I was raised in a meat and two veg kind of household. A household where we didn’t eat at a table let alone together. Dad usually ate on the couch watching TV in his undies, mum in the kitchen, my brother in his room and me in mine – not the stuff of Bradyesque familial fantasy. In fact, there wasn’t much likelihood of a prime time sit-com being based on our family…
We were sadly disconnected at dinner time, though it was quite handy when we wanted to throw our soggy Brussel sprouts out the window for the dog to eat. But there were rules, the main one being that no matter how much we hated something, we had to eat it (unless we could find the aforementioned dog when mum and dad weren’t watching). The end result was kids that had zero table manners and loathed healthy home cooked food.
Clearly that’s no longer an issue and I love my food! But now I’m the parent, I do things very differently indeed and cremated meat and two veg is simply not in my repertoire. Meals play an important role in our day and are always sit-down occasions. And so far, touch wood, I have managed to raise adventurous eaters.
I’m often asked how I get my kids to eats such a variety of food and though I don’t think there is any single magic trick, here are my top tips for raising fearless foodies.
1. Eat at the table
We eat all our meals at the table. Together. And, though we don’t have a dog and I don’t cook Brussels sprouts (because I am still traumatised by those soggy green balls of hate that I was forced to eat as as a child), I still like to supervise my children while they eat. Besides which, I actually want to hang out with them.
2. Lead by example
I find a lot of my friends who are fussy eaters are oddly surprised that their children are fussy eaters. If you bang on about “not liking” certain foods and food groups and balk at trying new things yourself – expect the same behaviour to be repeated by your kids. Suck it up! Sometimes you just have to take one for the team and prepare and eat foods you don’t particularly love or haven’t tried before in order to set an example. And don’t make a big deal about food being unusual or odd – if you don’t bring it up, it’ll never occur to them that it’s anything other than normal. My kids get that there is no unusual food when it’s put in context of its origins.
3. Don’t force it!
It’s counterproductive. After years of being made to eat everything on my plate, even if it made my stomach turn, there are still a few things I can’t bring myself to eat (see: Brussels sprouts). If my kids eat something that makes them gag, I’m not going to torture them with it. And it doesn’t mean that I’ll never serve it up again, we’ll just try again a little later down the track.
4. Ditch “kids” food
Whether it’s the kid’s menu in a restaurant or meals, cereal or snack foods that are packaged and marketed to kids, chances are it is crap and, more often than not, devoid of anything even resembling nutrition. Not to mention tasting of things that don’t exist outside of a lab. We don’t feed our kids this stuff and, on the odd occasion they’ve been offered things like nuggets or pre-fab food at other people’s houses, they politely avoid it because, and I quote, “it’s disgusting”. WIN!
5. Sugar free
I’m that hard bitch mother that deprived my kids of all lollies, chocolate, biscuits and cakes until they each turned 2 – fighting grandparents and less anal friends all the way. I didn’t even let them eat the cake at their own first birthday parties. And while they weren’t missing something they hadn’t tried, I was busy shovelling veggies and fresh foods down their necks and they were developing a taste for them. Now, though they both enjoy a sweet treat now and again, they’d usually rather it be fruit.
6. Let them play with their food!
Meal times should be fun, not a chore. Visuals are very important to Sugarpuff and she likes her food to be cut into love hearts, triangles or circles, depending on her mood. It takes all of five seconds to use a cookie cutter to shape something on her plate to suit. Raffles on the other hand likes to build carrot and broccoli people… and then eat them. They also love interactive meals that allow them to get involved. Think steamboats, fondues, picking plates and tapas.
7. Spice it up
Don’t dumb down dinner for your kids. I believe it’s best to start simple when introducing solids to allow children to learn about the individual flavour of things first, but once they’re eating well, spice things up a little. Kids have delicate taste buds but that doesn’t mean you have to feed them bland foods. Don’t be afraid to let your kids try spicier meals, just introduce spice gradually to build their tolerance.
8. Groundhog day
Sick of food being rejected? You need to persevere. Research suggests that children may need more than 10 separate introductions to a food before they’ll accept it. My kids may be pretty broad-minded when it comes to mealtimes but that doesn’t mean they like everything I make or offer them. I don’t even like everything I make. But, through repetitive introduction they generally start eating the offending items. Raffles has become so aware of his developing palate that when he doesn’t like something the first time, he’ll go back for a second try a few minutes later – once he knows what to expect of the new flavour – without being asked! And more often than not, that second taste sells him.
9. Kids in the kitchen
Get them involved, try kids cooking lessons or even foraging for the ingredients to their next meal. Or grow your own vegetables and herbs. Kids love picking, peeling and serving their own produce up for dinner. And get them to help you out in the kitchen, whether it’s rolling meatballs, gathering ingredients, or just scooping and stirring. They’re less likely to reject something they helped to make, even if their only contribution is pressing the on button for an appliance.
10. Go global, eat local.
Travel is an amazing way of introducing children to food. Forget about hot dogs and spaghetti at the hotel buffet and try the local cuisine. What seems exotic or weird at home can seem positively mundane in the context of its origins. Maybe I’m raising the next Anthony Bourdain (though hopefully without that whole seedy junkie phase between puberty and stardom) but Raffles isn’t that different to other kids, we’ve just made eating a part of our family travel experience.
Can’t afford to travel? Right now neither can we so we have theme nights at home. The kids choose a country and we plan a menu together. Sometime we go to a specialist grocery store, which they find fascinating, and then we cook together, listen to local music and watch movies or do crafts from the country du jour!
If all else fails, use bribery.