Every meal with 18-month-old Estelle starts the same way. I lift the fork to her lips, just as she clamps them shut. "No." There's twisting, frowning and eyebrows furrowing and it would be maddening if this lasted for more than five seconds, but we're on to her. At this stage, and there will be many more, the trick is to take a bite yourself first. After that, she's open for business and eats like a hearty little field hand -- one with a head full of ringlets in a highchair.
And that's the key right there. Figuring out what works at whatever stage you're in. Since they're changing all the time and we've got three rascals under the age of 4, I've got tons of tricks up my sleeve for dinners between now and those 18th birthdays, which seem far, far away right now.
In the meantime, I'm on a mission to teach our kids about eating a variety of good food. Wholesome and fresh, nourishing and above all, delicious food. It's not okay with me if they eat fast food (which isn't really available in Rome) or pasta most nights (which is certainly available in Rome) because we can't get them to try anything else. There's so much to enjoy about wonderful meals -- from eating well to learning the art of telling a great story -- that I consider it another important part of parenting. But it's complicated. Part discipline, part health lesson, part social science, this task is not easy. So with all this in mind, I've put together a list of what that works for us. These are our house rules and habits, some home grown and others picked up from authors, experts and friends but every one of them is tried and true. Good luck.
- Be calm. Even if you're frustrated or worried about a picky eater, try to at least fake a carefree front. It matters because if you are casual about it, they'll be casual. You don't want to turn the dinner table into a war zone. The larger goal, even beyond begging the kids to just take a bite of Brussels sprouts, is to make the dinner table one of your family's happiest places.
- Make it the first or second bite, when the kids are hungry. This comes from Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything. And to that end, don't allow snacks closer than two hours before dinner. A hungrier kid is more willing to try something new.
- Don't insist that they eat an entire serving. Since the lesson is about introducing variety, cultivating curiosity and encouraging healthy eating, it's not important whether or not the kids eat a full plate. At our house the rule is this: you have to try one bite of everything. If you don't, you're not eligible for dessert. And it's not a big deal either way.
- Make it a habit. I love cooking and write about our greatest hits (and misses) on Foodlets.com so our kids are very used to new foods. You don't have to blog about it but the sooner your kids get used to trying new things, the sooner they'll accept the experience as part of your dinner routine.
- Let them help... in the garden. From her home in the Seattle suburbs, Jennifer says her two girls eat tons of fresh vegetables in the summer because they've invested their own time and effort to help the garden grow since spring. (The same thing can work in shorter time by just enlisting the little guys in the kitchen. Anyone who's prepared even part of dinner will be so proud that you'll have another food evangelist at the table urging everyone to try it.)
- Don't offer substitutions. This was a scary one for me to give up, but finally I realized we had to. If they know that plain pasta is available as a backup, what's the point in trying something else when they don't want to? We used to offer yogurt as a Plan B because we were afraid that the kids would go to bed hungry -- and worse, wake up even earlier than they already do because of hunger. It's never made a difference; they wake up at 6 a.m. every day no matter what happens at dinner. (Trust me, otherwise we just might scrap this whole "variety" thing and continuously offer whatever will get me an extra hour of sleep.)
- Eat new foods and enjoy them yourself. Enthusiasm is contagious. And if you're not especially into roasted carrots but you know they're good for the kids, just take a bite or two yourself. And either way, set an example by saying appreciative things. "This looks so good!" Even one little "mmm" can go a long way toward a sweet family habit.
- Start at the store. Jennifer Carden, author of The Toddler Cafe, says she gets her kids interested in the produce aisle. "Hey look at the color of this food, isn't it amazing?" Or give them a fun fact like, "Did you know coconuts are giant nuts that grow in palm trees and they are filled with sweet water? Let's try one. You put it in the cart, ok?"
- Spin off proven favorites. Any time we have success with one thing, we replicate it somewhere else. Pumpkin spice muffins turn into carrot spice muffins. Grilled beef skewers were a hit so we tried pork and pineapple kebabs, then homemade Hawaiian pizza. Sometimes just one ingredient makes its way somewhere new. Kiwi has long been a favorite dessert item so I was thrilled to see a recipe for kiwi endive salad... and thanks to those familiar little green gems, they ate it.
- No complaints. Cori, mother of three kids under age 9 in Vienna, swears by this one. If you have older kids, enforce a no complaining rule. It's monkey see, monkey do at the dinner table, so if one child refuses, you're likely to see the rest follow suit.
- Get them excited ahead of time. If your kids are older than toddlers, announce your plan. We're going to start trying new foods as a family. This week we'll try baked risotto with bacon and peas and carrot cake pancakes. It's going to be fun! Then give it a whirl. How bad can one bite be?
- Try soups. Regan, my former Martha Stewart.com colleague and mother of two from New York, swears by this technique for getting lots of veggies into her kids. Purees are perfect for introducing new flavors, like roasted tomato; it's also easy to throw in a few cubes of something new, say, zucchini to a pot of your family's favorite chicken soup recipe.
- Fancy is fun. Kids love new things, especially when they're miniature or personalized, so consider a set of special bowls, spoons or even napkins. Anything to make the dining experience more special.
- Be patient. It's been reported that kids will need to try new foods anywhere from 7 to 15 times before acquiring a taste for it. That's a lot.