Fed up with baking frozen pizza and toasting waffles as backups to every meal? Then quit. Tonight. Here's why: Kids do not have a biological predisposition to reject healthy foods. It's you, Mom, and those nutrient-deficient convenience foods you keep serving that shape your child's taste buds. Unfortunately, these early food preferences can follow your child into adulthood. If she's learned it's OK to eat fruit roll-ups instead of real fruit, the result could be a lifetime of weight issues. “Parents reinforce the ‘picky eater’ idea with special treatment,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a contributor to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website kids eatright.org. “Picky eaters are made, not born.”
Kids need to be exposed to a variety of foods consistently—and when they're really hungry. Even the leafiest and greenest may go down the hatch if you time it right. Then, when spinach salad appears again, your kid recalls that it didn't kill her. We turned to famous chefs and nutrition scientists to help your food cynic evolve into an adventurous eater.
No. 1 Eat, Reign, Love
Repeat after us: You are in charge. You buy the groceries. You make meals. Still think you can't stick to your guns when your tot gets food fussy? Start small:
NO SHORT-ORDER COOKING. How will kids get exposed to new foods if you keep cooking chicken nuggets for them? Scientific studies have shown again and again that children copy their parents' eating behaviors. If you want your kids to eat a wide range of wholesome foods, serve them what you're eating (and make sure there's a vegetable on your plate!). It'll be less stressful for you (one dinner versus two), which, in turn, will boost your kids' acceptance of the “adult” menu: Studies show that a positive mealtime atmosphere led to greater food consumption in children, while negative vibes did just the opposite.
DON'T KEEP JUNK IN THE HOUSE. Does your daughter snatch her favorite chips from the cupboard when she doesn't like the yummy, garlicky pork chop you've put on her plate? First, continue to brush up on your “no” skills. Second, don't buy crap food. “It's the parents' job to provide healthy food,” says Blatner. “It's the kid's job to eat or not eat.”
BE CONSISTENT ABOUT WHAT'S VERBOTEN. Kids push boundaries. If you ease up on rules, Junior learns that it's OK to reject veggies, snack on candy, and behave like a banshee at mealtime. And that's not OK. “You wouldn't let your child run into the street,” says Cathleen Piazza, Ph.D., a pediatric feeding specialist and researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “Why would you let him eat what he wants and send him on his way to a heart attack [in adulthood]?” Junk food isn't as immediate a peril as, say, traffic, but you get the gist: Be a parent!
No. 2 Make a Fresh Start
It's much easier to get children under 2 years to eat collard greens and lima beans. Studies show that the earlier you introduce a food, the more likely a child will accept it and continue to eat it throughout his lifetime. If your child is over 2, don't worry: Research also shows that the palate of anyone, any age, can be changed via what nutritionists call “habituation” and “flavor training.” For example: Say you start using less salt, per doctor's orders. In a few weeks, salt-laden soups and frozen meals will likely taste too salty.
KEEP IT FRESH AND SIMPLE. Creating an adventurous eater is a lot easier when you serve fresh food, says Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project, a 16-year-old nationwide program that teaches students to grow, harvest, and prepare their own foods. “Parents and restaurants alike think that you have to play games to get children to eat what's good for them,” says Waters. “But kids like real food that is simple and ripe.” Let your child experiment with dipping a fresh cherry tomato into pesto sauce or a carrot into vinaigrette “so he can taste things singly and explore flavors one by one,” suggests Waters.
INTRODUCE A NEW FOOD PAIRED WITH A FAMILIAR ONE, says Robin Miller, host of Food Network's Quick Fix Meals With Robin Miller and mom of two boys. Present a plate filled with much-loved meatloaf, rice, and strawberries, but reserve a quarter of the plate for zucchini and a little (familiar) ranch dressing for dipping. This reduces the intimidation factor and boosts the odds of acceptance.
No. 3 Go on an Adventure
When exposure to a new cuisine is a vibrant, fun-filled experience, your child will have positive memories with that food forever. Escapades your kids will love:
FOOD-TRUCK LOLLAPALOOZA. Children cherish the jingling ice-cream truck, so build on that familiarity with a visit to a gourmet truck lineup that serves Korean BBQ tacos or grilled Manchego sandwiches (a twist on the traditional American grease cheese sandwich). A final stop at the dessert truck can be the big reward. To find food trucks in your area, visit roaminghunger.com.
DESTINATION: DINNER SAFARI. First, pull out that old globe or world map (or bring one up onscreen). Ask your child to point to a country he's learning about in school or simply wants to know more about. (With younger kids, this can be a fairly random choice!) A country's food reflects its geography, economy, and cultural traditions. Then plan a monthly visit to a Japanese, Argentine, Korean, Turkish, Italian (or whatever) restaurant.
