As my friends are starting to have kids and dealing with the challenges of picky eating, I find that I am being asked more and more how I got my kids to be such great eaters. In this post, following a little history of my eating habits growing up, I give you my 7 tips for raising adventurous eaters. Some of these practices reflect how I was raised, and others come from books I have read comparing the way kids are raised in France vs. the USA. Listed below are a few book recommendations. I go into more depth as to why they are so helpful in the "Goodreads for the French Enthusiast" entry under the travel tab of my blog. If you click on any of the pictures of the books, you will be directed to Amazon to purchase them! (Sadly, I do not get a commission.)
Although some of my examples and pictures include more exotic and, at times, expensive foods, it is imperative to say that is not what this post is about. It is about encouraging an open mind when it comes to food and expanding kids' horizons beyond where they are at currently. The reason I have these photos of the boys eating some of these foods is that I was impressed and proud of them for trying it! Hopefully, anyone that reads this who struggles with picky eaters will find some practices they can incorporate into their lifestyle.
I love all types of food, but I have not always been this way. Despite the amount of cooking you may witness in my Instastories, I am just a girl that grew up eating Hamburger Helper, and other boxed and canned foods, who has grown to love just about any cuisine. I was not what I would consider an adventurous eater as a kid, there were many foods that I assumed I did not like, but now I realize that most likely I either did not have them prepared in a way to bring out their best flavor, the quality was poor, or I just was not exposed to them.
For most of my childhood, my dad was the sole provider for our family of 6 with a modest income. We lived out in the country where the nearest grocery store was about 45 minutes away, so when food was bought it had to be inexpensive, and it had to have a shelf life. On grocery day, my dad coming home with a few pounds of ground beef and my mom would brown it all in her cast iron skillet with some onions. She would then freeze it to use later mixed with canned pasta sauce over spaghetti or in Hamburger Helper. I loved the smell of it cooking and would sometimes sneak a couple of bites while it was still warm before putting it in the freezer. Generally, our meals were based on rice, potatoes, or pasta. The only other meat I remember eating regularly was chicken legs that my mother would coat with her version of Shake 'n Bake before putting it in the oven. We also ate a lot of canned tuna, whether it was in my mom's tuna noodle casserole, my dad's macaroni salad or the tuna sandwiches my parents packed in my lunch for school. Tuna is still a staple in my pantry; maybe I should try my hand at tuna noodle casserole. I do not believe I ever had a fresh piece of fish until I went to France as an exchange student. While living in France, I ate so many foods I had never experienced before and some I had never even heard of, such as Tête de Veau, but more on that later. That was where my tastes changed, and I began to recognize quality differences in food.
I credit my parents for instilling the ritual of sitting at the table and eating dinner as a family. My sisters and I would take turns setting it and doing dishes afterward. In addition to our main course, we always had to include at least one vegetable and fruit so the four of us sisters would look in the pantry and take a vote. Green beans were one of the only vegetables we could all agree on wanting to eat. Canned fruit cocktail made many appearances on our table, but my favorite was either the peaches, plums or pears that my mom canned herself. She was really good at canning, and it is something I wish I had learned to do. I have yet to taste applesauce as good as my moms. I wish she still made it. Occasionally, we also had a salad that consisted of iceberg lettuce, chickpeas, dried bacon bits, carrots, and our choice in a variety of bottled dressings. Ironically, French dressing was always my favorite, but now I know it has absolutely nothing in common with the salad dressing in France!
Based on some of the recipes I have posted either here on my blog or in my stories on Instagram, followers have inquired if I am becoming vegetarian or vegan. I am neither. Now that I know how delicious vegetables can be, I crave them, and my sisters are the same way. Since most of the fruit and vegetables that we ate growing up came out of a can or a frozen package, it was a treat when my dad brought home sweet corn from one of the farms he had worked at that day. At times we had a garden where we grew peas, green beans, squash, and potatoes too.
Snacking in between meals was not something that was taught or fostered. Besides a single afterschool snack, the only time I remember snacking as a child was when we were on the road for hours in my grandparent's motorhome for our annual summer camping vacation. Fast food was not something we ate a lot of either. McDonald's was a treat we only had once in a while or on school trips. When we went to dinner as a family, it was always to either Pizza Hut or Ponderosa because of the buffet. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for those two restaurants because going to them usually meant we were celebrating something. I remember my dad was the only one to order something in addition to the buffet, and he usually took that opportunity to get a steak. My mom, sisters and I were always eager to see what was being offered at the buffet. After dinner, my sisters and I would get Jello to watch it melt on the plates that were warm from the heat lamps, or try our best to get the chocolate and vanilla swirls lined up at the soft serve machine. My favorite thing though was the little cubes of ham at the salad bar; I guess it was kismet that I would one day live in France!
