These days, raising an adventurous eater can be a bit of a challenge! As a parent you’re juggling work, taking care of the little ones, keeping the house from falling apart, your own fitness and wellness – there’s so much to balance. Throw in a kiddo who’s a bit picky and would rather eat chicken nuggets over trying your homemade dinner, and it can feel downright overwhelming to encourage healthy choices among your children.
First off, take a breath, mama (or dad)! You are already doing a great job. But if you want some new tips to try to increase the number of foods your kids will eat, and encourage them to be more adventurous in the kitchen, then hopefully these tips will help.
1. Start early with your adventurous eater.
If you’ve got a new little one in your belly or your arms, this is a perfect time to start to expose them to different flavors. There is evidence that food experiences begin in the prenatal period, an exposure to flavors can even be sensed in amniotic fluid. These experiences, along with the first two years of life, can be essential for building exposure to new flavors and encouraging diverse eating habits.
For example, did you know some research has found that breastfed babies tend to be less picky as a child, and more willing to try new foods? Researchers believe this may be due to the different flavors that can be expressed in breastmilk with changes in the mothers diet (source).
However, don’t fret if you are formula feeding (or did so in the past). Complimentary feeding with a variety of different flavors from 6-12 months can be helpful for increasing food acceptance (source).
2. Let them try it!
Raise your hand if you’ve fallen victim to this situation: your kiddo sees you cutting up an onion or another food with a bitter flavor, and asks if they can taste it. What do most of us say? If you’re like me, you’ve probably caught yourself telling your child, “oh no, sweetie you won’t like that.”
In reality, how do we know if they will or will not like the food? Instead, try giving them permission to try it, no matter what you think their response will be (of course, exceptions being something that could be dangerous for their palate like a very spicy pepper).
You may be right and they don’t like it, but you also could be very surprised. If we are always deciding for our children what they will like, they will never have the opportunity to expand their palate. Giving them the freedom to taste foods – even if they’ve tried them before and haven’t liked them – is key to building diverse food habits.
3. Offer New Foods Several Times and in Different Ways.
Your kiddo takes a bite of turnips for the first time, and immediately spits them out. Does that mean you should give up?
Nope! It can take children more than 10 times of being exposed to a food before they might like it (source).
Many children (and adults for that matter) also have preferences when it comes to the way a food is prepared. For example, maybe your child won’t like raw spinach in a salad, but they love it cooked. Or, maybe they dislike eating fresh bananas, but don’t mind them frozen in a smoothie.
There are so many different ways to prepare individual ingredients, so don’t give up if your kids don’t like something right away. It’s a good plan not to force them to continue eating something that day if they dislike it, but give it a go again in a week or two by preparing it another way. You know the old adage – if at first you don’t succeed, try try again!
4. Be conscious of what messages you’re sending.
The food messages we give our children today are the messages that will stick with them throughout their life. Despite the fact that kids receive many messages from the media and their friends, it’s their parents that tend to be most impactful on shaping food habits in early childhood.
Think about the ways that you talk about food and health. Do you ever refer to food as the enemy? For example, many times when people go on diets, they subconsciously transfer those concepts to their kids. You might vent to your spouse about how you want dessert but can’t eat it, or complain that the meal has too many carbs. Children overhear these sentiments, and while they may not understand them completely, they can pick up on the feelings and vibe behind them.
Similarly, think about the nonverbal messages. When the family sits down for dinner, does your spouse skip all the vegetables – but you expect your child to eat them all? It’s easy to see how a child wouldn’t understand that. Modeling positive behaviors (like eating your vegetables or trying a new food) is a great way of encouraging kids to do the same.
5. “Hide” veggies (kind of)!
There are different schools of thought on hiding ingredients like veggies in foods. As a Registered Dietitian, I totally support parents “hiding” vegetables to help their kids meet nutrient needs, as long as they also continue to serve vegetables normally at meals too so kids are exposed to them.
That said, when it comes to how to raise an adventurous eater, I prefer a bit of a different approach. Let’s teach kids about the strategy of “hiding” veggies and fruits in a positive way! We can fill them in on how we can blend those foods into different dishes to make them even more nutritious for us, and show the kids how that’s done.
You’re essentially pulling the lid back on “hiding” and making it just another type of cooking. Kids will recognize that this can add flavor, color, and texture to different dishes.
