My ten-year old daughter picked up the last piece of raw tuna with her chopsticks and smiled, "I love eating sushi with you, Daddy." A young married couple in their thirties looked across the sushi bar and asked me, "What's the secret?"
Confused, I politely replied, "The secret to what?"
"My twelve-year-old will not even touch broccoli," the smartly dressed husband pleaded, "Tell me the secret."
My kid is not a picky eater. My daughter is a certified foodie with a developed palate for offal, raw fish, imported cheeses and pork belly. Her favorite food is the expensive and coveted fatty duck liver known as foie gras. The weirder the cuisine, the more willing she is to try it. To call my adventurous daughter a gourmet is an overstatement but she will eat head cheese or ceviche the way most kids devour hot dogs or chicken nuggets.
Searching for an answer for the young couple, I replied, "I raised her that way."
There is no magic bullet for expanding your child's culinary horizons but there are a few tricks that you can use to turn that finicky eater into a foodie in no time.
10. Start introducing your child to a variety of foods at a young age. If you expose your little one to foods with different flavors and textures as soon as they start eating solid food, variety becomes the norm and lessens the chance of them resisting eating new things. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that babies can eat shellfish soon after they start eating traditional foods. It is important to check your child for an allergic reaction for three to five days anytime you introduce them to a new food. Steer clear of raw fish until they are between the ages of 3 and 6 and limit their intake of seafood to under 12 ounces per week to reduce their exposure to mercury. If you're having a shrimp for dinner, incorporate it into your toddler's dinner. You will be surprised with the results.
9. Do not bring your food bias to the dinner table. I hate Lima beans but I never let my child know it until she formed her own opinion. She loves them. If Mom or Dad crunches up their nose and says, "I hate (insert whatever food you dislike).", Chances are Junior is going to pick up on it and do the same thing. Put on your game face and do not show your disdain.
8. You eat what I eat. Do not be one of those parents that makes a special separate dinner or side dish for your child because they will not eat brussels sprouts or tuna casserole. You are catering to their whims and you really are not helping your kid expand their culinary horizons. I promise you that they will not starve. It is important to stick to your guns and not cave on this issue. Dr. Seuss' book Green Eggs And Ham is a valuable tool for that finicky child who says I do not like it without trying it. Using a few drops of food coloring, cook up a batch of green eggs for breakfast to prove your point. It looks horrible but it tastes good. The rule at my house is that you have to taste whatever you've served. After my child tastes it, then she can protest all she wants. The point is that as parents, we need to foster an inquisitive attitude towards food with our children. Lobster looks weird (and maybe to a young child, downright scary) but that does not mean it does not taste good. The only rule is that they have to taste it at least once.
7. Involve your child in the cooking process. Give your sons and daughters age appropriate tasks to help cook meals. Make the process fun and your kid may surprise you with their willingness to experiment with new cuisine, especially if they helped you prepare it. You'll be rewarded with your kid's openness to eat what he made plus you will form a bond with your child in the kitchen.
6. Introduce very unfamiliar foods to super picky children gradually. You know your kid. Do not throw the epicurean curve ball of a full-blown raw sashimi or sushi dinner to a kid who is not ready for it. Take your son or daughter to a hibachi grill and have them entertained by a chef who cooks up stir fried chicken before their eyes and order something middle of the road for an appetizer. Tempora chicken or a California roll could have been a non-threatening start for a picky kid. If your child enjoys the California roll, seize the opportunity the next time you go out to have them try the raw tuna or smoked salmon.
5. Do not dumb it down. Expose your child to different ethnic foods, a variety of spices and textures and an array of proteins, vegetables and seafood. Show them a butcher shop, a farm or a boat dock and let them see where their food comes from. Kids need to understand the relationships of how, when, where and why food is harvested and processed before it arrives at the grocery store. By explaining how food is culture, your child will develop an appreciation for different cuisines and you increase their chances of trying something new.
4. Bypass the kids menu. The kiddie meal offered by most restaurants tend to be filled with processed foods like chicken nuggets and hot dogs. If your child has a small appetite, let them order an appetizer as a main course with a healthy side salad. It is your responsibility as a parent to teach your son or daughter what real food is. Let your youngster order dinner from the "grown ups" menu and you will automatically get their attention and respect.
3. Let them taste whatever you are eating. Except for the cocktail that you are enjoying, encourage your kid to try whatever you are eating. Give your son a spoonful of your salmon mousse and if he likes it, let him have the whole thing. You've probably eaten it a hundred times before and this is his first time. Better yet, have a heart and order him one. He will remember and appreciate your willingness to share. Who knows where your culinary bond with your son will go?
2. Let your kid pick the restaurant. Give your children a choice from three different, quality restaurants. Do not let them have a fast food or pizza option. Choose 3 restaurants with foods that your child is not familiar with and let them decide which one to go to. Order something out of the ordinary to share as an appetizer. Even "safe" bets for children, like Italian food, offer the chance to order something out of the ordinary like calamari or prosciutto.
1. Describe food in terms that your child can understand. Take the Vietnamese noodle dish Pho. It has a very similar texture and flavor as chicken noodle soup. If you creatively rename it Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, your child will be more willing to give it a try. Tempura chicken could be described as Japanese chicken fingers and creme brulee, creamy French pudding. Use your imagination to describe strange foods in a way that they can refer to. Your children will lose their reservations for trying different cuisine and foster a healthy willingness to try new foods as a result.