Friday, March 4, 2011

On Picky Eaters: How to Develop A Sense of Food Adventure

I have been blessed in many ways, that's certain, but one of the most frequently things that others comment on is my boys' willingness to try just about anything under the sun. Yes, I do believe that picky eaters are born, but I also believe that there are specific things you can do to make trying new foods a fun and healthy experience that involves the entire family.  I'm recording down my experiences mostly as a way to remember what I did with our young boys and if it helps you figure out what works with your family, even better.

Yes, I was raised vegetarian and I am raising two vegetarians.  When you don't eat at least half of the items on menus in restaurants, you must learn to be a little adventurous.  Unless you want to starve because you don't like mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic.   Or unless you want to die of high cholesterol due to the appalling amount of cheese and cream you are consuming.  I have many memories of dining out in the early 80's and seeing the only option on the entire menu being a grilled cheese sandwich.   If you tried to be sneaky and ordered a baked potato without bacon, it still always came with bacon, but maybe by the third try they got it right.  If we were attending a wedding you could bet that the vegetarian option (if even offered!) would be a frighteningly huge plate of barely steamed cauliflower, carrots, and broccoli with a tiny side of Hollandaise sauce.  Luckily for me, just a few short years later California cuisine took off and restaurants became a little bit more exciting and began to offer new and colorful vegetarian options.  As chain restaurants like CPK opened up, I was delighted to be able to try new things and kiss the vegetable plate and stray bacon pieces goodbye. 

This issue is a tough one.  Like many others, it is an issue that involves cheerful guidance, positive experiences, and a child's own choices.  Having said that, here's what has least for us. 

Just chompin' on an onion slice.

1.  A Proper Introduction
First and foremost, it's really important to get babies accustomed to the actual taste of fresh fruits and vegetables. I know those cute little jars of baby food look adorable all neatly stacked in your pantry and are really convenient when on the go, but I always found myself throwing up in my mouth a little bit each time I opened one up, even when it was the organic stuff.  So after trying that method, I carried on with my food mill (we used the BabySteps Hand Crank Food Mill) and kept on following Dr. Sears' feeding schedule. I think that making my own baby food really helped since you're teaching those tiny little taste buds what to expect, not just for now but for later on as well. I vividly remember a playmate once "correcting" my son who was holding an apple, "That is NOT an apple! Apples don't look like that! Apples come in plastic!" Those words sure make sense if that's how you know it and have eaten it for your entire life.

Now I realize that this method is not convenient.  If you're on-the-go for many hours of your day it may seem impossible, but it worked for me, for us. We ate a lot of simple foods during those first few months of food introductions and I'd season our food at the table after the baby had been served his food and had it milled.  I wanted to show from the very beginning that we were to share our food and all basically eat the same thing, with a few minor variations at that age, of course.  Although it took a little bit of work one day every few weeks, I just blended those cooked fruits and veggies in our Vita-mix and froze them into ice cube trays, popped them out, and stored them all in a freezer bag. They were ready to be microwaved, stirred, cooled, and stirred again in a moment's notice when we needed more options for baby. It saved us a ton of money, too.

What about when we weren't at home?  While out and about, we'd just bring our food mill with us and it worked great. Of course, if we were eating out it was a pain to order stuff completely plain at restaurants (and I can't say that I completely trusted the cooks to comply with my demands, anyway!), but I'd just keep a banana, an avocado, or a packet of rice cereal in my diaper bag just so I'd have something to rice just in case we ran out of options.  I continued in this way until we had safely introduced enough foods to comfortably and safely order from the menu and then grind it all up at the table.  

"Yup, that's an avocado.  Trust me, that was a good one."

"See?  It grows on you, doesn't it?  No?  Tell me what you think after you've tried it over 10 times."

Don't forget the Joe's O's!

