We’ve all met picky eaters. You might even be one. But for those of us who’d like to teach our kids to be citizens of the world, and not just chicken nugget eaters, the prospect of a child who eats only about five foods is not ideal.
There’s no magic way to make a kid love sushi. But there are a few ways you can help him or her get there.
First, know that some food neophobia, or fear of new foods, is natural, especially around the age of 2. There may be an evolutionary component to it — when you don’t know what foods are safe to eat, it’s safest to stick with the ones you know won’t poison you.
It’s also true that we have variations in how we taste things. Some people are more sensitive to certain tastes, like bitterness. Brussels sprouts may taste different to your child than they do to you.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for raising an adventurous eater.
1. It starts with mom and dad. If you want an adventurous eater, you have to be one, too. Let your kids see you trying different types of cuisine and flavors — an array of colors and textures. If dad won’t eat vegetables, your case is weak (and your kid will see right through it).
2. Serve the kids the same things you serve yourselves. No “chicken tikka masala for us and butter noodles for the kids.” Within reason, of course — no crazy-spicy foods for toddlers, perhaps.
3. Repetition is key. Experts caution that it may take several exposures to get a kid used to the idea of a new food — 10, 15, even 20.
4. Use the “one taste” rule. Everyone has to try at least one taste of everything on their plate. It shouldn’t come across as a punishment or heavy pressure — just something that your family does at every meal, even with things they think they don’t like. Even you.
5. No dessert bribes. How many of us ate broccoli just to get pie for dessert? And how much did that make you love broccoli? Instead of possibly learning to love it (and other vegetables like it), it became our enemy on the way to dessert. The strong memories that we link to foods can linger for life. Anyone who’s ever gotten food poisoning only to avoid that food forevermore can empathize.
6. Get the kids involved. Take them grocery shopping and let them pick out their own cool-looking vegetables and fruits. Have them do age-appropriate cooking tasks, like stirring or dumping in cups of ingredients.
7. Have it (their) way. You might all be eating tacos, but they don’t have to be the same tacos — with a buffet of condiments, sides and sauces, they have choices and a feeling of control.
8. Explore new ways of cooking. Your child may not hate carrots — she just hates carrots the way they’re cooked with a pot roast. But raw carrots with hummus, or roasted? Those she might enjoy.
9. Start early. Some experts recommend baby-led weaning [LINK TO BABY-LED WEANING BLOG], which encourages parents to skip the pureed baby food stage and let little ones start handling real foods early. The exposure to lots of flavors and textures early may make it easier to be open to new things later on.
The key here is that food should be fun — and eating a pleasure. Making a child sit at the table until the peas are gone is a not a great way to instill a love of peas. A wrinkled nose and “I hate it” are to be expected, but a low-pressure approach to “Try it” and some joy in the shopping, cooking and dining experience are a solid foundation for adventurous eating. And every once in a while, it’s OK to just have chicken nuggets.