All this to tell you that I was not by any means a gourmand growing up, but I had no opportunity to be picky either. That behavior served me well when I left on my year-long exchange in France where it was encouraged by Rotary to try all foods provided to us exchange students.
I went to France on exchange the summer I graduated high school. I remember my first meal with my first host family vividly. We ate outside, and the meal started with a few slices of jambon sec and a wedge of cantaloupe that was sweeter and more flavorful than any melon I had ever tasted. Then for our main course, we had homemade gnocchi baked in a tomato cream sauce. At the time I had never heard of gnocchi and had no clue how even to spell it as I raved about it in an email to my friends, family, and Rotarians back home. A green salad dressed in homemade vinegarette came next with a selection of cheeses, and we finished with the most delightful blackberry crumble for dessert. Everything was so fresh and flavorful! I would give anything to have that exact meal right now as I write this. Eating in courses was new to me since we had always eaten family style. Dining at the table every night for dinner helped me feel comfortable and included in my new French family. The weekends were extra special because we would have a big lunch with the grandparents, and sometimes cousins also!
I have realized that even if the meals of my childhood are far different than how I eat today, my parents taught me the core values surrounding food and meals that helped prepare me for my exchange in France where my tastes were indeed developed and refined.
Throughout college, I worked in restaurants and private catering with some fantastic chefs. I picked up basic cooking skills that I fine-tuned with practice over the years. Continuing my education in food is an interest I have passed onto my stepsons. Knowing that they can cook for themselves gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. Waking up to breakfast in bed is a nice perk too, even if that means I may find some raw egg on the counter and floor when I make my way to the kitchen. In our son's favorite movie, Ratatouille, the theme is "Anyone Can Cook", I believe that wholeheartedly!
1.) Do not tell them what they are eating.
Have you ever seen commercials for PediaSure or other foods that promise to get kids the vitamins they need because they do not like vegetables? Well, kids see them too. So even if they have never heard of cauliflower, they may believe that they do not like it, just because it is a vegetable and are regularly given subliminal messages to think vegetables are bad. Years ago I watched Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in which he went to some of the most unhealthy towns in America to educate them on food in a way that made them change their eating habits to help them live longer healthier lives. It made a significant impression on me when he brought a bunch of fruits and veggies into an elementary classroom, and the students could not identify what any of the items were! So, when Tommy was little I would take him grocery shopping while Michael was in school and we would name the produce we saw. I always let him pick out a vegetable to go with dinner that night.
Whenever the boys ask me what something is before they try it, I reply "I don't know? Taste it, and you tell me!". I would rather not have them form opinions before tasting something because of what they think they do or do not like. Before the boys could read, when we would go out to eat I would order for them off of the appetizer section of the menu. I would vaguely describe a few items I wanted them to try in a way I knew would sound appealing to them and give them a choice. For instance, I remember a dinner out on vacation going something like this:
"There are two things that sound really yummy. First, there is toasted bread that is and comes with a sweet fruit spread and another one that you mix on the toast! There is also meat sliced so thin that it feels like it is melting in your mouth and that comes with crackers, cheese, and tiny pickles!!"
They were sold! We ended up getting one of each, and they loved both! What was it? The spread was a French classic, fois gras and the meat was beef carpaccio! Since the names of both dishes were foreign, they had no idea what they were anyway, so their opinion of it depended on my explanation to them. Imagine if I said to them, "Oh it is duck liver and raw beef, try it!" that probably would not have gone over as well.
One of the highest compliments I receive as a (step)parent is that my (step)children are "great eaters". As a disclaimer, I have to focus this topic on my stepsons because I helped raise them more so than I did my stepdaughter. She was already a teenager when I came into the kids' lives, whereas the boys were just about to turn 2 & 6. I had recently returned from living in France for the second time and wanted to share some traditional French dishes (followed by a cheese course, bien sur) with my new little family. Making sure the kids were diverse eaters and exposing them to different types of food is something that I was passionate about and I knew that with them being so young I could have a significant influence on them. I say it is a great compliment to me because as many fellow stepparents can attest to, accolades are not often directed at us for something the kids do well, even if it is because of our influence, but I know without a doubt that I am a big part of the reason the boys are such adventurous eaters with diverse palettes. I am grateful to not only their father but to their mother as well for their encouragement and support of my endeavor.