2. Familiarize
As I did the job of teaching my firstborn what foods actually tasted like, I really wanted to establish trust when it came to trying new things. I've spent a lot of time watching picky adults examine their food.  People like to know what's IN the item!  As a child, if you don't know what the items are and it looks gross, are you going to want to try it? The answer is probably a big fat no. BUT if you can take the unfamiliar and turn it into the familiar, chances are that your child will become more adventurous, or at least seem more adventurous. So what we did was learn all the names of vegetables while cruising in the shopping cart at Henry's, we planted a garden to sample little bits of different types of lovely herbs, and read lots of books, like Eating the Alphabet, and others like it.  Soon enough, it was easy to try new things.  When Luke would ask, "What IS this?" I'd tell him the familiar likable ingredients of his in the item and our conversations soon became something like this:

"What IS this, mama?"
"It's a soup that has potato,"
"leeks and cream"
"and you like ALL.  Of.  Those.  Things.  You want to try it?"
"Okay!'s good!  These things taste good together."
Great!  What you just tasted is called Vichychoisse!
"Hahahahaha!  What a funny name!"

I just know the hubs and I don't like to eat things where I have no idea what the heck it is and I imagine kids are the same way.  We need some type of reference point, just like the little ones do.  Occasionally I'll hear some kids ask what an item is and the parents will respond:  "That?  It's gooooooooooooood."  You know, I think that my kids have both needed and appreciated just a little more information than that. 

3.  Make Your "I-Dislike-This-Food" Statements Accurate
So what then if you try a vegetable, fruit, and you or your child don't like it?  Well, a big thing we taught our oldest at the age of four was that there are some ways that we like certain ingredients, and there may be some ways that we do not like them.  We don't have to like everything!  We do need to refine and figure out our preferences, that's perfectly acceptable.  The important thing to remember is that we shouldn't just write off the fruit, grain, or vegetable entirely, but what we can dismiss is that particular preparation method or placement of the item.  For instance, maybe you don't like asparagus in soup, but you like it roasted and bright green (NOT BROWN!)!  Or maybe it's the seasonings and companion flavorings and something like, say, eggplant parmesan is delicious to you, but you won't touch baba gannoush (too much like baby food), or baingan bharta (maybe it looks like some unfortunate item in your eyes that you just can't get past).  Or perhaps it's even the variety of the fruit, vegetable, or grain!  I grew up constantly complaining about hating apples because I was force-fed hundreds of the mushy Golden Delicious.  Because of this, I wrote off the entire apple family.  Had I tried any others at that point?  No. Did I want to?  No!  But only because I didn't know that there were such extreme differences in varieties.  Somewhere down the road, my bravery grew and I decided to try new varieties, meeting along the way the Granny Smith, the Fuji, and the Pink Lady. I soon realized that it wasn't that I despised apples, I just didn't like a the nasty yellow apples that turned to mush as soon as my teeth hit their flesh.  With my oldest we were having an issue with mushrooms about a month ago, so I did my very best to turn a negative proclamation into a more accurate, positive one.

"Mommy?  I hate mushrooms.  They taste like slugs."
" you want to think about that statement?"
"'re right.  Mommy?  I hate slimy mushrooms, they taste like slugs!"
"That's right, I could see how you could think that.  They even look like slugs!  Ha!  Now, tell me what kind of mushrooms you DO like."
"I like crispy oyster mushrooms!  Can you make some for me right now?"

True story.

You might not like a particular variety of a fruit or vegetable, and that's okay.  Just be sure not to write off its whole species.  Please.  Teach your kids to do the same.

4.  Add A Dash of Variety
Another thing I think is really important in order to develop a sense of food adventure is to remember to add just a little complimentary variety,  even just a tiny one, to familiar meals.  Whether it's a sprinkling of herbs, a few capers or olives, a dash of a new spice, a sprinkling of a new type of cheese, a splash of liquid aminos or coconut vinegar,  whatever it is, just a little bit of variety helps.  Especially if you allow your kid to garnish or season the plates himself (with a controlled amount)!  It can be something small, like a different kind of salt (pink, grey).  It doesn't have to be much, but this works, even on my sweet last born (and that says a LOT).  At times he will refuse dinner and if I give him just a little bit of opportunity to help "cook" with a sprinkling of whatever it is, he'll happily gobble it up after he's helped me.

