Colleen Levine of FoodieTots offers 10 excellent tips for encouraging little ones to love food.
The first thing people tend to ask when they hear I write a family food blog is, “How do I make my kids eat vegetables/anything but chicken nuggets/fill-in-the-blank?” Parents know it’s hard to “make” your kids do anything, but here are a few tips that I’ve found are helping encourage my nearly 3-year-old son (pictured) to be a more adventurous eater.
1. Set the table together. Kids who are too young to contribute much to the cooking can still feel a sense of ownership in the meal by taking on simple tasks like putting out the napkins and silverware. (Save the china and stemware for the older kids, of course.)
2. Encourage kids to play with their food. You may think you’re leaving the messy floors behind when the kids move from finger foods to silverware, but encouraging silly behavior — trying to stack new potatoes to make snowmen, for example — helps keep the mood light-hearted.
3. Keep it familiar. There’s a reason macaroni and chicken tenders are on every restaurant kids’ menu; kids gravitate toward what’s familiar. Serving something new alongside something they love — even if it’s an odd pairing like sautéed chard alongside pancakes — increases the odds they’ll give it a try.
4. Sauce it up. Never underestimate the power of ketchup. My son has dipped peas in ketchup for as long as he’s been walking. Calling rhubarb barbecue sauce “pink ketchup” won instant favor as a dip for cubed pork.
5. Name calling is good. Speaking of “pink ketchup,” don’t be afraid to embrace silly names. I was skeptical when my husband told my toddler that broccoli was “little dinosaur trees,” and yet that was the first time he tried it.
6. Let kids choose. Take the kids to the farmers market and make a game of picking something of each color of the rainbow, or finding something they’ve never had before, and then cook it that night while the experience is still fresh in their minds.
7. Let kids pick the food, literally. To a kid, visiting a farm is almost as exciting as a trip to Disney World. Picking something straight from the dirt makes even a root vegetable enticing, and if you explain next time you’re eating radishes that they came from the farm you visited, the kids might just give them a second look.
8. Keep it fresh. Just like for grown-ups, kids will enjoy food that’s at its peak ripeness and be more likely to try it again. And, fresh, in-season foods require less effort to make them tasty — think asparagus on the grill — reducing your cooking time, too.
9. Keep the rules simple. I try not to be too strict about mealtime, but we do have a “one bite” rule, which includes one bite of a green vegetable. If he doesn’t want the vegetable we’re eating, he can choose frozen peas or string beans.
10. Bring back-up. It goes without saying that all your best efforts will fail to win a cranky kid’s approval once in a while. Keep healthy fall-backs on hand as a last resort so if they do reject your hours-of-slaving-over-a-hot-stove-in-July, lovingly-prepared dish, you can at least feel okay that they’re just eating organic applesauce and growth-hormone-free cheese. And if you’re eating out, don’t feel bad going with the mac ‘n cheese. Encourage little ones to share a taste of what you’re eating — tapas-style dishes are particularly appealing — as what’s on someone else’s plate is infinitely more appealing to kids, anyway.
You can find the “pink ketchup” recipe, aka rhubarb bbq sauce, here. With just three years experience under my belt, I’m by no means an expert yet on raising young foodies, so I’d love to hear other ideas or tips!