It’s no secret that family dinner is a good thing. Kids who consistently eat meals with their families have better vocabularies, higher grades and achievement scores, and are less likely to be depressed or adopt high-risk behaviors.
It’s a big deal for their bodies too, both as children and as they grow. Kids who grow up eating nourishing family dinners have a much lower rate of obesity and diabetes, and a lower risk of cancer later in life.
The question is, how to get your kids to enjoy mealtime?
We all know the drill. The whining, the stomping of feet, the “I HATE (insert name of vegetable here)!” ordeal.
What if I told you that I could get your kid to enthusiastically come to the table, with a smile, and say things like, “pass the Brussels sprouts please”? Yes, I’m talking about your kid.
Would you believe me?
You should. Because not only does my family—including my 12-½-year-old daughter (that’s her up above when she was 6, proudly showing off the one carrot our garden produced that year)—cherish mealtime together, so do hundreds of other families that are part of my online meal planning program, Cook the Seasons.
For instance, there’s Jennifer, who bragged (in a good way) about her 7-year-old son: “He said, ‘I want to try that snow pea stuff. It looks good.’ What?! After telling me the mushrooms had no taste, he cleaned his plate … this has never happened before.”
I’m telling you, it’s possible. And I’ve got 9 ways here to cultivate your kid’s love of nourishing food.
One quick disclaimer before I dive in. These tips aren’t silver bullets. It takes time to make a real, lasting shift. Our motto at NOURISH Evolution is that changing the way you—or your kids—eat isn’t an overnight revolution, it’s an evolution. Rather, these are practices you can bring to your table to make a positive impact over the long haul.
#1: Own that you are the one shaping the way your kid eats.
You know how when you take your dog to a trainer, it’s really you being trained? Ever notice how the trainer harps on consistency and discipline (“If you don’t want your dog to beg, then don’t feed him from the table … not even once”)?
Well, the same principle applies here.
For a bevy of reasons—developing taste buds, peer pressure, etc.—kids may initially default to unhealthy foods that are sugar/fat/salt bombs. It’s your job to keep exposing them to nourishing foods—scrumptious seasonal veggies, whole grains, and other real food. If you cave to the whine, you’re sending the message that it’s O.K. to pass up nourishing food for junk food.
Note that I’m not saying never let your kid indulge in junk food. It’s unrealistic to expect your kid to go without pizza or mac and cheese ever. Just treat it as an indulgence rather than a regular fall-back.
#2: Know that it takes up to 20 “exposures” to a food to develop a real preference.
It’s important to know this on the heels of #1. When kids say they “don’t like” something, it really means that they’re unfamiliar with it. It can take up to 20 exposures—meaning not only tasting it, but seeing it or smelling it too—to decide whether they really have a preference for it or not.
Yet the vast majority of parents reinforce their child’s declaration that they “don’t like it” after just three, or even fewer, tries. They’ll tell people, “Oh, Joey doesn’t like broccoli,” and stop serving it to him before he has a chance to discover he might really love it prepared a different way (see #8).
That’s a bummer, because Joey’s just getting started. So if your kid declares they don’t like something, take a pause, take a breath, and realize that’s not necessarily true.
#3: Give your kid “opt-out” language.
That said, whatever your kid is experiencing is real for them at the moment, and forcing them to eat something isn’t an answer (see #5). Instead, adopt “opt out” language within your family. Our preferred phrases are “I haven’t learned to like it yet” and “I don’t prefer it right now.”
This language helps take away the negative charge and finality associated with “I HATE” and “I don’t like” and leaves the door open for children to change their minds in the future without feeling like they’re “giving in.”
#4: Dub your kid a “food adventurer.”
Kids love adventure. And food can absolutely be an adventure. Instill a “try a bite” culture at your table—reinforcing and honoring any “opt-out” language after that bite—but do it in a way that lets your kid buy-in, rather than be told what to do.
I like to illustrate this particular nugget with a story. A few years ago, I was giving a cooking class to a dozen teenagers in Guatemala. Several had told the organizer that they were considering cooking as a profession, so I decided to teach them about flavor building–first how to sear and sauté, then how to add flavor to steamed foods with things like citrus zest, flavored oils, and whatnot.
I started out by sautéing cubed Guatemalan squash in hot oil with shallots until it got nice and caramelized. Then I tossed it with lime juice and cilantro and was about to shake on a bit of local chile powder when I caught a look of utter disgust on the kids’ faces. I halted mid-shake.
“Are you telling me you don’t like chile Cobanero?” I asked. A dozen heads nodded sheepishly.
