When I was a kid, my mom had a reliable weeknight dinner menu from which she rarely strayed. It was incredibly comforting to know that no matter what unpredictability occurred throughout my day, I could come home and sit around the family table and there were stuffed shells, tacos, and oven-baked chicken to count on.
I do remember one night when my mom famously made her own Indian food from scratch, complete with fresh papadum, formed by hand and fried up in a cast iron pan. I was 14 and my boyfriend at the time was over for dinner. We took one look at the spread and declared we’d be going out for pizza, which brings me to two conclusions: I was an unbearable teenager and the secret to getting kids to eat anything is to include them in the process.
Besides the shame I now feel at reliving that story, I wish my mom and I had made that meal together. The boyfriend was eighty-sixed a few months later but the memory, the unique experience and the new-to-me flavors would have lasted forever. That’s why in our home our kids get involved in the dinner process. Sometimes that means strolling through the farmer’s market on a Sunday and picking out vegetables together, learning their names, describing their colors and tasting them raw while I chop them at home, and sometimes it’s unpacking a spiralizer from the Amazon Prime delivery box, sliding the blades into place and turning everything in the our path into noodles.
Kids need to feel safe and empowered; plopping a plate of unidentified food in front of them makes them uneasy and without a choice in the matter. Give them age-appropriate jobs in the kitchen and I guarantee more voluntary taste tests and less power struggles.
Another trick is to get vegetables in them when they’re starving. Sliced Persian cucumbers with miso ginger dipping sauce after a full day of school and afternoon activities as you plate dinner, hot kale chips sprinkled with a little grated parmesan, or carrot fries, sprinkled with paprika and garlic and roasted in the oven have all been inhaled at our table. Often it’s just a plate of sliced red and yellow peppers and grape tomatoes, if we’re keeping it real. One time the nine year old famously walked into the kitchen at dinnertime and exclaimed, “It smells AMAZING in here! What is that?” about a towering bowl of freshly steamed broccoli; there are no limits to what they’ll eat when they are ravenous.
My last bit of advice is for those evening dinners or weekend lunches where you are brave enough to eat with your family in public (or maybe you have kids who aren’t toddlers and this isn’t so scary anymore): don’t ask for the kids’ menu at restaurants. Instead, order lots of dishes family-style, and share everything. If possible, always get French fries and/or something familiar. But let everyone taste everything and don’t make a big deal out of it. This is how our kids ended up eating mussels, edamame and pulled pork at age two.
Above all, remember that they are kids and kids just want to have fun. Let them help, keep them full, and try to form a relationship between them and food that is positive, rewarding and interesting.
Follow Ariel on Instagram (@thearielview) for an addictive daily peek into the deliciously chaotic life she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three sons.
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