Without further ado, these are some practices that made it happen:
2.) Try try again. This goes for adults too!
Do not write off a particular food after not liking it the first time. Just because boiled broccoli is almost tasteless does not mean that roasted broccoli is going to be too. Jens, an exchange student from Denmark, told us that in Denmark most vegetables are boiled. After trying roasted broccoli when he was living with us, he was pleasantly surprised at how much he liked it! Roasting vegetables brings out their flavor and natural sweetness. It is my preferred way to cook broccoli and cauliflower. Jens has since returned to his family in Denmark, and I was sure to send him off with a bottle of basting oil for roasting veggies! I always remind the boys (and myself) that the flavors of food change based on how it is prepared and what it is paired with. Potatoes, for example, can be mashed or cut into fries. The flavor and texture of mashed potatoes vary, just as it does with french fries. Skinny fries do not taste the same as steak cut fries.
Going back to fois gras, it never tastes exactly the same twice and can be served a multitude of ways. I do not care for it much on its own whereas with other accompaniments I find it divine. When the boys were younger, we had the three bite rule. They had to take three bites before they could declare that they did not like something, which meant giving it a fair shot.
3.) Skip the snacks between meals.
Do not panic! No one will starve (even though our kids may tell us they are). If we fill up on snacks, we will not have an appetite when meal time comes. We tend to be less picky about what we eat when we are hungry. I love when the boys tell me they are hungry because that means they will eat a great lunch or dinner when it is time. They are used to hearing this reply from me too, which more often than not prompts an eye roll. I do give after-school snacks at times, especially if I know dinner will be later than usual. The general rule for after school snacks in our house is to finish any leftovers in their lunchbox. If there is nothing left, their options are limited to fruit, yogurt or veggies. Sometimes they complain that those choices are not what they want, but that is ok because in the battle of wills I can hold my own. If they do not accept those options chances are that they are not that hungry, but instead bored or trying to delay doing homework. They can wait the couple hours it will be before I serve dinner.
4.) Say no thank you to children menus, and hold the bread.
No matter what restaurant you go to, or the type of cuisine, the options on the kid menu are often the same; hot dog, cheeseburger, pasta, mac & cheese or chicken nuggets. There are very few nutrients offered in those selections and even less flavor. How are kids supposed to expand their horizons with food if they are only given the same five choices all the time? Ordering for kids from the adult menu allows children to explore more flavors, most likely more vegetables, and the true cuisine of the restaurant. It may cost a little more, but an adult entre can be split between children since portions are usually much larger. When Tommy was younger, I would often order appetizers for both of us and an entre to share. If bread is brought to the table before the meal, I encourage the kids only to have one piece while waiting for their food. Again, I want them to enjoy their meal instead of filling up on bread.
5.) Dinner is dinner.
I was raised that whatever was being served is what we ate. My parents never made me a separate meal because I hated the whatever was being served that night for dinner. Instead, I had to eat a reasonable serving before moving on to dessert. One meal I am sure I made very clear as a kid that I did not like was my mom's "Spanish rice." I cannot remember if it was one of my parents' favorites or a request of one of my sisters, I just knew it was my least favorite thing in her rotation of dinners. Most likely there were other dishes my sisters did not like but I did (having three kids now I understand it is impossible to please everyone) but regardless of whether we loved what was being served or not, we were expected to eat it. I do not make a practice of serving things my kids despise, but I do stick to the philosophy that what is served is what everyone will eat. I am also an old school member of the clean-your-plate club, which is why we encourage the kids to start with smaller portions and then help themselves to seconds. The boys claiming they are too full to finish their dinner, but then asking for the cheese course or dessert does not pass in our house!
6.) Eat together at the table, with no distractions.