But back to the variation.  I  have got to bring how important this is because I remember frequently dining out with young children who would throw temper tantrums because there was "______ stuff" (insert the blank with the color of your choice and let it represent a garnish) on their food. The poor kids would be crying and screaming because whatever it was, was most definitely unfamiliar and therefore nasty.  Then the crying would escalate because the poor child would then be super hungry while everyone else was eating and his food wasn't as he expected it, as it always was.   I felt bad for these kids because this would happen quite frequently.  After seeing their eating habits more in-depth, I came to the conclusion that if you serve your kids the exact same things, in a short rotation, with zero variation, that's what they'll expect everywhere: in restaurants, at friends' houses, at school.  I totally understand if it's hard to break out of your cooking comfort level and try new things.  I'm not saying you have to completely change whatever existing menu rotation you have, but what you can do is just offer a slight variety.  Get them out of their comfort zone.  Just a little bit. Then stretch them, just a little.  And keep on a-going.  You might even learn to like something new yourself.

5. Introduce New Foods When Your Kids Are HUNGRY!
A few weeks ago I was testing out several new recipes at once.  I was counting on my husband to be a reliable critic and I was quite disappointed when he showed up for lunch an entire three hours late after skipping breakfast.  "Oh great," I thought to myself.  "He's going to think everything tastes magical." Sure enough.   My cookies were "the best cookies he's ever tasted" and I just had to roll my eyes. While times like this may not be the time to get an honest critique of a new menu item you are considering serving at a dinner party, I've got to say that playing off of your child's (or spouse's) hunger after a long physical activity or a smaller previous meal is the PERFECT time to throw some unfamiliar food at your kid and start building a positive relationship between the two.

If your kids (or husband...or wife) are anything like mine, I've noticed that there is a definite preference as to when certain individuals prefer their larger meal.  For the longest time I had mislabeled my youngest as picky.  Compared to my oldest onion-chomping son, he had a little more discretion as far as what he would consume, but he was still going through the process and I was making a very big mistake and I didn't even realize it.  While my youngest prefers to eat a gigantic breakfast and then eat two smaller meals during the rest of the day, my oldest prefers a smaller breakfast with a large lunch and a large dinner.  Because I had become accustomed to my oldest's eating habits first, I thought that's how it should be with everyone and I was quickly reaching high levels of frustration with our baby who was pushing away most everything I was putting in front of him for lunch and dinner.  Because those weren't his naturally indulgent times, he definitely felt less adventurous.  I realized my mistake after several months and I'm happy to report that since I've started continuing to offer newer, less-favored foods for breakfast (his hungry meal!), my youngest child is no longer acting picky!  

Having said all that, we try our very best not to snack. We eat three meals a day and the boys can drink as much water as they'd like, but that's it for in-between meals. I'm not saying I'm starving them, but I definitely notice a huge difference when it comes to their sense of willingness to eat a meal after they've been snacking on crackers or even after they've been drinking juice or milk for that matter.  I will, however, break our no-snacking rule when my loves come asking to taste whatever I happen to be chopping at the moment: Asian pears, a green bell pepper, figs, a green onion, a tomato... I usually refuse to let them chomp on cloves of garlic or onions. Believe me, they've both tried this!  

6.  Get Your Child Involved in the Meal-Making Process

Growing our own vegetables has helped us tremendously when it comes to this topic.  We have a very small herb garden and quite frequently I will instruct our five-year-old to go and pick one or two inches of whichever herb I need at that moment.  Not only is it helpful and cost-effective to do things this way, he knows he's contributing to our meal and he feels so proud of when he gets to help!  As I mentioned before, my boys will help with the garnishing and will also occasionally help with the plating process: putting on condiments, dressing a salad, sprinkling on appropriate seasonings, etc.