CALL OF NATURE. At farmers markets, teach your child to ask vendors where the tomatoes were grown and whether pesticides were used. At Asian shops, younger kids may be a bit traumatized when learning that Nemo (the catfish swimming in the tank) and Clucky (the squawking hen in the cage) are destined for the dinner table, but older kids will be fascinated by their connection to the food chain. At Indian markets, take a deep whiff of all the wonderful spices you've never heard of and ask the purveyor how to use them in your kitchen.
No. 4 They're Hired!
A Canadian study found that kids who regularly helped with meal prep preferred healthier foods and ate 10 percent more of their veggies than the kitchen-slackers. Here's how to put yours to work:
SUPERMARKET SWEEP. Melissa d'Arabian, host of the Food Network's Ten Dollar Dinners and author of Ten Dollar Dinners: 140 Recipes and Tips to Elevate Simple, Fresh Meals Any Night of the Week, has four daughters ages 5 to 7. In the grocery store, the girls are in charge. “I ask them to go find the best kale to put in smoothies,” says d'Arabian, who teaches them to pick produce for high quality and flavor.
DOWNSIZE YOUR KITCHEN UTENSILS. Buy a pair of safety scissors so your child can cut fresh herbs. Use small bowls and whisks to make egg cracking and scrambling easy for little fingers. And don't forget the kid-size apron and chef hat. Kitchen work isn't just a fun, gooey science experiment. When kids help create the meal, they own the meal, boosting odds that they'll like and eat it, too.
GROW YOUR OWN PIZZA. Plant basil, tomatoes, and oregano and call it Emma's (or Liam's) Garden. Together you'll dig, till, weed, and, finally, harvest for the big Pizza Night. Grow your own tacos with lettuce, cilantro, and chili peppers. Or try a dessert garden: Bake a pie or a crumble with just-picked lemons or berries. “When children are engaged from an early age in the process of where their food comes from, their relationship to it is transformed,” says Waters.
No. 5 Talk Turkey
…and protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals at the dinner table. Teach your child that protein—poultry, fish, eggs, meat—will build her muscles so she can grow bigger and stronger. Carbs—whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas—bestow energy, so she'll be able to run and play for a longer time. Fats—avocados, nut butters, olive oil, fish—will boost brainpower and make her more alert in preschool tomorrow. Fruits and vegetables help keep her healthy, so she may not get sick as often.
When your child says “I don't like this salmon,” offer a nutritionally equivalent option—like walnuts or a hard-boiled egg—and tell her that's OK, but she still needs to eat something that will build muscles and help her pay attention to the teacher in the morning. “If your kid isn't going to eat vegetables that night, give her something she loves, like blueberries,” says Miller. “She'll still be getting antioxidants and fiber.”
No. 6 No Power Struggles
“When mealtime is chaotic, struggles can erupt,” says Cathleen Piazza, Ph.D. With a little planning, you can defuse potentially explosive (and embarrassing) food meltdowns.
SERVE TWO VEGGIES AND LET YOUR CHILD PICK THE ONE HE WANTS. Choice empowers kids and allows them to think they're in control. One veggie should be raw jicama, carrots, or anything you know he'll eat. “But he has to pick one,” says Piazza. “Otherwise, the child truly is in control.”
IT's A FINE LINE BETWEEN RESPECTING THEIR LIKES AND DISLIKES AND CHANGING AN ENTIRE MEAL FOR THEM. Just make sure there is something on the menu they'll eat. “When my child tastes something and doesn't like it, I want her to feel her opinion is valued,” says d'Arabian. “After all, I never tell my husband to ‘just shut up and eat it!’”
PREEMPT FOOD FREAK-OUTS. Hungry children are cranky children. Before heading to your mom's or your boss' home for dinner, give your child a quickie snack like cheese and crackers or fruit and yogurt. The blood-sugar spike will do wonders for his mood, and he'll be more open to tasting unfamiliar fare and less likely to collapse into tears.
No. 7 Rethink Your Go-to Meals
Between your job and the kids' activities, sometimes you're lucky to get mac and cheese on the table. “Most of the families I meet are flying by the seat of their pants at mealtime,” says Katie Boles, R.D., a pediatric dietitian at Wake-Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC.
We get it. “Kid food” is an easy dinner default on frantic weeknights. But if you really want to serve something more nutritious and adventurous (and we know you do, since you got this far in this article!), learn a few super-easy, healthy recipes to lean on as your “manic Monday” meal. “Have five or six easy [dishes] in your dinner arsenal that deliver a high level of nutrition and flavor,” says Tyler Florence, the Food Network chef, restaurateur, baby-food mogul, cookbook author, and father of three.