10 Tips to Help Our (American) Kids Eat Everything

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Growing up, any extended family gathering revolved around food.  A long and late breakfast was followed by a multi-coursed lunch, and shortly after was a big dinner, either cooked at home or eaten out.  Indians take food seriously, and I I’ve never in my life been to a gathering without some sort of food.

My mom also made most of our meals completely from scratch about 6 out of 7 days a week, and I always loved the assortment of flavors (I was that kid who refused to take sandwiches for lunch in favor of unattractive flatbreads and sauces; Indian food is not known for presentation).

So of course, it’s important to me to a) eat well myself and b) have my children, eat well, too.

Helping Kids Be Good Eaters

I hesitated for a long time to write this post because we are no where near perfect. My kids sometimes choose inideal snacks or turn their noses up at “weird” foods. I eat breakfast in the car on the way to church more often than I’d like to admit.  We have generally cooperative little eaters with no sensory issues and the like. We often forget to bring things to the dinner table, resulting in much jumping-uppage and distraction.

And further, in no way do I think anyone should force their kid to eat.  Some kids really have special circumstances and/or issues with certain, or all, foods.  That’s okay.  It doesn’t make you a bad parent, or him/her a bad kid.  While I DO think these tips can be helpful for the average kid, I do NOT think they work for all kids.  Obviously, you’re the one who knows best how to help  your child.

What we have done is found ways to adopt some FrancoIndi-whatever-other-traditional-way-of-eating habits into our American childed lifestyle.  These are things that have worked for us, and that I hope will help you, too.

So here are 10 tips that have helped us in getting our kids to eat (almost) everything:

1. Start Young

Obviously, this isn’t always possible if you have an older child. But if you can, start when they are little and impressionable. Make veggies – and better yet, a variety of foods in general – a staple.  We’ve done a sort of baby-led weaning with all our kids. We do still help feed them (too messy for me to let them entirely feed themselves!), but just whatever we are eating.

This may horrify some people (also, please don’t try this at home and sue me, etc.), but when our kids are tiny, Dan would grind up nuts with his teeth and give them some thoroughly chewed up bits.  Gross as that sounds, our kids have loved it.

In general, we try to give our babies soft things and make sure there are no choking hazards (e.g., I smush black beans with my fingers before feeding them). Other than that, I don’t puree anything or purchase anything special. My lazy bone loves this. It is also great because it gets them used to all kinds of things when they are still interested in everything, and then by the time they have more opinions, it’s all just standard, familiar fare.

2. One Meal

This piggybacks right off of baby-led weaning, but in our home, there is generally one option for the meal. Breakfast sometimes has a couple choices, but grown ups decide lunch and dinner. I try hard to not cajole my kids to eat and instead just offer them the option. Then they get to choose whether to eat or not eat, and how much to eat.

We do have a rule to be sitting at the table to eat, and generally don’t eat again before dinner and bedtime. Sometimes they eat very little and sometimes a ton. Sometimes they don’t touch something at dinner but clear their plates of the same meal the next day at lunch (familiarity makes a big difference!). It can be tough to let go sometimes, but I do my best to let them manage their quantity of food.

3. One Spoonful

I do always encourage my kids to try a bit of the meal. This is especially true for my one child who tends to like things after he tries them, but needs some encouragement to get to that point. Everyone has some things they really don’t like, and we try to respect that. (And they often outgrow it – my older daughter hated avocados until she was about 3 but loves them now.)

Still, the one spoonful rule gets them at least trying a variety of things. We generally ask them to have a variety of foods on their plate before asking for seconds of one thing (e.g, if we’re doing brinner, no seconds on waffles until they’ve eaten some omelet, too).

4. Variety

Dan’s mission mom had a rule that every meal had to have at least 7 colors. I love this idea of diversity within a meal, as well as diversity of flavors. Indian food is fantastic for being really, for lack of a better word, flavored.  The tastes and smells are strong and definitive. But much as I love my parents, and as much as they love their varied Indian food, their palettes aren’t really accustomed to a lot of other things. While Indian may seem adventurous to many Americans, my parents are not at all adventurous about trying other cuisines.

We’re fortunate that we live in a place and culture where our kids can try lots of different types of food. They’re so lucky!! We try to incorporate some of this into our homemade meals, as well – Indian, Mexican, pizza, Thai, etc. This is great for exposing them to different spices and preparations.

5. Snacks

Oh, snacks, you are the very hardest thing to deal with in American culture.  We’ve never been big on snacks, but there’s no question how ubiquitous they are. When we had tiny kids and lots of morning playdates, I just avoided bringing one. My kids were usually good about understanding that everyone has different snack and mealtimes.

For our afternoon snacks, I try to offer something that will fill my kids’ bellies and also provide some nutrition. Some of our favorites are apples and peanut butter, a boiled egg, cheese, nuts, etc. Protein is the best for actually helping fuel them through the afternoon.

Like the French “gouter,” Indians have “tiffin,” which is really more like a light meal than a snack.  I find that tends to stave off the pre-dinner munchies best.  I do try to leave at least 2 hours in between snack and dinner, though, so they’re ready to eat by the time dinnertime rolls around. We also don’t do a bedtime snack, and almost never have juice at home.