Only once in a very great while do we eat dinner away from the table. The boys take turns setting and clearing the table, which alternates with dish duty afterward. Phones and other distractions like TV are not allowed during dinner since this is our chance to catch up with one another at the end of the day. We always say grace before the meal and will often take turns sharing our high point/low point of the day. Another part of that Jamie Oliver show that stuck with me was that while visiting a school cafeteria he realized that none of the food served to the students in school required silverware. Therefore many of the students did not know how to use it properly! Eating together at the table is also an opportunity to work on their manners so that they know how to behave in a restaurant or at someone else's house. We use this time to teach them basic etiquette as well. In my job with Rotary Youth Exchange, some of the preparations we do for outbound exchange students focus on how table manners differ from country to country. It is important to me to stress this to the boys too as we travel to Europe a lot and wanted to make sure that when they travel with us they know how to eat properly. My husband and I were very proud when my French host families complimented them as being sage and gourmands after our visit to France last year, even though Tommy did a few bêtises at the table. For Easter, my host family served both fish and the regional specialty, Tête de Veau. Without an explanation of what it was aside from my host father saying it was meat (and because they could not understand the French conversation around them discussing it) both my husband and Michael opted for the Tête de Veau and enjoyed every bite. Tommy had a few bites too. Only after they ate it did we tell them it was the local delicacy: Calf Head. If it were the only option I would have eaten it too, but I have had it a few times already, and the fish looked so tempting!
7.) Kids in the kitchen.
I find that when my kids have helped prepare the meal, they are more enthusiastic to eat it. Even if they cannot help, the boys love when I am in the process of cooking and ask for taste testers to see how the seasoning is or if it is cooked enough. Those few little tastes often get their appetite going and make them more eager to sit down to enjoy the meal. With the kids being adventurous eaters, it enables us to bring them to more places. We have enjoyed some unique dining experiences with them and can share our appreciation for fine dining in which some cool opportunities have arrived. When we have gone out to fancier restaurants with the kids, they have been offered to see the kitchen in action. The novelty of that prompted them to request for kitchen tours later on at other restaurants, and they were often obliged. The boys have had their fair share of kitchen tours in different restaurants because they have interest and some knowledge of what is going on in there. One time, in New York City, we got a personal tour of the Aureole kitchen by Chef Charlie Palmer himself!
My kitchen helpers!
Here are a couple of great cookbooks for kids!
(Click on them to purchase at Amazon.com)
In conclusion, it is essential for both parents and kids to keep an open mind when it comes to food. Why should we assume kids will not like certain things without trying them first? We cannot expect that their tastes will mirror our own, but we must encourage them to try new things and exemplify that curiosity in our own eating habits too! Patience is a virtue when trying to break behaviors and teach new ones.
I know this possibly sounds overwhelming and maybe too much to take on, but it is never too late to change eating habits and can be done little by little. After all, I did it as a teenager! Every meal is an opportunity to explore new tastes!
Don't get me wrong, our family still enjoys Kraft Mac and Cheese as well as the occasional hot dog, burger, or pizza, but there is a whole world of amazing food out there that we are eager to discover. Table manners are something we are continuously working on and sometimes whining still happens at the dinner table as well as the occasional standoff. I am in no way claiming to be a perfect parent or to have the most well-behaved kids in the neighborhood. We have our day to day challenges just like any family. However, no matter how the day has gone, it is always nice to sit around the table and enjoy a meal as a family.
I love to entertain, but it can be a lot of work. If it something you are just starting to do, it can be intimidating. Throwing dinner parties is something that you usually start doing in your 20's because you either finally got your own place, or are in a relationship and want to start getting together with other couples. It is one of the many first steps to adulthood, and like anything, there will be times when things do not go as planned. I have done my fair share of overcooking meat or miscalculating portions, but with trial and error, I have accumulated a few go-to dishes that are failproof for when I am having people over. This is a go to appetizer that looks fancy, tastes delicious, and is incredibly easy to put together quickly while dirtying minimal dishes, and it is perfect for summer and early fall when the tomatoes come right off the vine!
Serve and Enjoy!
I love to cook. My kitchen is one of my happy places because I get to be creative. Although I own many cookbooks, I throw meals together based on what I have on hand - so it is rare that I make a meal the same way every single time. I may follow a recipe initially, but tend to use them more as guideline and do my own thing. Most of what I make is based on classic home cooked meals that I had while living in France, and my love of market fresh produce. Although we are able to buy many items year round, I base meals on what is currently in season. My philosophy on food is to keep it fresh and flavorful. I will be sharing recipes that my family and I love, but in the meantime check out my Instagram stories for regular food posts!