10 Tips to Help Your (American) Kids Eat Everything

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Growing up, it was a running joke that any extended family gathering revolved around food.  A long and late breakfast was followed by a multi-coursed lunch, and shortly after was a gourmet dinner, either cooked at home or eaten out.  Indians take food seriously, and I actually think I’ve never in my life been to a gathering with one or more at which there wasn’t 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 totally 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 become extremely important to me to a) eat well myself and b) have my family, especially my children, eat well.

I read Bringing Up Bebe a while back and was supremely annoyed with it.  I thought the author seemed like a total ditz, and so much of what she wrote felt blatantly stereotypical – and worse, having lived in France myself, inaccurate – that I wrote off the rest of it.  I recently read French Kids Eat Everything and at first, I feared it would be the same issue.  Rather, I surprised myself by totally loving it.  I still felt a bit defensive of American parents, thinking “No one in real life does that,” because we don’t.  Until I realized that perhaps we’re the ones with the weird eating habits.  I still don’t believe that many of the things these authors mention are solely “French.”  They may as well be Indian or Brazilian or most places other than the US.  But I realized that most of these habits are not actually practiced by most people here.

I hesitated for a long time to write this post because we are no where near perfect.  When I’m chopping carrots for dinner and Nat really wants some, I let him have them.  I eat breakfast in the car on the way to 9am 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.

(EDIT: After a comment from a sweet friend, I feel the need to make my disclaimers even stronger.  In no way do I ever think you should force your 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.

Behold, 10 tips that have helped us in getting our kids to eat 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, diversity in general – a staple.  We do sort of a modified baby-led weaning with our kids; we do still 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 nat was little, Dan would grind up nuts with his teeth and give him some thoroughly chewed up bits.  Gross as that sounds, nat adored it (and we went one nut at a time).  To this day, the child would probably subsist on nuts if allowed.

Even 10-month old kina eats whatever we are having; yesterday included
oatmeal and banana for breakfast, leftover homemade pizza with
pesto/kale/fresh mozz/zucchini/caramelized onions/fennel for lunch, and roasted
veggie & black bean enchiladas for dinner.  She loved it, and so
did we.  I just try to give her soft things and make sure there are no choking hazards (e.g., I smush the black beans with my fingers before feeding them to her).  But beyond that, I puree nothing, I purchase nothing special, I use no special dishes, I store nothing 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.

(Another disclaimer: no history of allergies at all on either side of the fam, etc. etc.  Know your own kid, yada, yada.)

2. One Meal: This piggybacks right off of baby-led weaning, but there is one meal, one option.  I will sometimes give nat a choice between two things for breakfast (e.g., oatmeal or scrambled eggs), but lunch and dinner are all me.  I figure, I’m doing the cooking, so I get to make things I want (also, things that use up allll the CSA veggies).  I’ve heard of some people saying that if their kid doesn’t like what is being served, then they can eat something they can make themselves (e.g., a sandwich).  We don’t do that as an option.  You don’t eat what is offered, then you don’t eat.  There have only been a handful of times when Nat has flat out refused to eat something (notably, a cabbage dinner salad I made a few weeks ago), and we didn’t push it.  We just figured he wasn’t all THAT hungry and that he’d be fine for one night.  There is no cajoling, no punishing.  I ask if he is done, tell him that there will be no more food before bed, and let him be finished if he is.  He was fine, we were fine, he ate a lot for breakfast the next morning.  The end.  (And then proceeded to have seconds of the exact same salad for lunch the next day.  Seriously, familiarity.)  Also, he must be sitting down to eat.  If he eats very little but says he’s done, that’s okay – some days just aren’t hungry days, and others are.  Although it’s hard, I try my best to let him manage the quantity intake.

