As mentioned in my previous post, this book changed my life forever in the kitchen:
French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters. True, reading it taught me some tricks to help our kids be more adventurous eaters. But more than that, it helped me understand how my parents were able to get us as children to eat a wide variety of unusual foods back home – almost painlessly. And this understanding gave me the confidence to do the same for ours.
Gone are the days of dreading mealtimes, feeling guilty about our kids’ poor eating habits, or feeling envy at seeing other kids eating well. And though the education of our kids’ palates is still a work in progress, I am much more relaxed now, knowing they can be educated.
I am now convinced that any child can learn to love various foods, given the chance. It is my hope that in sharing what I’ve learned – both from reading and our own experiences – you, too, will be inspired to help your kids become foodies.
But first, here are the 4 main reasons why teaching our kids to become foodies is so important:
- It is part and parcel of parenthood.
We, parents, as primary educators of our children, have the job of ensuring they receive the education they need to live a full life – be it intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, or physical. Food touches almost all of these aspects of life. And though they may receive part of their education from others, educating our children on food is primarily in our hands.
Sure, Lolo (grandpa) or Lola (grandma) might entice him to taste one food or another, but the majority of your child’s meals are in your hands. And if you give him a limited variety of foods, those are likely the only foods he will learn to eat and love.
Why do Filipino kids eat dinuguan (blood stew), Japanese kids sushi, French kids escargot, or Indian and Mexican kids ultra-spicy foods? Because for them it’s just normal everyday food. Love of different foods can be learned, but just like learning a new language, learning to like new foods requires constant immersion. And immersing your kids in a limited variety of foods is akin to teaching them only part of a language – a limited education at best.
- It’s healthy.
The greater the variety of foods in one’s diet, the more likely he will get a lot of his nutritional requirements from food. And if he decides someday to go on a diet, he will find it a lot easier if he already eats the foods allowed in his diet. Otherwise, it may prove to be double the struggle.
It was only with the surge of people on gluten-free diets that I realized how many Filipino dishes are actually gluten-free. Rice is a staple, and many of the accompanying meat and veggie dishes are cooked from fresh ingredients, also gluten-free. Rice, tapioca or cassava flour is used in many desserts or snacks, and many noodles are gluten-free as well. Of course, soy sauce isn’t, but can be easily substituted.
Filipino cuisine is Paleo diet-friendly as well, with lots of recipes for veggies both fresh and fermented like atsara (pickled papaya), roots and tubers, even seaweed salad, sago, taro, tapioca, and plantains. Protein dishes include plenty of eggs, fish, shellfish, organ meats, and broths (including yummy marrow broth!). Fruit is plentiful back home, and available year-round to boot. Anyone used to this kind of cuisine can easily adapt to the Paleo lifestyle.
- Picky eating (without a medical condition) can be a handicap.
Your children won’t be children forever, and although you may cater to their food preferences quite well now, their limited choices can be quite restricting, especially after moving out of your home. Travel won’t be as enjoyable and the experience not as complete, especially if food at the destination is quite exotic. Socializing with others may also prove to be a challenge, especially if food choices are limited – or happens to be the conversational topic of choice.
- Neophobia (fear of new things) is a developmental stage.
Keep in mind, neophobia develops around the age of 2. So take advantage of those first 2 years to really expand your child’s palate before this sets in. But even if your child is over 2, never fear. Neophobia is a developmental stage and doesn’t have to remain permanent – as long as you work on it.
Depending on your child’s age or temperament, overcoming this may take a while. Just hang in there and be patient. As an example, our son was 4 before he agreed to taste sushi, and another year before everyone else followed suit. It doesn’t have to be sushi – but it can be done!
And so, without further ado, here are my Ten Tips for Raising Foodies:
TIP #1: Only one meal for all.
Just like in the good ol’ days, this saves mom (and dad) extra work and lets them focus instead on relaxing and enjoying dinner time with the rest of the family. Dinner time is, after all, the one meal where everyone is likely to be home. This is also the best time to introduce new foods to everyone. Seeing you and other siblings enjoy new foods is more likely to entice your child to try them too – at the same time.
Always serve new food with other familiar foods. That way, your kids are assured of not going hungry, even if they don’t eat much of the new food. Of course, being Filipino, I serve most meals with rice (white and brown rice, even a little quinoa). So if our kids aren’t used to the new meat dish yet and barely taste it, they won’t go hungry – they can still eat rice, the familiar veggie, plus something else for “dessert” – like fruit, yogurt, cheese or even nuts.
