Last year, my daughter Julian and I stopped in front of a vegetable stand at our local farmers’ market. Without even pausing to consider what it would taste like uncooked, my 5-year-old grabbed a piece of raw okra and popped it into her mouth. Moments later, she pronounced it “crunchy and wet” and started filling our bag with handfuls of the green vegetable.
The mom standing next to us gasped, pulled at my shirtsleeve, and desperately insisted I tell her my “secret” for getting my kids to “eat healthy.” To her great disappointment, I explained I didn’t have a secret. Julian recommended she start with the okra and we parted ways.
Each time I’m at the market I hope I run into that mom again because I have since come up with a better answer. Here are my eight not-so-secret rules to get your kids to eat everything:
Rule #1: Let Your Kids Taste Anything Someone Hands Them
Last week we lost power during a brutal heat wave in Los Angeles, so I took my kids to Costco. While we enjoyed the free air-conditioning, I encouraged my girls to try the free samples. A cucumber and cantaloupe smoothie from the Vitamix demonstration? Yes, please! Tomato and spinach focaccia? We’ll take two slices. Quinoa patty? Don’t mind if we do. By the time we reached the checkout line, they had tried about seven different foods, most they had never seen before.
Kids are usually more open to trying something if someone else (i.e. not mom or dad) offers it, so let friends, family, or the occasional grocery store clerk feed your kids once in a while.
Rule #2: Stop Tricking Your Kid into Eating Vegetables
You might feel good when your kid sucks down a squeezable pouch of spinach, blueberries and pomegranates but don’t fool yourself—your kid isn’t actually eating spinach. She’s ingesting spinach disguised as a sweet fruit. She’s not able to tell which flavor is which and might end up wanting all of her vegetables to taste sweet.
Instead, if you serve your child pouches, try to stick to the one ingredient variety and let her develop a taste for the sweetness of a carrot without a raspberry chaser.
Rule #3: Stop With all the Snacking
“French Kids Eat Everything” author Karen Le Billon explains that in France, children sit for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner. That’s it. It sounds unrealistic to those of us who throw a goldfish cracker at even the hint of a meltdown, but try it for a day and watch how much more real food your kids eat at mealtimes because they are actually hungry. It’s easy to forget we’re supposed to eat meals when we’re hungry so that we don’t need to fill up on snacks.
There is an old saying that “hunger is the best sauce.” Try it tonight with your dinner.
Rule #4: Everybody Eats the Same Meal
Lots of people assume kids aren’t humans and need special “kid food” like buttered pasta and chicken nuggets. They don’t. Make your life easier, ditch the short-order cooking and make one meal for the whole family. Lead by example and eat the same healthy food you want your kids to eat. If your kid resists the meal, don’t offer a substitute and see what happens. If she insists on starving herself and you just can’t let your little one go to bed hungry, do what parenting expert Betsy Brown Braun suggests and offer your kid the same nighttime snack option every single night like a string cheese or banana. Both are single serve options most people always have around the house. If your kid knows her only other choice besides the family meal is always the same thing, she might get more adventurous at dinner.
Rule #5: Cook with Your Kids
Even if you don’t cook, commit to preparing one dish a couple of times a week with your kids. Just putting together a salad can help your child feel a deeper respect and appreciation for his food. As you’re washing the dirt off that carrot, explain how real food grows in the ground. Let them slice up a zucchini with a plastic knife. A favorite cooking activity in our house is using the slow cooker. My little one loves throwing everything in one big pot.
If you’re too busy during the week, cook on the weekend and start with a dessert—my kids love Le Billon’s “Mousse au Chocolat” or anything from “Pretend Soup.” If you have absolutely no interest in cooking, consider storybooks about food and cooking like “Eating the Alphabet” or “Soup Day” at bedtime.
Rule #6: Eat Together
I know it’s almost impossible to get everyone to eat a meal together, but study after study reminds us we should. If you just can’t all make it home at the same time for dinner, why not make breakfast your “eat together” meal of the day? Or shoot for committing to a Shabbat meal together every week. If your kids eat together, work on your older one. The younger one will want what’s on his big brother’s plate.
Rule #7: Just Taste It
I tell my kids they don’t have to like it, but they do have to taste it, and I allow them to spit out whatever they don’t like. Don’t make a huge deal about it and start small; ask your kids to try just one or two new things a week. If they need some extra incentive, offer them a reward like an extra book at bedtime. But don’t reward them with a dessert; you want them to enjoy food because it’s enjoyable, not because they can trade it for something sweeter.
Rule #8: Stop Talking About Food
I talk about food all the time but I am careful what I say to my children. I never tell them to eat something “because it’s good for you.” That’s basically a recipe for getting your kid to avoid whatever it is you are pushing that night.
I have heard parents complain their kids only eat grilled cheese, but when a new food is presented the mom might say “oh, you’re not going to like that.” When it comes to the food talk, less is more. Serve the food, and talk about anything but what’s for dinner.
Take it one day at a time. Even though my kids usually eat everything, they have gone through phases where they refused all but a handful of foods. But if you keep offering a variety of healthy options and follow at least some of the rules above, they always come back eventually. And if all else fails, take them to Costco. I’m pretty sure all of those samples added up to one hearty meal.