Another thing that I try to do when there is room in our budget is to allow for each child to pick one new thing to try that week.  This has been a blast for all of us.  I usually bring up this task while we are cruising in the bulk section at Whole Foods, that way we do have the option of purchasing a very small amount of something if it is on the costly side or if I suspect my kids will hate the item.  Then we will all go home and I'll research how to best cook and introduce the item and we get to eat it after it's been prepared (if needed).  Here are some examples of items my boys have picked out on their own: Purple Jasmine rice, adzuki beans, black-eyed peas, Brewer's yeast, crystallized ginger (during the holiday season), dried figs, yellow split peas, and even those nasty looking date pieces that I always refused as a kid because they reminded me of the stuff I had to scoop out from the litter box.  (Yes, I tried them this time around and they were delicious!)  My kids got so used to this treat that when I asked my oldest what he wanted in his Easter basket last year, he immediately told me that he wanted pink salt (instead of candy).  What I love about this is the fact that it doesn't take much effort, yet it involves the child in your grocery shopping and allows them to become aware of the many options out there.  It gives the kids something to focus on while cruising the aisles with you and it also sets up the fun challenge of "How do we cook this?" and that will do some great preparation for adulthood!  Lastly, it allows the tables to be turned.  That's right, Mommies and Daddies can't just tell you to try new foods!  They need to model that behavior as well!  In the springtime we get to do this at our local Farmer's Market and we've tried some interesting things such as fresh fava beans, Mexican tarragon, and yellow and white strawberries that I might not have tried otherwise.

7.  Keep it Fun
Of course, an easy and convenient way to do this is to grow your own food whenever possible.  I'm not saying you need an acre, a tractor and a load of cows.  Just what you can, whether it's a rotation of herb plants that sit in your kitchen window, planting root vegetables in your side yard that doesn't receive that much direct sunlight, or a full-on full-sun 20' x 20' garden (lucky you!).  In our little bit of earth, we plant easy stuff like spinach, kale, beets, onions, swiss chard, tomatoes, and rainbow circus carrots.  It was always remarkable to me how my kids would pick and eat kale straight out of the garden as young toddlers.  I always monitor the picking (you just never know what weeds can spring up!), but I am always ecstatic to see how fun it is for my kids to eat things we had grown together as a family.  The sense of pride and accomplishment is always memorable and it's great fun to get a little dirty as well!

"Even though my smile looks forced here, I assure you that I really do enjoy gardening"

What if gardening is not an option?  That's okay!  Just get creative!  Our family has had a lot of fun using just a bit of creativity, thanks to the inspiration that came with becoming introduced to Bento boxes.  We break out rice molds that shape our sticky rice into fun bite-sized pieces (bear, star, heart, elephant), while other times we use Japanese egg molds to make our eggs into cars, fishbears, or rabbits (for Easter, always).  We love to use our cookie cutters to cut sandwiches, vegetables, or slices of cheese into fun shapes.  At times, we even do a bit of the fun garnishes, like the time I carved an apple into a Mario-inspired mushroom.  Super cute!

8.  Encourage Tastings, But Never, Ever Force-Feed Your Kids.
Come on. What stories do you have from your childhood?  For me it was my experience with warm Deviled Eggs ("EAT THE WHOLE THING! ") and also with this stuff called Prune Whup my grandmother insisted tasted identical to freshly whipped cream (Um, no. It really doesn't taste the same.  At all.).  In my opinion, taking something your kid doesn't want to eat for whatever reason will not be improved whatsoever by a huge power struggle that takes place around the item.  It will only make things exponentially worse.   I'm not saying you shouldn't casually encourage your kids to taste their food because sometimes they need that little bit of help.  But don't make it any more than that.  Believe me, the times I've pushed my kid to eat things he did not want to only brought out a stronger distaste of the item he initially rejected.  What's the point?  To force them to eat something you're not even sure they'll like?  All I know is that my kids trust me because to them, I am a credible source.  If they don't like something, that's okay.   Just give kids a few reasonable healthy options at mealtime and give them freedom to choose two of three acceptable options.  Such as: "Sure, if you want to eat just salad and fruit for dinner that's fine!"  If they don't want to go with that option?  "If you don't want to eat anything, I understand that, but there is a chance that you could be very, very hungry later on and this is what we are having for dinner. Unfortunately for you, this is the only dinner we are having today."  I'll admit, sometimes the alternate option in our house is to be hungry if you don't want to eat the stuff that mommy has cooked.  After all, I am not a short-order cook.  But my kids have only tested me once on this, each.

I believe that if you do all the other things I've mentioned, you won't ever have to even consider force-feeding as an option.  It will just be a fun and enjoyable experience that you all get to do together as a family, at least that's what it's been for us, on most days.

Happy eating!

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