I rarely allow them to eat something else (and always something they can get themselves like peanut butter or cheese on bread) – and only if they ate enough of the new dish and rest of the meal. Most of the time, they just end dinner by filling up on apple slices or yogurt or both. 😉
If you are home for lunch too, all the better! You have double the opportunities to introduce new foods.
TIP #2: No distractions.
It is much harder to expect someone to eat something new when he is running around at dinner or focused on a device or toy. Having no phone calls, texting, tv/ video shows, toys or books during dinner is not only good manners, but also fosters family interaction and communication. This is the perfect time for kids to learn proper table manners and behavior, and also to interact with and learn things from each other while honing their conversational skills. And if mealtime is enjoyable, your kids will be more apt to try to eat what everyone else is enjoying.
Conversation at meals might actually distract your kids from obsessing over new foods. Many times, I’ve been able to spoonfeed toddlers little bits of veggies they claimed not to like, covered in meat and rice, while he intently listened to his siblings talking to or working out math problems with dad – a favorite dinner topic. 😉
TIP #3: Hunger is your ally.
Serve new foods or less-liked foods first so that the kids are quite hungry and eager to get to the other familiar foods on the table. So if, for example, we were trying a new recipe for fish sticks or salmon, I would serve that first before the broccoli, then serve their beloved couscous last, once they’ve started on broccoli. Otherwise, hunger would be allayed by familiar foods and half the battle lost. When one child finishes eating the new food first, the other siblings are usually inspired to finish theirs too – before that child finishes off the rest of the meal! 😉
By giving enough time to digest snacks before meals (at least 3 hours before dinner for us), you are ensuring your child will be hungry for dinner (even lunch, too). It’s okay for your child to be a little hungry near mealtime – they are more likely to taste AND like new foods. In the book above, the catch phrase I found most helpful was: “That’s okay, you’ll appreciate dinner (or lunch) more when you’re hungry.” Our kids have been less whiny between meals every since, able to wait more patiently for mealtime.
At our house, no morning snack and one afternoon snack works best. We’ve found that morning snacks tend to lessen their appetite at lunch, so swapping this for an early lunch (11 or 11:30) ensures a healthy appetite for that meal. This also ensures an early afternoon snack (2-2:30), which then leads to an adequate appetite at dinner (5-5:30 because of little ones). Of course, adapting to school schedules is essential – one of our kids used to eat her lunch at 10am and snack at noon in school (likely from a growth spurt!), so I let her eat some rice for her after-school snack since she was understandably ravenous by then.
If they’re really starving before a meal and it’s not ready yet, I offer milk or fruit with a high water content. Toddlers’ small stomachs get full so easily though, so I try to delay their drinking anything until after the meal or in the middle at least.
TIP #4: Go for variety.
This is the crux of the matter – tough to do if your schedule is hectic, but paramount. Be smart about it and start small, maybe choosing one new food a week, or a couple of easy-to-prepare ones.
Use shortcuts to aid you in this endeavor – buy a slow cooker, chop veggies ahead of time (or buy them prechopped) and use simplified recipes. You can brown fresh ground meat immediately after buying, alone or with garlic and onion, and freeze – simply thaw before cooking a dish, and you will already be ahead one step!
I used to think one of our popular dishes back home was hard to cook – pansit (noodle dish with stir-fried meats and veggies) – until I realized it was the chopping that took time. By simply chopping veggies ahead of time, using leftover meat, and packaged organic broth, I could whip up this dish in about 20 minutes. Fried rice is even quicker – I don’t even chop garlic. I just squeeze it with a garlic press right into the hot oil in the wok, add rice, leftovers (meat, scrambled eggs, veggies like peas, broccoli), salt and – Voila! Much quicker than Chinese takeout. 😉
I have even used the slow-cooker at times to make some of the usual stovetop Filipino dishes like pork sinigang (sour soup), beef caldereta stew, and even kare-kare (oxtail peanut stew), adding in green vegetables at the last half-hour or so.
TIP#5: Mandate the tasting of new dishes.
This, too, is key – and extremely effective, if enforced. I’ve read many times that it takes a child about 20 exposures to a certain food before they may even taste or eat it. It’s true, and our kids are living proof – they’ve turned from despising either salmon, sushi, cucumber, strawberry, or pickles to loving it!
