Even as a child, mealtimes have always been the points in the day that I’d look forward to most. Naturally when I became a parent, I wanted to pass the same love of food onto my children. As a food and travel writer, I see food not only as a means of nourishment and enjoyment, but also as a gateway to easy exploration of all corners of the world, so my aims have not been to teach my children to eat and enjoy healthfully, but also to use food to spark their curiosity. As a new mum, the question of how to create an environment that both nourished as well as encouraged the desire (rather than hesitation) to try new things, felt overwhelming.
Many parents are faced with the same concern each day as we sit down for a meal with our children; fear that serving something new will end in tears, protest or wastefulness – and we’ll have to resort to serving the same five things ad nauseum until we’ve bored ourselves out of any sense of enjoyment at the table.
“The table should be a place where we come together to share each other’s company, to nourish ourselves, to spark curiosity and excite our palates”
Although now they are as eager to polish off a plate of Padron peppers or smoked tofu stir-fry as they would a pizza, my seven and five year old daughters were not always the adventurous eaters they are today. We too went through stages where every meal revolved around various forms of pasta or cheese. It was during these times that both my stubborn personality and my creative problem solving skills were truly tested, driven purely by a genuine love of food’s ability to connect, and my desire to pass that love onto the next generation.
- ADDRESSING CONCERNS - “How much are they eating? Is that good for them? What nutrients are they missing? What foods haven’t they tried yet? Is our food too basic? Are they eating too much of this and not enough of that”? As a parent I am all too aware of the incessant worries that we mentally cycle through each time we put food on the table. It’s exhausting. Each time I run though these series of questions (which is still more frequent than I would like), I try to remind myself of the power of repetition and of choice, and my conscious efforts to assure them both a place at the table. Repetition and choice both play major roles in how we tend to learn anything worth remembering, from multiplication tables to riding a bicycle or learning a new skillset at work. Our ability to make the intentional decision to engage and participate, followed by the repetition of practicing these steps until we’ve mastered the task at hand, are what allow any form of progress to be made. With these two main concepts in mind, here are a few of the ways I have used them as means to help my family become more adventurous eaters – and how you can too.
- DON’T HIDE THE VEG - Unless it’s an undetectable handful of spinach being whizzed into a smoothie, I am upfront about what vegetables (or beans, or other ingredients of possible contention) I am offering. A courgette might find its way onto our plate by way of a heavy-handed grating into savoury muffins or pancakes at first, its texture and presence very much detectable but offset by cheese, yoghurt or our general love of baked goods. Later it might get grilled and put into a pasta dish, likely picked out by my children at first, but not without being acknowledged and recognized as something familiar. Served this way enough times and I can most often rely on my children’s’ laziness, hunger, and acceptance of the now-familiar veg; less and less being picked out each time, or, at the very least, done so without any fuss. With each new item I introduce, my children are given the freedom to choose to pick out the things they don’t want to eat on their plate. After enough exposure to the ingredient, more often than not, they’ll just choose not to exercise that option, knowing they’re in control. As parents, by giving our children the control of choosing what goes into their mouths, we remove the power struggle, meaning they’ll be more likely to try a few bites rather than protest for resistance sake.
- LEAD BY EXAMPLE - Though our level of spice and seasoning may vary from plate to plate, we don’t have ‘kid food’ or ‘grown-up’ food in our house). I’ve done this since my children were of weaning age and can say with 100% certainty that the girls will always look to my plate to see what they want to eat before bothering to look at their own. Though this can feel restrictive at times, especially if you have to take allergies into account, it is the easiest way to pass on curiosity and balanced eating through example, while simultaneously reinforcing our own needs to eat well. This also means sometimes we all get to share a treat of chips, veggie burgers or pizza. I work hard to remove or at least reduce my own feelings of guilt around food by acknowledging that these ‘sometimes’ foods are also fun to eat and share and they shouldn’t be forbidden completely. But, they have a time and place. We talk about the difference between foods that help us grow verses foods that don’t, so we can frame the choices in this context when faced with them. By working on reinforcing my own healthy relationship with food I am modeling what I want for my children, and we all benefit from the work put in.
- EAT TOGETHER - There is so much to be said for the power of the family meal, whenever possible. Whether it’s a quick breakfast, weeknight dinner or meals at the weekend if the weekday is too chaotic, nothing reinforces good eating habits like sharing a home-cooked meal. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We eat our fare share of no-frills eggs, toast, and some form of quickly chopped vegetable like cucumbers, peppers or carrots for weeknight dinners. Everyone benefits from the practice – no standing over the sink shoving something down that you won’t remember you ate an hour later or mindlessly eating in front of a screen. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes spent at the table. Even if it’s just a bowl of cereal. Sitting down together without screens or phones makes it a meal.
- LET HUNGER DO THE WORK - Let your children get hungry. Not ravenous to the point of tears (though sometimes a very thin line to cross when they’re little) but hungry. For us, a day filled with endless nibbles and snacks will no doubt result in fuss at the table. I try to let hunger do some of the work for me by using it as an opportunity to get the good stuff in first. In the evenings I’ll often serve a quick little dinner salad, thrown together in five minutes or less, whilst I’m finishing up the rest of the family meal. It tends to get wolfed down and honestly enjoyed because everyone has come to the table hungry and ready to eat whatever is put in front of them. Try throwing a few pieces of a new vegetable into the dinner salad and see how it fares. Hunger is truly the best seasoning. In an ideal world the table should be a place where we come together to share each other’s company, to nourish ourselves, to spark curiosity and excite our palates. By allowing the power of choice and repetition to reinforce good habits for the whole family, we are able to gently and gradually work towards the goal allowing the family meal to serve as a playground, rather than a battleground for our senses and our palates, one plateful at a time.
Adrienne is a former cultural anthropologist turned food and travel writer, living in London. She has made approximately 7,665 meals to date for her family.
READ The Good Stuff: Delicious recipes and tips for happier and healthier children by Lucinda Miller
DISCOVER Some of Adrienne’s recipes at adriennekatzkennedy.com