just like in previous weeks, the same principle applies – take it slow, don’t pressure, and make it fun. Give your kids an active role in the project and be open to their thoughts and suggestions.
Above all remember that opening up their tastebuds to accept a wide variety of foods isn’t a race – it’s a slow and steady experience meant to be savored!