How We Taught Our Kids To Be Good Eaters

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Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr

My kids are really good eaters. I’m kind of surprised at this, frankly, because I am and always have been a pretty picky eater.

And the thing is, we approach food all “wrong,” according to all the parenting advice I ever read. We’ve almost always forced our children to finish what they’re given—unless it’s starch, because starch is filler and nobody needs to fill up on that. We’ve been very clear that you don’t get dessert until you finish all the healthy stuff. We’re “no garlic bread until you finish your vegetables” parents. Or, in Michael’s case (he’s still a work in progress, actually), the meat before the garlic bread, because he eats his vegetables like a pro.

Given my own history of pickiness, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out why my kids eat vegetables so well. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I used the book Super Baby Foods to introduce foods, and I was always very cognizant of alternating sweet foods and not-sweet foods. (Sweet potato, avocado, banana were always the first three, in order. Notice I didn’t start with the super-sweet one. And notice I didn’t start with cereals, either.)

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We don’t eat a lot of this, for one thing. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

2. I made virtually all our baby food from real food, chopped up fine but not cooked beyond recognition and made into a paste. Which meant they got accustomed to the coarser texture of vegetables and meats from the beginning.

3. Kids have to eat everything they’re given, with a few exceptions. When Alex was three and gagged on mashed potatoes, for instance, I decided mashed potatoes are wasted calories anyway, I’m not going to force that. Another key is starting them on very doable portion sizes. (Vegetable portion sizes increase over time, but starting them with a couple of bites got them in the habit.)

4. For a couple of years, we served the vegetables first and everyone had to eat those before we moved on to the pasta or the steak. Christian told me he was “not fond” of this, but it worked. We haven’t had to do it in a while now.

5. I’ve also gotten into the habit of putting vegetables in almost everything. But I don’t call it “sneaking” because I’m very up front about it. “Does that have onions in it?” they ask, and I answer, “Yes. Eat them.” And they do. Likewise, “what is that red stuff?” I’ll say, “Red pepper. Eat it.”

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Trying to be cognizant of this. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

6. What do I mean by vegetables in everything? Processed kale and spinach and Brussels sprouts and occasionally avocado in chili, in soups, in zucchini muffins. Spinach in smoothies. If I can figure out how to add super veggies to it without significantly changing the taste or texture, I do. And I’m very up front about it, and always have been, which means the kids take it in stride.

7. We eat a huge variety of foods, because I like to cook. We’re always trying new recipes. One of our favorite stories is that Alex once asked a friend’s mom to make him quiche. (Did I ever mention that kembalay—creme brulee—was one of his first words?) (Hmm. I haven’t made creme brulee in quite a while…)

8. We make them try almost everything, even the funky salads and stuffed mushrooms I make primarily for myself and for Christian. But these trials don’t fit into the category of “must finish.” That’s a balance of trust: they will try new things because they know if they don’t like it, they only have to eat one bite.

9. Between the ages of 3-5, we “picked” the food battles. It was unpleasant and again, we’re still fighting it with Michael, whose most common words at dinner are “I don’t like _____!” But it’s definitely paid off—even for him, because although he resists protein, he’s a terrific vegetable eater.

10. We talk about food groups a lot, so even the youngest kids are learning what constitutes a protein and knows protein and fruit/vegetables are most important, and everything else is filler. We talk about portion sizes and moderation, and when they want seconds or—especially—thirds, we ask them to think about whether they’re really hungry or not.

So far, they seem to be learning the lessons I most want them to learn.

So that’s my best guess at why my kids eat well. What’s worked for you?

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