No More Picky Eaters! Developing your Kids’ Palate

I wrote a post awhile back about how to get your kids to eat more vegetables. You can consider this an expansion of that idea. This week, we made oatmeal, and through the process I realized, in more detail, how I am helping my kids eat a wide variety of foods. I thought I should share this new clarity, in hopes that it will help you! (Even if you don’t have kids, you can use this guide to expand your own palate!)

First you have to understand the reasoning behind the way I cook. These ideas help me meal plan each week.
My Goals:
1. I want to expose my kids to different cultures through food. Every culture uses different flavor profiles, different spice and ingredient combinations, which yield a unique result. Exposing them to different ways of preparing an ingredient can help them realize they do, in fact, like that vegetable/grain/protein. The more ways I prepare something, the more likely we are to find a way they enjoy it.
2. I want them to have an extensive palate encompassing a variety of spices, vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains. I want to introduce them to new ingredients – even when (and sometimes because) I have never tried said ingredient before.
3. I want to discover my kids’ preferences. I want to find a way of preparing healthy ingredients which they enjoy. B&C love raw tomatoes. A doesn’t, but when they’re cooked with other veggies, or in a sauce, she does.
4. I don’t want to force them to eat healthy foods but rather, hear them ask for it.
5. I want to remove the fear of trying new things. I prefer they appreciate new dishes, and be willing to try things even if they don’t like them. (Our taste buds do change, and at some point in their life, they might change their mind!)

How do I achieve those goals? Here’s the clarification.
My methodology
:
1. Use descriptive cooking terms with your kids. Discuss texture, heat, spice. Words I regularly use with my kids: acidic, aromatic, bitter, sour, sweet, salty, bland, bold, burnt, buttery, cheesy, candied, stale, strong, chewy, crunchy, creamed, crispy, watery, moist, thin, thick, chunky, soft, dry, fruity, sweet, gooey, heavy, healthy, herbal, hot, cold, spicy, tart, juicy, mild, mushy, peppery, refreshing, sharp, slimy, smooth, soggy, thick, tangy – as well as whatever method of cooking I use (bake, broil, saute, steam, etc.). When you sit down to eat, discuss your food so that they understand the meaning of these words and can use them accurately on their own.
2. Introduce them to new foods. Set a goal on how often – once a week, or once a month, for example – and plan to use that item in different ways (remember this?). Educate yourself before you buy: Search for recipes, google cooking methods, ask someone you know if they’ve used it and how. Get inspiration from magazines, blogs, cooking shows, and restaurants. Let go of any preconceived notions about limitations to kids’ diets, or about kids being picky eaters. Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean they can’t eat basically the same thing that you eat. The only adjustments you should be concerned with are portion sizes, bite sizes, and sometimes the level of heat/spice in the dish.
3. Make them try at least one bite. Everyone can be afraid of new things. Help eliminate that fear by requiring one bite before they are allowed to reject it – and then let them. Offer to pick out what they don’t like, offer more of a different item, or be sure they understand that if they don’t eat what you make, you’re not making anything else.
4. Ask them if they like it. To avoid a dismissive ‘yes’ or ‘no’, phrase it this way: “What do you think?” Here’s the most important part: The goal is not to force them to blindly eat whatever you put on their plate “because you said so.” Or even, “because it’s good for you.” This should not be a power struggle! (I don’t feel like anyone ever wins in a power struggle anyway, right?) Remember we want to learn their preferences. Ask them what they do or do not like about it. Encourage them to use the descriptive words. ***Not only does this expand their culinary vocabulary, and make them feel heard, it allows you to adjust your preparation of the dish next time, to suit their taste.***
5. Give them some space. I don’t ask how they like it after one bite. I give them a chance to eat some of it first, usually after I can tell they like it. If you’re too overeager in asking this question, they’re going to feel pressured. Give them time to try it and decide what they do and do not like. I also don’t give them a laundry list of what’s in it before they even take a bite. I wait for them to initiate the conversation.
5. I’m saying it again: Encourage them to discuss and describe their food. Start the discussion yourself:
“MMM I love how sweet carrots are!”
“I like how the tart apples balance the spicy crust on the pork.”
“I love how buttery and melt-in-your-mouth salmon is.”
“I like crunchy, salty pecans.”
6. Answer their questions. When they ask what’s in their meal, don’t avoid the question or lie to them! Tell them what it is. Almost every night, my kids will choose something from their meal and ask “What’s this?” Sometimes it’s before they take a bite: “What’s this green stuff Mommy?” Sometimes it’s after they’ve taken a few: “Is there spinach in this?” (Most of the time when they ask a question like that, the next comment is “Mm! I love spinach!”) Don’t be wary of honesty, which leads me to the last point…
7. Remember: you shape their first impressions (and can reshape previous bad ones)If you are nervous and afraid they won’t eat their broccoli, they probably won’t. Keep calm and feed on. (I had to.) The moment I stopped being so worried, uptight, and forcefully claiming “You have to eat your veggies”, it became much easier. It was suddenly a non-issue. They have no idea what food is good and what is bad or ‘yucky’. YOU teach that to them. If you just naturally eat your veggies at every meal, so will they. Here’s where you claim your control – not during a power struggle at the dinner table, forcing them to eat something – but by smart meal planning, prep, knowing your kids’ preferences, starting small, and gradually expanding your repertoire. Don’t make it such a big deal; don’t stress. You are their prime meal preparer; you control what’s normal for them to eat. They only know what you teach them.

I’m giving you permission to allow yourself a transition period. Don’t try to switch everything overnight. Start by changing or introducing one thing and work your way from there. I used to be that mom that fed my daughter mac and cheese, chicken, hot dogs, PBJs, pancakes, and pizza. That was basically all she would eat, because I THOUGHT that’s all she would like. It took time to change our eating habits, but it was worth it – and the transition happened before I knew it.
All it takes is a little mental tweak, a little planning, and some extra effort. Try it, and watch your kids surprise you! 🙂

Read the story of how making Irish Oatmeal sparked this post.

Related Article: The Dessert Deal
 I just came across this on Facebook and LOVE it. I’m sure we’ve all used the ‘Dessert Deal’ one time or another.

Our youngest opening wide for another bite of dinner to 'earn' her cookie

Our youngest opening wide for another bite of dinner to ‘earn’ her cookie

But lately I’ve been wondering: what am I teaching my kids? Finish your food, and your reward is to eat more (sugary) food. 
No wonder we have a childhood obesity problem. I have started to offer healthier things for dessert (but that’s for another post) 😉

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