When my baby boy was about three and a half, he wouldn't eat certain foods, including tomato sauce; greens like peas, green beans, Brussels sprouts and broccoli; cheese and any type of cold cuts. He is still not converted to cold cuts - to be honest, I've never attempted, because I believe that processed meats like bologna sausage are unhealthy, and unnecessary - but he eats all his veggies, any way they are put on the table.
I remember being so frustrated at first. His diet, although generally healthy, was limited to mash potatoes, spinach, pasta, grilled chicken, fish, shrimp and potato cream soups. There was an issue with fruit too: he would eat apple mousse, but refused to bite from the real fruit. He did enjoy bananas, but he refused oranges. The list goes on and on.
I am certain that many mothers whose children are picky eaters understand my frustration. I was not afraid about my son's health: the foods he did eat were rich in nutrients, protein and vitamins. But, because of his eating habits, I had to cook separate meals for him, or, when I didn't have time to cook different dishes, we had to eat "baby food."
Daunted, I turned to the internet, to research what mothers of picky eaters do to convince their children to enjoy a larger spectrum of foods. The answer was so simple: get them to help in the kitchen. Cook together. Voila!
Then another hurdle popped up. "How do you make a boy, passionate about cars and trains, to help you in the kitchen?" At such an early age, I thought, it shouldn't be that difficult. First, I had to show him where veggies come from, and how they grow, to make him curious about different vegetables, and to show him how special they all are.
Convinced we could turn over a new leaf health wise, we converted half of our backyard garden into a vegetable garden: not an easy task, considering that neither my husband, nor I, had previous experience in gardening. We decided to learn however, to grow together, and our endeavor turned out great: we now have a beautiful garden, where we grow salad, spinach, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, carrots and radishes, and many different garden herbs. This, in a fairly small space too, by American standards. Here in Germany plots of land in town come at a high premium.
Paul-Jules, who is now five, knows all his vegetable and herb friends: I send him often in the garden to bring me basil, or fresh parsley, or lovace, and he never gets it wrong. He is so in love with his herbs garden, that the first "different" dish he ate enthusiastically without complaints, was tabouleh (bulgur, tomatoes, cucumbers, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion, and garlic). Part of the magic here was, Paul got to pick the parsley and mint, fresh from the garden, all by himself. This sense of being included, of doing something good, made the food special for him. Ever since, I've been convinced: boys do love to help in the kitchen. I just needed to find more ways to include him, and to make cooking fun for both of us.
Now, I don't need to turn to the Internet: Paul-Jules is interested in learning about vegetables for the sake of curiosity and pride. Questions like; "What was a cucumber made of?" now populate our conversations. My instructions as to cucumbers are made of water, vitamins, minerals and sunshine - have led to even more in depth discoveries. What were minerals? "Special superpowers hidden in fresh veggies, that make you grow big, and strong, like daddy." What were vitamins? "Special superpowers that help you stay healthy and make you smart, like daddy."
Explaining vitamins and minerals in such a playful manner, including his role model, helped him understand that vegetables are important. This sort of back and forth has really empowered our little boy, inspiring him to believe that by eating them, he would too, eventually, grow to have superpowers, real ones that can have a real impact on his life.
As we progressed, I introduced new raw vegetables gradually: bell peppers, carrots, rapunzel, and salad. Of course, he would refuse to try out new veggies at first. To make him try, I would tell him a funny story: "this pepper fell down from the church bell, that's why it's called a bell pepper." Or "carrots are rays from the sun," and so on.
Soon, for every new veggie he saw at the market, he would come up with his own stories. Sweet potatoes "were sad, because they were not real potatoes;" turnips were "chubby gals;" and endive salad was "dressing funny."
Now cooking together is quality family time, enjoyed by all three of us. We gather in the kitchen, and we imagine the veggies having fun adventures, in a magical world. We laugh a lot, we improvise, and we love trying out new things. There is no vegetable Paul-Jules will not eat: they are all his good friends, and the greatest gift Mother Nature bestowed upon us.
He is so curious and passionate about cooking, that he already helps with many tasks: tenderizing a schnitzel (hammers, no wonder); making a salad dressing; chopping garlic or herbs with a paring knife; washing the salad and veggies; and even making a salad without help.
I honestly don't know what might help to convert the pickiest of eaters, but I believe that most children will enjoy helping out if we make it a fun activity, and not a chore. Sometimes, Paul-Jules would rather play with his train set, and refuses to help. I never force him. Instead, I sing and act, and laugh, making sure that he can hear me. Usually, if he knows that I am having a great time, he joins in, and even when he doesn't actually help, he still enjoys us being together.
For me, this whole experience was about more than just converting a picky eater: it reminded me of the little things, the simple joys that make life so beautiful: spending time together in nature; listening to the clear, crystal laugh of a child; seeing the world with innocence and hope, through the eyes of my child.
As great as this is for Paul-Jules, I find it a far greater joy and reward for me: I am happier, less stressed, and I feel fulfilled, both as a mother, and as a wife. I hope my little story inspires you too.