The younger ones are simply asked to taste the new food (no need to swallow, but of course preferred). Older ones who have nibbled it before are asked to eat a small amount again. It only took one of our kids a few times before liking strawberries – after years of refusing to even taste it!
TIP #6: Go for the best possible taste.
Whether a new food is good-tasting or not can make or break your child’s acceptance of it.
- Go for real food – Fresh food is the healthiest AND best tasting. Frozen vegetables often are just as good as fresh. Avoid processed food – these are mostly sugar or salt which your kids might unfortunately grow to love. Even “freshly cooked” foods like rotisserie chicken are quite salty.
Get them used instead to freshly prepared food. It doesn’t take long to roast pieces of meat, seafood and/or vegetables in your oven or stir-fry them in a wok, and you can control whatever ingredients are included.
- Season, season, season!! – Fresh ingredients do not come seasoned, and most of them need some of it. This too makes a BIG difference in acceptance of new foods. After one year of age, even babies can have modest amounts of salt in their diet. But there are plenty of no-salt seasonings and herbs, too, like lemon-pepper seasonings or Mrs. Dash.
I used to wonder why the kids didn’t like my great salmon recipe – until I served it to a friend who practically smothered it with salt. Roasted green beans were also unappealing when not seasoned enough, but our kids eat it up when properly seasoned. Improperly seasoned roast chicken can smell and taste downright awful too! But too much seasoning can work against you, so don’t go crazy – you can always add more, but not the other way around.
TIP #7: Be creative.
Be sneaky, but not deceptive – you want your kids to know what the food looks, feels and tastes like, and this is lost when you introduce new foods by disguising them.
- Make it fun. – Turn it into a fun game by doing a guessing game of pureed new food (not disguised). Or cook a new food 2 or 3 different ways and do a “taste test” by labeling them A,B (and C) and asking which one they liked best -our kids love this! This taste test also helps you figure out in one go which way of cooking a new food item is a hit with your kids.
Try different presentations. Kids, too, eat with their eyes. Our kids don’t like hard-boiled eggs, and using egg molds like this one worked:
Kotobuki Plastic Egg Mold, Rabbit and Bear– well, at least for a while. I also serve “mystery” pureed foods as appetizers in egg cups with egg spoons, for them to guess – it’s different, intriguing and fun. Metal cookie cutters work great for raw veggies like carrots, or try grating them alone or in a salad.
Bento lunches are fun and colorful – and healthy. The “cool” factor might entice them to eat more than usual in front of their school friends, too. 😉
If all else fails, try “eating out” on your deck or have a picnic on the lawn – the mere change in scenery seems to whet kids’ appetites. Our kids learned to eat burritos one sunny day, out on our deck.
- Dip! – Kids LOVE to dip. I wish I had known this from the get-go! Some of our kids have needed no further coaching to try new foods other than something to dip it in – spinach in salad dressing, sushi in soy sauce, or meat in sweet chili sauce. I try to avoid ketchup, as much as possible. Hummus or tzatziki are healthy and great for dipping veggies and chips, perfect for snack time. Or try having them dip naan bread into an Indian stew dish like chana masala – they may even scoop up some of those healthy and yummy chickpeas!
- Incorporate or envelop. – Chop veggies into small pieces and incorporate into sauteed food or fried fish cakes or soups. If they really pay attention, they will still see and taste the veggies, but most of the time these small pieces are just incorporated into spoonfuls of food.
Kids love foods they can hold themselves. Try wraps to envelop new foods, as in quesadillas, burritos, or even lumpia (Philippine spring rolls).
Or envelop new foods with other familiar foods. One of our kids wouldn’t touch salmon when she was young unless it was “natabunan” (buried) under a bed of couscous and covered with each bite. She knew it was there and could taste it, but preferred not to see it. Fast forward a few years – she now eats huge helpings of salmon, uncovered, and declared the other day that salmon was one of her most favorite foods! 😉
- Try different ways of cooking – Kids might be more apt to enjoy food if cooked differently. Our kids never liked baked whole sweet potato, but will devour these sweet potato fries (with just olive oil, salt and pepper).
