[Although I often think that my kids are far too picky eaters, my wife reminds me that they’re really not that bad. And when I really ponder the situation, I realize that she is right (what else is new?). None of my kids loves everything, but for the most part (one of my daughters being the exception), they do well.
That made me think of something I wrote nearly 5 years ago, when my oldest child was 9 and my youngest was 2. I thought I’d revive this piece, which was originally published on the website for the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters on September 24, 2003.]
“C’MON, TRY the beets. They’re really as sweet as candy! Even better, they, make your pee turn red!” Yeah, those are the words I used not too long ago to get our kids to eat beets. For some reason, the L’il Varmints had a slight problem with putting beets in their mouths. First of all, they saw this veggie get pulled from the dirt at a nearby organic farm. These were nasty, icky, muddy things with hair at the bottom. Second, beets are red, seriously red, with just enough purple to make them unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Finally, one of the adults at the table already professed that she hated beets. (Why the hell do people do that, right when we’re trying to convince the children how great they are?)
This is not a column about beets or other food that people “don’t get.” This is a tale of what we parents do to get their kids to try new food, to just give it a chance. A story of “try it, you’ll like it.” Most of us parents with normal kids encounter this situation — I’m not talking about children who ate sushi at the age of 4 or truly enjoyed sauteed mushrooms on their very rare prime rib (seasoned with fleur de sel, of course). I’m talking about the Froot Loops and PB&J eating type. The ones who seek out macaroni and cheese, preferably Kraft. Children who expect — no, demand — the blue colored ketchup with their Tater Tots. These are the children I know, my L’il Varmints, God love them. They’re also the children found in most typical households, from Milwaukee to Schenectady to Placerville — and all places in between.
We parents recognize that our kids’ palates must be expanded beyond processed, over salted, over sweetened, pasteurized convenience food-like products. Cheez Whiz is not real cheese. Neal’s Yard Lancashire, on the other hand, is what they need to try. So what measures do we take to convince our children to try new things?
Comparisons to the familiar are good. F’rinstance, it’s appropriate to tell your child that the calamari is just like the popcorn shrimp at the Red Lobster. Or that the creme brulee is just like Jello Instant Pudding, only tastier. I love this strategy — “it’s just like (fill in the blank), but even better.” Yeah, they always fall for that one, along with “and it’s really good for you, too!” Making it healthy is the kiss of death for kids.
Comparing the new item to candy is even better. Making that creme brulee equivalent to pudding with a candy top is a sure fire winner. Turning the rutabagas into potatoes with sugar is another good one. We love to add a bit of honey or brown sugar to our carrots and call them “candy carrots.” They’re now the L’il Varmints’ favorite vegetable.
Competitions also have some success. You can make it an individualized game of food solitaire, by saying, “How many peas can you eat? I bet you can eat 11 peas.” So what if they end up with a gambling addiction — they love peas!!! If you are not worried about each of your children’s psyches, you can also make it a family contest. “Who’s going to be the first to try the Brussels sprouts?” When it comes to Brussels sprouts, I’m afraid that the winner of that competition would be the one who is most likely to become the drug user because of a peer pressure problem or the one most likely to be the big brown-noser. I recently challenged the two older L’il Varmints to see who could try the most different things at a family style Southern lunch. Damn, if it didn’t work. Neither tried the cabbage casserole, however. We all have our limits.
Reverse psychology? “There’s no way that you’ll ever eat those limas!” This strategy works until a child is about 4 or 5, and then he or she develops this teeny, tiny problem of not listening to you. Or, they just tell you to “get real, Dad.”
As mentioned with the beets, stupid human tricks are effective. Convincing them that it’ll make their pee turn red or smell funny, or that their tongue will change color can work. Make sure that they eat enough of it to reach the desired effect, as my kids’ pee was still yellow the next day after they only ate two bites.
Threats? Mrs. Varmint’s parents required her and her sisters to eat at least 3 bites of each item on their plate before they could be excused from the table. Being the typical, shrewd, and obstinate children that my wife and sisters-in-law were (and continue to be!), they just sat there until it was well past their bedtime. They knew how to stay up late. Our children have not only inherited my in-law’s stubbornness genes, they have perfected that trait. Thus, such simple threats have no impact whatsoever. Should we resort to more severe threats? C’mon, this is the 21st century — no one threatens their child anymore. Plus, we don’t want there to be any negative associations with food, now, do we?
You could always head down the old-fashioned route and bribe the little ones. Money, dessert, extra XBox time are all standards. It’s just food, however, and we’re not about to pay off any ungrateful child to try the lamb. More for me that way, anyhow.
Guilt doesn’t work anymore either. I don’t know why the starving children in Africa ploy isn’t as effective as it was for me when I was a kid — not that I ever had to be guilted into eating my food.
Ultimately, we parents end up looking pretty stupid in our attempts to convince our kids to try new things. Our children are far smarter than we can ever imagine, and they’ll try the food when they’re ready. Except for those Brussels sprouts, of course.