6. Don’t Be Afraid

Grab a random new veggie. Join a CSA. Try a new recipe. It will be okay. There’s so much that’s accessible now (even seasonally/locally!), and the infrastructure to get it is improving.  There are food blogs and cooking shows and just so much at our fingertips to figure out any random vegetable (I was more than a little grateful for the Interwebs when kohlrabi first showed up in my CSA). Additionally, I think Americans tend to be fairly adventurous, at least as adults.  Most people I know are willing to try food from a bunch of different countries/regions and it’s a melting pot for a reason. Go forth and melt.

7. Have Produce Available/More Is More

Again, join a CSA (see a theme?). Buy a bunch at the grocery store (AFTER you meal plan what to do with it so it doesn’t just go to waste). Try to incorporate veggies and other good, whole foods into your daily diet as much as possible.  I grew up with a mother who never dieted a day in her life, and was convinced some fat was good for you (like in whole milk) looooong before it was trendy/scientifically-based to think so (one of the many ways she is brilliant). Largely because of her, I have never thought very highly of most “diets,” in the restrictive sense.  What I am a fan of is A DIET, as in, a way of eating.

And something that helps us is thinking in terms of more, not less. Still hungry? Eat some MORE fruit. Want another serving? Try to add in another veggie. Instead of cutting things out of the day, try adding in more to each day (are we getting at least 5-6 servings of fruit/veggies?). This is much easier when we have produce to work with at home.

8. Make It Taste Good, and Get Your Kids Involved in Doing So

This seems rather obvious, but I’m always shocked by how terrible some veggies taste. I mean, I don’t exactly jump for joy at the prospect of plain steamed green beans, so I don’t really expect my kids to, either. When in doubt, roasting works wonders, always and forever, amen.

I’ve also found that my kids also love to help with cooking.  And while it certainly take MORE time rather than less when they help when they’re little, they get really competent and also excited about food. (And my 11 and 9 year olds can make some meals on their own now!)

9. Integrate Veggies

Going along with veggies being a basic component of our diet growing up, I try to do the same now. Indian food incorporates a lot of veggies into the meal itself (instead of on the side) so it’s pretty much impossible to eat without having them – and they’re delicious! It’s either a main component to be scooped up with some sort of delicious flatbread or rice, or is diced into the meal itself – so much so that it is un-pick-out-able.  I try to do the same now; I’ll chop kale up into a strata or make a veggie-filled soup or enchiladas.

10. Pick Your Battles, and Give Appropriate Praise

While we try to encourage our kids to stay at the table until the whole family is finished, sometimes they get up. And that’s fine. We try to be firm but not inflexible. Also, we try to be mildly complimentary when our kids try something new – but not go overboard. We never want food to be a way for them to get attention and praise. Eating should be about caring for their bodies and enjoying the experience together, not about pleasing parents.

Above all, I really think eating should be enjoyable and fun.  It should be a time for family, for recaps and jokes and dreams. It should taste good, and shouldn’t be a chore. Like I mentioned at the beginning – we are by NO means perfect.  But doing some of these things has helped our kids to eat – and even like! – most everything. I hope some of these tips help you like they’ve helped us!

7 Responses

  • So much I want to comment about this! My daughter is such a good eater because it's just a non issue for me. Here is your food, eat it or don't but you don't get another choice. My husband is a work in progress! When Olivia wont eat something he'll ask her what she will eat. I have to remind him, This is it for her, she will not die of starvation if she doesn't eat dinner. And we did snacks when I nannied (their mom insisted they needed it) but I noticed that they wouldn't eat much breakfast because they knew they would get some crackers and cheese a couple hours later. So no snacks in this house.

    Also I've noticed something natural about the way my toddler eats. A HUGE breakfast. She cannot get enough oatmeal and fruit in the morning. A little bit of lunch and not much dinner. Maybe I should pattern my meals more that way, AND introduce new foods in the morning when she has more of an appetite.

    Anyway, loved this post. I've been wanting to write something similar for a long time.

  • This post is kind of hard for me to read because I feel like such a failure. I feel like I've tried all of this with Eli and none of it has worked for him! For example- the one spoonful rule. We have tried and tried that, but he WILL NOT try new foods. No punishment or amount of pressure works. We can't make him! I think what it comes down to is that some kids like to eat and some kids don't. Some kids are more experimental and brave with food than others.

    I'm sure you and Dan have done a great job with your kids and have helped them have good habits, but I wonder what you would have done if a kid like Eli would have been in your family. Would you be able to get him to try one spoonful of a new food? Would he be a great eater? Would he like all kinds of fresh fruits and veggies? Am I the one that has screwed him up or is he just the way he is?

    I blame myself a lot for the way Eli has turned out, but what it comes down to is that he is his own person. He is going to eat or not eat what wants. I can't MAKE him eat anything he doesn't want to. I offer healthy foods and restrict the junk, but at the end of the day, he has to take responsibility for his own food intake. Simple as that.

    After struggling with his eating for 2 1/2 years and going through a very expensive course of feeding therapy with him, I am finally learning to "let go." I've cried more tears over this than probably anything else in my life, and I just pray that he will get better with time…

    You're very blessed that your children are good eaters.

  • Amen to all of this. We haven't been perfect (Aaron and I are super picky eaters that are just coming out of our shells. So our kids haven't been exposed to as much as other kids) but I'm a BIG believer in not giving your kid snacks or another meal option. You eat or you go hungry.

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