One of our children still doesn’t like berries as a rule – but will gulp down berry smoothies made with tons of different berries, a banana, some plain greek yogurt, a little orange juice and milk, and even chia seeds. Our kids won’t normally eat chia seeds (we get
Nutiva Organic Black Chia Seeds, 12-oz. Bag), but will beg for it in their smoothies! Any leftover smoothie in the blender goes straight to ice pop molds for the freezer.
Through trial and error, you, too, can discover which recipe of a particular food your kids will not only eat but love.
There are plenty of websites out there for yummy recipes (including Pinoy ones) and ideas for picky eaters, including this one on food play – learntolovefood.com. I hope to continue updating my page for Recipes. Please do share your family favorites (both Pinoy and non-Pinoy) and I will include yours – pinoyroots1 at yahoo dot com. Salamat! (Thank you!) 😉
TIP #8: Get them involved.
- Grow your own – Kids LOVE to dig, water plants and pick their own fruits. Take advantage of this and start your own backyard or container garden. I was inspired to start my own after a friend served me the most delicious homegrown caprese salad – freshly picked grape tomatoes and basil from her own deck, with fresh mozzarella, a little olive oil and
balsamic vinegar. Watch out for critters – we’ve had to cover up our deck planters with mesh netting and wire to keep them away. You can also grow herbs indoors year-round. Someone I know does this with all kinds of herbs, including lemongrass – perfect for roast chicken and even chicken tinola (ginger soup).
Get them cooking! – Some kids just naturally love to help in the kitchen. Get even the little ones involved by watching or prepping – our kids love this set which includes a chopping board and kid-safe “knife”:
Curious Chef 5-Piece Pizza Kit.We also have a mini scoop like this one:
OXO Good Grips Small Cookie Scoopwhich they enjoy using to scoop
out batter into mini-muffin pans or to measure meat into mini-meatballs. Our kids love helping to roll out the dough and make empanadas (pastry stuffed with meat and veggies) – they come out looking strange, but taste great nonetheless! And depending on their maturity, older kids can be supervised with real knives etc for actual cooking and baking.
- Watch real chefs in action. Sushi or hibachi chefs are always fun to watch. Go to international food festivals and restaurants and watch chefs cook exotic foods before tasting it. I sometimes let the kids watch certain food shows (and fast-forward through ads), so they can see chefs preparing yummy food in minutes from start to end, making it look fun and easy. They sometimes ask afterwards if we can make the foods they see on the show.
Tip #9: Broaden their culinary experience.
Go to a farm, grocery, or farmers’ markets to see, touch and smell all kinds of fresh foods. Let them choose one to buy and taste at home. Take advantage of free samples practically everywhere- they’re the perfect amount for a taste test and effortless for you.
Take advantage, too, of travel to try out local foods. Try one new dish, soup or appetizer at restaurants. At home, leave out cookbooks with photos which, just like ads, might entice kids by their delicious-looking photos to ask for new recipes.
Tip #10: Last but not the least — Relax!
Whether your child loves or despises the new food, do not over-react. Accept it as the most natural thing in the world, lest he realize new foods ARE a big deal!
If he likes it, nonchalantly acknowledge how glad you are that he likes it just as you do. If he doesn’t, just tell him confidently, “Don’t worry, you’ll like it when you’re older” – then serve it again a few weeks later. He will be older, after all!
And instead of asking “Do you like it?” ask the child instead to describe how it looks, tastes, smells or feels like. This deflects the focus from mere preferences to sensory experience. Remind other siblings it’s not polite (to the chef and fellow diners) to give voice to any negative remarks – the same for noises or facial expressions. (I tell them they get a double serving otherwise, but have never had to shell it out, thankfully!)
I’ve personally witnessed a child go from despising the “crunchies” (veggies) in her pansit to actually loving them in a few years’ time, not even remembering she ever disliked them. Whether it’s from maturing taste with age or just frequent exposure doesn’t matter – as long as you continue presenting the food over time, you are giving your child the chance to learn to appreciate it. Your child (and their siblings) will gain confidence, too, with each success, and will also come to believe that with time and enough opportunities, they will be able to appreciate many new foods.
Although we’ve certainly come a long way from even last year with their increasing repertoire of foods tasted and enjoyed, the list of foods our kids still haven’t tried or still don’t like remains even longer. Writing down the list of exotic foods I was exposed to as a child in my previous post made me realize how deprived our kids still are. But that’s okay. We’ve definitely still got a long way to go – but now we’re enjoying the journey together.
Halina at magluto tayo! (Let’s go and cook!)