I’m used to dealing with a little pushback from armies of school children. In my previous life in Wisconsin, I spearheaded the area initiative to incorporate local food in the school lunches and helped expand our elementary school garden to be a major source of food for the schools. I coordinated the school district’s fruit and vegetable snack program and taught nutrition. I was known affectionately (I think) as “The Fruit Girl.”
I get that not everyone in the schools was as pumped as I was for raw cabbage or persimmon snack day but I avoid the term “picky eater” at all costs. I know it’s a common phrase, but I feel it does a couple of things that undermine healthy new food experiences with kids. First, it labels them and gives the kids (and you!) an excuse to reject new experiences. Second, it puts negative food notions front and center. Instead, let’s talk about trying new things and sharing experiences. Let’s keep the food talk positive and descriptive.
Here are my top ten tips for helping your kids try something new.
- Cultivate an air of mystery. Keep the cool new produce item you just picked up in a brown bag and let your kids guess what amazing thing might be in there. This could segue into a mystery dish a few nights a week for dinner that everyone looks forward to discovering.
- Take your time. Taste new things together. Examine it, smell it, lick it, take a bite. Then describe the food to each other. Is it sour or sweet? Crunchy, soft or crispy? Kids will come up with fascinating thoughts. A group of students I worked with started hatching a plan for a pomelo-based perfume line after sniffing and tasting the grapefruit lookalike.
- Balance. Intersperse new or usual foods with tried and true favorites.
- Give kids the green light to munch on as many fresh fruits and vegetables (especially veggies!) as they can. Growing up, my dad cut up a bunch of carrot sticks every weekend for snacks throughout the week. These carrot sticks were housed in a tall, cylindrical container filled with water. I knew exactly where they were in the fridge, and I could grab some anytime. It felt very cool to be able to get a snack for myself.
- The power of choice is huge. “Should we have carrots or peas? Which spice should go in the chicken dish? Should we cut the sweet potatoes in sticks or cubes?” Choose two options that you’re okay with and let the kids decide.
- Keep the pressure off. It’s easy to feel emotionally invested in a meal or food item and struggle to get your child to try something. I love the approach Frances’ mom takes in Bread and Jam for Frances. She lets Frances’ obsession for bread and jam play out and even encouraged it, so that after a few meals, Frances couldn’t wait to try something new.
- Ask kids for advice. “I’m really not in the mood for carrots, but I want something that’s orange or red and crunchy. What would you suggest?” Kids love being in the driver’s seat and this tactic could lead to fun mini research projects as they seek to discover the perfect option for you.
- Cook together. Shop together. Garden together. The more invested and involved your kids feel in the food, the more adventurously they’ll eat. Talk about selecting the ripest melon or which pieces of chicken are best for the grill. Expand their duties as they get older and more interested – send them off to find the whole wheat penne in the grocery store or put them in charge of the salad course at dinner.
- Usually kids will follow your lead, if you’re excited and open to trying new things, they will be, too.
- Institute a “polite bite” rule. This reinforces the need to respect the food and the cook, but keeps the pressure low.
What are your strategies for feeding a persnickety eater or introducing new foods? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.