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You've got to taste this: the art of raising fearless gourmets

As a kid I remember feeling disdainful of the kids whose mothers cut the crusts off their sandwiches.  My mom would never let me waste 20% of my bread, and I didn't really understand what was so bad about a bread crust anyway. I mean, really - save your dislike for something truly disgusting. Like liver. 

My preferred approach with liver was to cut it into pill-sized bits and swallow without chewing. I never have served liver to my kids.  But I grew up truly enjoying most food.  And fairly early on in our parenting career, my husband and I decided to encourage our children to have a broad range of food 'likes.' 

Home cooking right from the start

One of the first choices we made towards that goal was to skip commercial baby food. Except for rice cereal at the very start, our kids just ate well-mashed bits of what we ate at every meal. I think that got kids used to the flavors of family cooking right from the start. That was back before I even knew that a lot of commercially prepared baby food contains a fair bit of high fructose corn syrup - not the healthiest ingredient in the world. 

Just a couple bites

We encourage kids to taste everything offered at a meal.  The standard rule at our house is that you need to eat at least as many bites as you are old.  So a 3 year old would eat three bites of carrot.  A 6 year old would need to eat 6 bites of spaghetti. The only exception to this rule is true gagging aversion, which does happen occasionally with some kids and some foods.

Limit junk

Soda pop and potato chips come with us on vacations, and also occasionally when company visits.  But in general we avoid high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed food that serves to dull taste buds to the deliciousness of real food.  For more on this idea, check out Recultivating Our Sense of Taste.

Mix it up!

Because I love to cook, we eat a huge variety of food at our house.  One day we may have Korean sushi (kimbap) for dinner.  Another night we'll serve Mexican tortilla skillet. Because our kids routinely see new  things at the dinner table, they're used to jumping in and trying things.  I always try to serve a familiar thing or two along with the less familiar.  For example, rice, bread, green salad, and carrot sticks appear frequently, and serve to fill in the cracks if a kid doesn't love whatever the main dish happens to be that evening.

Don't give up

Studies have shown that kids need to taste a new food 10 times to acclimate their taste buds to something new.  Many times a kid will initially dislike something new, but after tasting it a few times will change their minds.  We have a couple kids who have persistent, strong dislikes to one or two foods. That's OK, and again, I am lenient when a kid really, truly hates something.  But the vast majority of our kids quickly grew to like most food, even includes our two older daughters who came to us from Ethiopia at age 9 and 11, and had to try a whole slew of new things.

Try 'Salad-Bar' style meals

Serving tacos, fajitas, or baked potatoes with lots of possible toppings gives kids control over what they eat.  My kids know that mom expects them to choose some veggies, and occasionally I'll need to remind a kid to take some tomatoes along with all that cheese.  But when given choice, they will usually happily serve up their favorite veggies, and sometimes kids will surprise me by taking veggies I thought they didn't like.   For example, the other day one of my older Ethiopian daughters served herself mushrooms, which she despised when she first arrived in America. 

The problem with raising brave eaters

And the down side of success at this venture?  Well, some day you may have just little pizza dough in the fridge.   You'll spread it out on an oiled cookie sheet, and you'll pile it high with fresh spinach, sweet peppers, mushrooms, sliced avocado, and mozzarella cheese.  By the time you're done, this pizza is a masterpiece.  You're happily picturing inhaling it almost single-handedly.  You set out nachos to decoy the kids.  If you had normal kids, this would work.  After all, just look at all the scary vegetables on this pizza! But your kids, veggie-lovers since babyhood, barely look at the nachos.  They head straight for the pizza, and happily gobble down almost every speck of it.  Leaving just one piece of veggie-pizza heaven to mom.

Ah well.  No plan is perfect.