Here are some examples you can teach your kids:
- Stir mashed butternut squash in dairy-free mac and cheese
- Add frozen cauliflower rice to smoothies
- Add leafy greens to smoothies (my son sees us do this for every smoothie – he knows he loves kale in smoothies even if he doesn’t like it in a salad)
- Puree zucchini into pasta sauce
- Add pureed pumpkin or sweet potato to pancakes
- Blend mushrooms with beef for veggie-packed burger patties
- Shred vegetables like carrots and zucchini into meatloaf
- Make quick breads with chopped fruits and shredded veggies
- Blend beets, berries, and bananas with a little vanilla almond milk – then freeze into popsicles
6. Encourage kids to help you in the kitchen.
One of the best ways to get kids interested in trying new foods is to get them involved in the kitchen! We have a whole post up about different cooking skills by age, so you can check that out for ideas on what is age-appropriate for your child.
You can also think about other ways of involving kids in the food/meal selection process. For example, you might take a toddler to the farmers market and tell them they can pick out any one thing to try. Or you might bring them to a grocery store and see if they can spot a fruit or vegetable they’ve never had – and then buy it to test out at home. Or try bringing your kids to a farm where they can pick their own vegetables and fruits.
Another idea: if you have older elementary kids, ask them to select a country that they are interested in. Together, you can search the internet to find out more about the country and traditional cuisine. Choose a traditional recipe to try to make together!
Sometimes this means you might visit ethnic grocery stores, may have to figure out how to substitute ingredients you don’t have. Try to let your child be as involved in the preparation as possible. When it’s finally time to eat they have truly gotten to know about another country through their food.
Anytime you can get kids involved in cooking, they’re less likely to reject food the food they have helped make.
7. Use all your senses.
Food isn’t limited to just being eaten; it can be explored using all of your senses. Encourage your children to talk about how something looks, smells and feels.
What does it sound like when it’s cooking? How do the spices smell that you’re using? How would the taste of the dish change if you used a different ingredient? Should the final dish be soft or crispy?
Exploring food this way helps kids to learn how ingredients work with one another and about different cooking techniques.
8. Serve a variety of foods.
When it comes to supporting a child in eating a greater variety of foods, we have to make sure we’re serving a variety! Try mixing up the proteins, starches, and fruits and veggies that you cook with each week. Experiment with new recipes and cooking methods. Try adding lots of color to the plate. Consider joining a CSA to expose the family to new fruits and vegetables you may not have otherwise purchased.
9. Be considerate without catering.
If your kids are currently quite picky, try serving a food they’re comfortable with along with one new food at a meal. For example, if you tried making a new green bean side dish and some baked potatoes, maybe that gets served with chicken nuggets – a food you know they enjoy. I call this being considerate without catering.
That said – avoid being a short order cook. If I make curry and dairy-free naan, that’s what’s for dinner. My child will eat it if he’s hungry enough.
I won’t say to never offer an alternative, because sometimes that can be necessary. For example, if I spice a dish too intensely, I’m not going to force my child to eat it – and in that case, he can have a sandwich and some fruit.
But it’s wise to avoid the habit of cooking separate foods for your kids each and every night. When they know “dinner is dinner” and that’s it, they are more likely to try it and expand their palates.
10. Try the two-bite rule.
If you have a picky eater, try implementing the two-bite rule. If you’ve made something new for dinner, encourage them to try two bites. If they’re not a fan, that’s completely fine – they’re not forced to eat the rest and can choose from the other foods on the table.
For some families, a one-bite rule might work. For my child, two bites work better because he knows he really has to try it – not just take a bite and immediately spit it out, saying he doesn’t like it. 😉
11. Don’t yuck my yum.
I heard this phrase at a blogging conference, and I love it. Essentially, it means avoiding being rude (in words or facial expressions) if your opinion doesn’t line up with someone else’s opinion. It’s OK to disagree, but the goal is to avoid making someone else feel small or hurt.
It applies really well to eating habits (there’s even a healthy eating book with the title). It’s OK for all of us to have foods that we dislike. But what if your child is trying something new, seems to like it, and a classmate “yucks their yum” by making a criticism about it? That may cause them to think they shouldn’t like it either.
It can be beneficial to teach your kids about this phrase, and apply it to their meals. Adults and kids alike can both embrace polite dislike – “I’m not a fan” is a common one we use at our house after the two-bite rule. This isn’t overly negative and preserves the excitement of the food for those who do like it.
A Final Word
Reading all these tips may seem overwhelming at first. You may be hesitant and wondering if they could really work. Try choosing one at a time to implement, and see if it helps your kiddos. While not every tip will work for every child, I’d venture to bet that there are some nuggets of wisdom in here that can be applicable in your journey raising an adventurous eater!