I’m a relatively new mom – I have two children, ages 1 and 3 (3 1/2, she would correct me) – and one of my primary goals for their physical and spiritual well-being is to raise good eaters – by “good”, I mean responsible omnivores who love all kinds of food. Unfortunately, at their current ages, I am failing at the non-picky part. But I try.
I actually started feeding my kids a varied diet before they were even born, and during their exclusively-breastfed months. I ate a wide variety of foods, particularly focusing on spicy foods and vegetables. I’ve read that babies whose mothers ate lots of broccoli while they were in utero come out liking it, so I loaded up on broccoli and spinach and whatever else seemed especially nutritious.
I read a lovely story in Nigella‘s fabulous How to Eat about when she was pregnant and had the chance to chat up an OB at a party. He told her that breastmilk changes not only in nutritional content as the baby grows and her needs change, but also it varies in flavor depending on what Mom’s been eating. So, Nigella concluded, breastfeeding is really the best way to begin introducing variety in eating to a child!
Isn’t that the coolest thing? As a species, our most natural way of beginning life has been designed to include variety, to begin priming the palate for future adventure. What a wonderful concept. But we probably shouldn’t make too big a deal of it, or we’ll wind up with flavored formula from scientists trying to replicate the goodies.
Most of the world’s babies aren’t treated with the kid gloves we use when it comes to spices (though they are exclusively breastfed longer), and so I have held back on super hot but certainly not flavorful ingredients. The kids get lots of curry, garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, and so forth. I try not to give them bland foods – while maintaining the natural taste, of course. Can’t mask the flavor, or they’ll never truly love the food itself.
Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes: children’s menus at restaurants. Ugh! The same crappy, flavorless six or so items on rotation: chicken nuggets, hamburger, mac and cheese, hot dog. All designed to appeal to the least common denominator while teaching our kids nothing about food and offering them nothing in the way of nutrition. Yuck!
I once went off on a poor waiter who brought my kid neon orange macaroni and cheese. The adult menu listed a four cheese mac and so we assumed the kid version would be a smaller portion of the good stuff. So when it came out Kraft, I said, “What is this?” And he said it was the “kid’s” mac and cheese. I said, “What do you mean? Do you think my kid doesn’t like good food? That she wants something that tastes like plastic and cardboard instead of having flavor?” And on and on about the sorry state of children’s palates today, and how of course they only want that stuff because that’s all we offer to them – we never challenge their palates so they have no idea what food tastes like!
Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He did replace the orange stuff.
Before my eldest was even a year old, some of her favorite dinners included beets with goat cheese, coconut curry, sweet potato gnocchi with rustic pine nut sauce, and potato-green garlic soup. She loves broccoli (only raw) and tofu. Recently we had a seafood paella and she was not that interested in the rice, but begging for, “More squid! More octopus!!”
Her brother will eat anything as long as it’s in mac and cheese. So I throw kale in there, bacon ends, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. He also loves pasta with tomato sauce, which is easy to puree greens into, or he’ll shovel in mushrooms, onions and sausage as long as there’s pasta with it.
Both my kids love plain yogurt to death, and of course fruits. They think a frozen puree of watermelon or cantaloupe (in a cute shape, of course, thanks to IKEA ice cube trays) is a treat. And for each, their first solid food was guacamole – not avocado, which they can kind of take or leave, but GUAC!
Of course, now the three year old in particular now often turns up her nose at most of the strongly flavored things we offer. When this happens, the “Party in my Tummy” song from Yo Gabba Gabba helps a lot. I once told her that her tummy was sad and waiting for its party, because only vegetables get the party started – and it worked! Now often when she eats a fruit or veg, she’ll say, “Mommy, the strawberry/broccoli/apple/etc. got the party started in my tummy!”
And yes, I do bribe with dessert. Often. But if it’s good dessert – and one me and Daddy are planning to eat anyway – I don’t see much harm in it.
The fact is, introducing a child to the wonders of food in all its variety, color, flavor, and creative potential is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever done. And I really look forward to the days when the kids will be big enough to help in the vegetable garden and the kitchen (they do try the latter, but it’s kind of more trouble than help right now). They love going to the farmer’s market, and spend many hours watching my husband and I cook.
Most importantly, they know that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. They’ve been to farms, they’ve met cows, they’ve picked strawberries and gathered eggs.
Because really that is the most basic lesson that we all must keep in mind: that food comes from hard work and a generous God. And for this we must be grateful.