I put the jar down and thought for a second. “Alright,” I said, “then I’m just going to have to make you food adventurers.”
They perked up.
“Where do adventurers go?” I asked. “Do they go only to places they know?”
Heads shook and someone piped up, “No, they go new places they’ve never been before.”
“Exactly. And that’s what I’m going to ask you to do.”
So I divided the squash between two plates while I explained that I would only put chile powder on one of them. Then it was up to them, as food adventurers, to take a bite of each and decide which one they liked. I wasn’t asking them to like the chile Cobanero, I was only asking them to try the chile Cobanero … they were food adventurers, after all.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t have a (very) positive outcome. Not only did those kids polish off that plate with the chile powder, they then insisted I sprinkle it on the other plate … and on everything else they cooked themselves that afternoon.
Note, I find this method works especially well with kids’ friends, where the added bonus of peer pressure takes effect.
#5: Always offer fallbacks.
Part of encouraging your kid to be a food adventurer and try new food is having something familiar they can fall back to—without shame or blame (see #6) if they try a bite and “don’t prefer it right now.” Remember, it’s not about an overnight revolution (which never works for kids … or for us, really). It’s about a gradual evolution.
One night, their plate might be covered in mashed potatoes, with one bite of Spice-Rubbed Salmon and one bite of Roasted Broccoli. And that’s O.K. Just don’t be surprised when, three months later, it’s split equally into thirds :).
#6: Back off.
Your most important job with #2, #3 and #4 is to stay calm. Don’t let yourself get charged. The minute you demand your child take another bite or finish their plate, you’ve lost. It’s become a power struggle now and is no longer about your kid exploring and dipping their toe in the water. It’s about them standing their ground.
Your most important job is to maintain a neutral, open atmosphere at the dinner table.
#7: Get kids involved.
It’s true: The more your kid is involved with a meal, the more likely they are to eat it. If you’re making kale or Swiss chard, show your kiddo how to “zip” the leaves and let ‘em have at it. Buy a mortar and pestle and have your kids pound a pesto. Recruit them to help you shell peas on the front stoop. Buy a plastic “chef’s knife” and teach them how to slice mushrooms.
Food is an interactive endeavor. When you fold your child into the action, they become an empowered part of its creation rather than a powerless bystander.
Note, it’s not practical to get kids—especially younger kids—involved all the time, and that’s O.K. But be attuned to little opportunities here and there, and watch what an impact it makes.
#8: Make it taste great.
The bad news is, big food companies have billion dollar marketing budgets aimed towards getting your kids to eat junk. The good news is, you have an embarrassment of riches at your disposal to fight back.
You have juicy Summer tomatoes in a rainbow of colors, crisp cucumbers, and creamy eggplant. You have squash in gorgeous orange hues with toothsome leafy greens in Winter. You have red quinoa and purple rice and spotted beans.
You have heat and healthy oils to create savory-sweet caramelized crusts, and you have things like toasted nuts, spices, sea salt, herbs and zest to take the flavors over the top. None of this is hard, none of this is expensive, and none of it takes an unreasonable amount of time. (If you want proof, just read some of the quotes on our Cook the Seasons page)
Kids don’t like mushy steamed broccoli and canned beets any more than we do. It’s just the stakes are higher with kids because whatever we feed them–whether mushy steamed broccoli or Roasted Broccoli with Garlic Chips–is getting tallied on that “exposure” count. Which column are your dishes being tallied in, “yum” or “ick?”
#9: Recognize that your kid’s lifetime relationship with food is being shaped by the way you eat.
Sorry, there’s no getting around this. If you default to McDonald’s and Taco Bell, odds are almost 100 percent your kids will too. But not necessarily because they want to, because they haven’t had the opportunity yet to discover that they actually really prefer real food.
I’ve got dozens of stories I could share with you from both my own life and the folks in Cook the Seasons, but I’ll pare it down to one … about Susan.
About two months into Cook the Seasons, where she was putting awesome nourishing meals on the table nearly every night, Susan went away on a business trip. She’d voiced earlier how floored she was that her family was enjoying the vegetables so much.
But when she got back–expecting her family to moan that they’d have to go back to eating vegetables again—they actually told her that what they’d missed most was her cooking … they’d been eating takeout while she was gone and actually craved real food.
When real food is a part of your life, it will become a part of your kids’ life too.
As I said up front with the disclaimer, these aren’t “quick tips” to be used as silver bullets. They’re practices to help you cultivate a happy, healthy table over the course of meal after meal after meal that will bring a lifetime of joy to your family.