3. One Spoonful:  We’ve had this rule basically ever since Nat started eating people food – you must try at least one spoonful of everything.  If you really don’t like it, that’s okay.  But (far) more often than not, it’s the unfamiliarity that is scariest.  I can count on one hand the number of times Nat has taken a bite of something and NOT wanted another.  Of course, everyone has things they truly don’t like, and we don’t push that – for instance, kina seems to just not really like avocados, which boggles my mind.  We keep offering them, but we don’t force it if she really turns away.  Still, the one spoonful rule gets them at least trying a variety of things.  Going along with this, he can’t just fill up on one part of the meal that he loves (e.g, no seconds on waffles until he’s eaten some veggie strata, 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.  But I don’t want my kids to be limited to one type.  Over the course of a week, we’ll do Indian, Mexican, some homemade pizza, and maybe some breakfast-for-dinner, Thai, and Italian.  This is not only interesting for easily-bored-by-meals-me, but 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 it wasn’t until I became a little stricter with it about a year ago (when Nat stopped eating much at lunch) that I really noticed just how MUCH most kids snack.  We tend to do playgroups/playdates in the mornings, and other kids almost always have a snack.  I just don’t bring one.  Nat sometimes looks on curiously or if they are good friends, he may try to mooch a bit, but I try to limit it and can usually distract him with some sort of ride-on toy.  I’ll also explain that it is not OUR snacktime, and that we will be having lunch soon – he’s usually more okay with and understanding of those differences in schedule/lifestyle than I gave him credit for at first.  If we have an earlier breakfast, nat may request a mid-morning snack, and if he asks several times after I’ve told him to wait a while, I’ll give him some fruit or cheese or something.  But most days, we don’t do a morning snack at all and he’s just fine until lunch.  I try not to give him a snack at the first sign of hunger, either.  If I can have him wait just a little bit to the next meal, I do, by telling him what is coming soon.

Yesterday, we finished breakfast around 9 or so.  We didn’t get home from the park until about 12:30 or 1.  Both kids were ravenous, but then they sat totally still without getting up from the table once (our biggest hurdle with nat – he is always getting distracted by some book or something) and Nat wolfed down 3 slices of homemade pizza and kina had a full one, and both kids took lovely 2.5-3 hour naps.  Worth a little hunger.

If the kids wake up early enough before dinner, they get some sort of afternoon snack.  This will often be fruit and nuts, yogurt, cheese or even something a little treaty, but I usually try to make it a little more substantive.  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, otherwise they don’t eat a good meal then.

Finally, there is no bedtime snack.  We had a couple day stint about a year ago when Nat would ask for some more food right as we were about to put him down to bed.  For a couple of days, we thought he was going through a growth spurt or something and would give him some cheese or whatever.  But when we got to the third and fourth day, we knew he was using it to a) not eat well at dinnertime and b) prolong bedtime.  So we explained to him the next day that there would be no more food after dinner and went cold turkey on it.  He wailed for a little while that night when he realized we really weren’t going to give him any more food and then went to sleep and we didn’t really have a problem with it after that.

Also, no juice.  It’s just not worth it.  Nat will have it once in a blue moon at someone else’s house or at a birthday party or something, but we just don’t ever have it at home.

6. Don’t Be Afraid: Grab a random new veggie.  Join a CSA.  Try a new recipe.  It will be okay.  This is where I think American culture is actually helpful.  We have so many things available (even seasonally/locally!), and the infrastructure to get it is improving.  There are food blogs and cooking shows and just so much at your 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 just 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 you getting at least 5-6 servings of fruit/veggies?).  This is much easier when you 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 carrots, so I don’t really expect my baby to, either.  Growing up, I never really understood when other kids would say they didn’t like vegetables because they were such a basic component of our diet.  I mean, veggies were delicious!  In curries and palyas (sort of a vegetable stir fry) and sambar.  What’s not to like?  I’ve also found that Nat loves to help with cooking.  And while it certainly take MORE time rather than less when he helps, I love seeing him get excited about food, and he really enjoys eating things he’s had a part in preparing.  And when in doubt, roasting works wonders, always and forever, amen.

9. Integrate Veggies: Going along with veggies being a basic component of our diet, I try to do the same now.  With Indian food especially, veggies are never really a “side” – they’re completely integrated into the meal.  If you don’t eat the veggies, you basically don’t eat.  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.  No way around the veggies there.

10. Pick Your Battles, and Give Appropriate Praise: At family dinners, Nat is usually expected to stay at the table until we’re all done eating.  Kina, on the other hand, gets super antsy sitting in her booster seat, so we’ll usually let her down to crawl around by our feet.  And if we have friends over whose kids get up after they’re done eating to go play, we don’t make nat stay at the table and wait.  He has a snack at his little coop preschool and I don’t sweat it.  My point is, be strict but not inflexible.  Also, we try to be mildly complimentary when Nat tries something new or express our happiness in his good choices (e.g., when he eagerly requested beets for dinner).  We try to be happy, but not overly so, because we want him to choose the good things to eat because they are yummy and healthy, not because he wants to please us (although that can certainly help nudge him in the right direction).

And 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! – pretty much everything.  Kina’s still in the experimental phase, of course.  But Nat, while he loves his fair share of waffles and pasta, he also eagerly requests beets, eats baby tomatoes like candy, and loves to help with food prep.  I hope some of these tips help you like they’ve helped us!

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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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