When you think of family adventures, what comes to mind? Do you picture your family hiking new trails, flying to exotic destinations, or traveling the U.S. in a camper? Most of us think of adventure as something that happens outside our home. But what if the spirit of adventure can start at the dinner table?
If I had a nickel for every time a parent told me, “My child will only eat - insert color or texture or flavor here - foods”, I could easily afford a lifetime supply of my favorite fancy chocolate from Whole Foods. It seems beige and orange foods are particularly popular with the younger crowd (think bread and cheese), as are crunchy foods like apples and crackers. Foods with more complex textures or flavors - like olives, cauliflower, nuts, and salads, for example - are swiftly rejected.
So, if you want your child to grow into a healthy adult that can enjoy all the pleasures a rich and varied diet has to offer, and you know better than to engage in power struggles over food, what exactly are you supposed to do? How can you help your child cultivate the willingness to try new foods that will lead to a balanced diet and a positive relationship with eating?
Below are four ideas to make mealtimes less of a predictable slog and more of a joyful adventure. Explore these approaches to trying new foods and get ready to marvel at your child’s ever expanding palate.
Model adventurous eating
As with most behaviors we want our children to adopt, or stop adopting, the first place to look is within ourselves. Are we modeling the kind of relationship with food that we want for our children? When we see a new fruit at the farmer’s market, do we ignore it or ask the farmer what it is and how to work with it? When someone gifts us a new food treat on our birthday, do we explore it with all of our senses and then dive in or are we cautious and nervous to taste it? Of course it’s okay to have preferences. But these should be preferences that are established after repeated exposures and attempts to try a food, rather than declarations of disdain that haven’t been challenged since we were children ourselves. (Those with food allergies are absolved of this recommendation. Don’t give yourself anaphylaxis in an attempt to model an adventurous food spirit!)
Involve kids in the meal making process
When it comes to putting food on the table, there is more to it than just cooking, and involving your kids in the process from start to finish will help them deepen their appreciation for and interest in food. Here are some ways to do this:
Look through cookbooks or visit food blogs together to choose new recipes.
Create weekly family menus.
Let them check off items from a grocery list while shopping.
Provide them with their own apron, cutting board, and knife so they can help chop fruits and vegetables.
Keep a pair of kid scissors in the kitchen just for cutting herbs.
Have a stool or chair handy that they can climb on to reach the stove or countertop to help you sauté and stir.
Clean up together! Clearing the table, helping to load the dishwasher, and wiping the table are perfect jobs for young hands.
Expose kids to foods multiple times and in multiple ways
Keep in mind that exposing a child to a new food isn’t limited to just tasting it. Exposure includes them being around you while you are eating the food, working with the food while preparing a dish, or passing a bowl of the food from one family member to another. Touching the food, smelling the food, peeling the food, even composting the food are all part of being exposed to a new food. Kids often need to be exposed to a new food anywhere from 10-15 times before they are ready to taste it. Then, once they are ready to try, it is useful to offer it up in a variety of ways on a variety of occasions: raw, sauteed, mashed, dried, roasted, baked, juiced, combined with other ingredients, on its own, served with an assortment of dipping sauces, etc. This gives them lots of opportunities to discover what they like or don’t like about a particular food.
Serve food family style
When you serve food family style you can expose your child to new foods while having “safe” favorites available. Allowing them to choose what and how much of each food item they eat builds their senses of autonomy, independence, confidence, and self-awareness. Trusting that they get to choose and that there is no shame or judgment in not trying a new food makes it more likely that they will eventually become willing to give something new a try.
Encouraging our kids to try new foods doesn’t have to be a stressful chore. Besides, our kids are more likely to open their hearts and minds, (and mouths!), to new foods when we approach mealtimes with a positive and relaxed attitude. When we create an environment and family culture conducive to experimenting with food, eating might even become a fun family adventure!
Autumn Vandiver is a preschool teacher and parent coach. You can learn more about her and her work at coachingwithautumn.com