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, save your dislike for something truly disgusting–like liver. But I grew up truly enjoying most food, and my husband and I decided to encourage our children to have a broad range of food likes. Here are some food rules our family lives by.
1. Serve them home cooking.
We skipped 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 them 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.
2. Try just a couple bites.
We encourage kids to taste everything offered at a meal. The standard rule at our house is: You need to eat at least as many bites as you are old. So, a 3-year-old would eat 3 bites of carrots. 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.
3. Limit the junk.
Soda pop and potato chips come with us on vacations and occasionally when company visits. But in general, we avoid high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed foods that serve to dull taste buds to the deliciousness of "real food."
4. Mix it up!
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 dishes, they're used to jumping in and trying them. 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 the main dish that evening.
5. Don't give up.
Studies have shown that kids need to taste a new food 10 times to acclimate their taste buds. Many times a child will initially dislike something new, but after tasting it a few times will change their minds. We have a couple of 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.
6. 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 someone 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.
7. Is there a downside to our plan?
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. 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 for Mom. Ah well; no plan is perfect.