As the parent of a child who’s just getting started on solids, I’ve been thinking recently about how to help my son grow into a kid who loves to eat all kinds of good food. Because I know how vital balanced nutrition is for the mental health of children and teens, it’s especially important to me that he become a well-rounded eater.
For a little help on this front, I turned to my friend and colleague Jeffrey Zurofsky, culinary program director at Newport Academy, whose daughter is a few months ahead of my son when it comes to palate development (and table manners). Here are his tips on how to raise healthy eaters.
1. Be patient. Remember that it’s the rare toddler who enjoys kale or kimchi at first bite. “They will come to it when they’re ready, whether that’s one month from the first time they taste something, or 10 years later,” Zurofsky says, noting that steak was his own sole form of nourishment up to the age of five.
It can take as many as seven or eight times trying something new before you develop a taste for it, he says. And you can probably double that for very little ones, as they’re likely to spit something out the first half dozen times if it’s not a flavor they immediately recognize or enjoy.
2. Don’t engage in power struggles. “Forcing a kid to eat something is disastrous,” Zurofsky says. “It creates a vicious cycle of bad experience at the table.” Family dinner should be the opposite of stressful—a time for fun, bonding and food-related experimentation. There’s all kinds of research showing how eating together can benefit kids—from decreased rates of substance use and depression to better grades and a more positive overall outlook—so make the dinner table a place where children want to be as they grow up.
3. Provide a good example. Modeling healthy eating habits and choices is “the most meaningful thing any parent can do to shape their child’s eating style,” Zurofsky says.
4. Let them eat steak. It doesn’t have to be steak literally, but don’t be afraid to offer your child something that’s a little more challenging and chewy. “Developmentally, they need something more than puree,” he says. Give them little bits of lots of different things, with a variety of textures and tastes.
5. Don’t judge yourself. If your child eats nothing but mac and cheese and frozen peas, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It won’t stay that way forever. Look at Zurofsky—from his mono-diet beginnings, he eventually blossomed into an amazing chef and dedicated food activist. What changed it all for him was the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham—so keep reading that classic to your kids and have faith that the message will sink in.