Bread And Butter: Expanding Children's Palates
A while ago, a friend asked how she could get her kids to be better eaters. I wasn’t sure how to answer, because there is a difference between getting a family to eat healthier, and to be more adventurous in their food choices. But the advice, I’ve realized, has some crossover.
Either way, the first thing parents have to really accept is that they have only very limited control over what kids eat. Kids, especially younger ones, have jurisdiction over so very little, that choosing which foods they actually put in their mouths and swallow is their home court, not yours. If you, as a parent, try to wrestle that away from them, may God have mercy on your soul. You’ll end up using wads of energy attempting to change something that is simply not your choice. Sure, you can choose what’s on their plate and in their cup, but as the proverb goes, you can’t make them drink that kale smoothie.
Any influence you have over your kids’ eating habits will need to come from inspiration rather than direct control. And even then, what works for one kid might not work for another, as my sister found out when her middle child only ate sliced cheese with mustard for the better part of a year. Add to that some evolutionary and nutritional stages that your kids’ palates will evolve through as they grow, and it’s pretty easy to see that this kind of advice is fraught with peril.
But here, in my experience, are some best-bet practices you can try.
First, as you probably already know, it’s an excellent idea to sit down and eat at least one meal per day with your kids. Do it at the table, without screens, for 10 to 20 minutes stretches. This has myriad psychological and social benefits, but eating together also tends to promote more sensible food habits, which in turn helps family members get good nutrition, manage their weight, develop a family eating culture, and become food literate.
As far as what you choose to serve at those meals, here are a few things to keep in mind. A key phrase, according to my most picky eater is, “it’s okay not to like this.” At my house we require everyone to try one bite, and then you are free to fill up on rice or bread or whatever other bland carb happens to be on the table. One bite of the ginger squash, of the garlic shrimp, or of the fig jam. The idea here is to develop a relationship of trust with the disgust mechanism that resides in every kids’ brain. For some, this is defaulted to the “on” position. If you force a kid to eat questionable foods in that state, they are going to hate it, whether it tastes good or not. If you give them permission not to like the food, but still require a bite, they may end up getting used to the experience, and may be more open to the idea that their palate can change.
My picky eater emphasized that whether they like it or not, don’t make it a big deal. The focus should be on the experience, not on whether they are controlling the situation.
On a related topic, respect your kids’ appetites. Don’t require them to eat a certain quantity of food before leaving the table, which, according to experts and common sense, can lead to all sorts of problem-eating because it teaches kids to ignore their natural signals for hungry and full. But hunger can be a tool, so at meals, serve veggies first. Set out the salad, or the buttery green beans before dinner is ready, and let the family graze. It’s amazing what tastes good when you are really hungry.
And by the same token, never forbid foods, unless they are dangerous or addictive. It’s the same idea as me telling you not to think about blue elephants, which causes you to think about blue elephants. If you think you have limited control over what your kids eat now, just wait until they are teens, and have more access to food outside the home. It is staggering how much sugar is offered to my kids on a weekly basis— from 64 oz sodas at school to bags full of Swedish fish at birthday parties. This is where modeling becomes important. As kids have more choices, they are going to eventually remember the long-term patterns they learned from you. So if you are eating mostly at meals, and choosing sugar snap peas over chips, your kid may eventually do the same.
Finally, cook with your child. Let them slice the cantaloupe, crack the eggs and get their hands in the cookie dough. It helps them understand the process, why some foods are served, and what goes into others. It helps them feel empowered and triggers curiosity about taste and experience. And if all else fails. Cover it with catsup.