I talk to a lot of parents who have visions of feeding their kids healthy, homemade meals they’d jump for joy over. Parents who have tried time and time again to set one menu for the whole family instead of becoming a short-order cook.
But the reality can often look a bit different: cue plates thrown on the floor, tantrums over carrots touching peas, and power struggles over eating, well, any food at all. It can all start to feel incredibly, utterly exhausting.
So, really -- how do you raise an adventurous eater? How do you make dinner a fun time to be together as a family instead of a battle ground?
I spent some time earlier this month with Vicki and Misha Collins, authors of the new cookbook The Adventurous Eaters Club, talking about just this. Want to hear their advice?!
Meet Vicki, Misha, Maison, and West!
Adventurous Eaters - 1 minute
Tip #1: Get Kids in the Kitchen
Vicki explained to me that kids are much more likely to try a food if they see what went into it and helped prepare it.
Now, it might not be practical to get kids involved with cooking every single night. Sometimes you have 30 minutes to get food prepped before everyone turns into Crankasaurus Rex monsters, and kids are not well known for being efficient sous chefs. But that's ok.
Vicki and Misha say that some nights their kids just help by mixing the vinaigrette for the salad. Other nights, their job is cutting the carrots to go into the salad. Still other nights, their job is simply choosing the ingredients for the salad. Any amount of "help" counts.
I love that every recipe in The Adventurous Eaters Club has clearly marked notes about where kids can help out making that particular dish. This helps guide those of us who might be a little nervous about inviting kids into the kitchen or unsure where to start.
Tip #2: Include Bridge Foods and Safe Foods
No one becomes an adventurous eater overnight! Misha and Vicki recommend integrating "safe foods" and "bridge foods" into meal times:
- Safe foods are foods that you know your kid will eat. They're familiar and accepted. Put one or two of these on the plate alongside one or two new foods. In the intro to Adventurous Eaters Club, Vicki explains that having a few safe foods helps kids feel more relaxed at dinner, which makes them more willing to try a bite of that new food.
- Bridge foods are safe foods with a twist. A new spice on the chicken your kiddo loves. Or a favorite cheese sprinkled over an unfamiliar new vegetable. This pushes young palates juuuuust a little bit and helps them try something new in a familiar context.
The afternoon I spent with the Collins family, we made beet gnocchi and they explained that this could be a bridge food between pasta (familiar) and beets (unfamiliar). A lot of the recipes in the book could be described as bridge foods, like Green Eggs and Ham Popovers, Cheesy Snow-Capped Artichokes, and Triple Pea Pasta.
Tip #3: Cook One Meal. That's It.
I think this one might be the hardest to put into practice, especially if you fear dinner time tantrums or putting your kid to bed hungry if they refuse to eat.
But "one meal" doesn't mean "only one thing on the plate." As Vicki told me, "Take baby steps. If you only serve one dish that is completely unfamiliar, then that's too overwhelming. Instead provide several options at the meal, knowing that a few of them are familiar and accepted."
So go on and make that new skillet chicken recipe you've been wanting to try, but on the side, also serve some rice (familiar!) and buttered peas (also familiar!). Give your child a taste of everything, including the chicken, and let them pick and choose their own meal.
Make sure you take some of everything, too! Your kid will see that you're all eating the same food, and learn that there's no such thing as "grown up food" or "kid food."
Tip #4: Make Mealtimes Fun!
Do your meals sometimes devolve into power struggles with stubborn kids on one side and desperate parents on the other? One solution: make meal times fun!
This might sound easier said than done, but Vicki and Misha have some advice here as well.
- Resist the urge to coerce/bribe/force your kid into eating. No one wins at that game and it can establish some negative behavior patterns around food.
- No one gets to yuck your yum . It's ok for kids to decide not to eat a food, but they don't get to call it gross. As Vicki says, "A simple 'no, thanks' will do."
- Make dinner time fun. Vicki and Misha advise "setting the table, lighting a candle, putting some flowers out, or changing up the conversation." If meal times feel like a happy ritual, then it's far less likely to feel like a battleground.
- Put dessert on the plate. Instead of turning dessert into a bribe, put it on the plate along with the peas and carrots. Yes, they can eat it first if they want to, but they just get a small portion and no seconds.
Tip #5: Give Yourself a Break
Ok, this one is from me, but I feel confident that Vicki and Misha would agree with me. Parenting is hard, and raising an adventurous eater isn't exactly a walk in the park. Feeding kids can even bring up our own issues around food, which can make the job even more challenging.
Nobody is perfect, and sometimes you have chicken nuggets for dinner. That's ok. The point is to keep trying. Take baby steps. Recognize when you're exhausted and need an easy win at dinner time, and when you have a little extra time and energy for attempting a batch of beet gnocchi with your 5-year-old.
Ready to Join the Adventurous Eaters Club?!
This cookbook The Adventurous Eaters Club is full of even more advice than what I've shared here, plus 100 kid-tested recipes to get you started on your own adventurous eating journey.
Have a free Saturday afternoon? Give this Beet Gnocchi recipe a try. The day I made it with the Collins family was an absolute riot, made even better by a bowl of very tasty and very pink pasta at the end.
Also, FYI, Vicki and Misha are donating 100% of their proceeds from this book to charities focused on bringing healthy food kids and families struggling with food insecurity. If that and a bowl of homemade gnocchi don't make you feel warm and fuzzy, then I don't know what will.
5 Tips for Raising an Adventurous Eater
- 2 medium raw beets (about 8 ounces total)
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 3/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- Butter or olive oil
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
Cook the beets:
Put the beets in a small saucepan, cover with cold water, add a pinch of table salt, and bring to a gentle boil. Boil until you can insert a fork in the beet, 30 to 45 minutes. When you try lifting the beet from the water, it should slide right off the fork. Drain and let cool.
Puree the beets:
Rub away the skin with your fingers. Cut each beet in quarters, then transfer to a blender. Add olive oil and a wee bit of water to help it get going. Blend until smooth.
Make the gnocchi dough:
Mound the flour on a clean surface (and since we’re working with beets, make sure your surface is stain resistant). Create a well in the middle of your flour mountain, add the coarsely grated Parmesan and salt, and crack in your egg. Break the yolk with a fork and stir, incorporating the flour and cheese into your egg center a little at a time.
After about half your flour is incorporated, fold in the beet puree and ricotta.
Now it’s time to start working it all together with your hands. Sprinkle the work surface with extra flour to keep it from sticking, then mix the dough by kneading and folding it until it’s smooth and the color is even.
Rest the gnocchi dough:
Then sprinkle more flour on your work surface, put the dough on top, and cover with a bowl. Let it nap for 30 minutes. No “knead” to overmix. (Dad joke.)
Shape the gnocchi (KID'S JOB!):
To make the gnocchi pieces, divide the dough into 4 sections and roll each section into ropes about the thickness of an adult’s thumb.
Using a kid knife, slice the ropes into 1/2-inch pieces. Press the tines of a fork gently into each piece to create some grooves and texture.
Cook the gnocchi:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Gently add the gnocchi to the pot and stir.
KID'S JOB! When you see the gnocchi float, set the timer for 1 minute. When the timer beeps, use a slotted spoon to lift them out of the boiling water and transfer them to a bowl.
Top with olive oil or butter, a sprinkle of salt, and Parmesan.