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Food + Cooking

The Kid’s Menu: Preventing Pickiness

I want my child to be an adventurous eater—but do I really have any say in the matter?
kid eating

Indulge me, if you will, as I’m writing this to keep my future self humble.

I’ve been thinking about children and food, but I’m documenting my ideas now, because nobody has stronger opinions about raising children than people who have none—a club to which I will belong for only one more month, give or take a few days.

I have seen with my own eyes those mythical two-year-olds who without a thought feed themselves broccoli rabe, spicy tomato sauce, and escargots; and I also have seen those children who only eat white foods or things shaped into nuggets. Forgive me, but I must confess that I think the parents in each case must be at least partially responsible. I have noted a tendency for parents of the former type of child to not make a fuss over mealtime, but rather to plop their kids down and have everyone eat together, regardless of what’s on the menu. Parents of the latter type, on the other hand, tend to take it for granted that their kids will not want to try something new, and thus let them run around and play while the grown-ups attend to the grown-up business of eating their grown-up food.

To complicate matters, I must admit that although I’m now free of food phobias and willing to taste anything, I was an incredibly picky child. I think my parents’ approach with me was right, for the most part—they always goaded me to “just taste,” even when I was convinced that I hated something. Then again, I do have one or two painful memories of sitting at the table long after everyone else had finished, with a little pile of broccoli in front of me, tears streaming down my cheeks. It’s hard to imagine doing that with my child, and I’m not quite sure those incidents were the ones that made me the eater I am today. Luckily, the overall tone regarding meals in my family was one of enjoyment, and it’s worked its way into my DNA as surely as my mother’s eyes and my father’s goofy sense of humor.

Of course, there must be more than one way to raise good eaters. Rick Bayless once told me that in Mexico, spicy foods are deliberately held back from children until a certain age, so that when they do taste them it signals their rite of passage into adulthood, and it never occurs to anyone not to like them. But this contradicts my parents’ steady, constant-exposure approach, the one I plan on following. On the other hand, I’ve always admired former executive food editor Zanne Stewart’s technique: When her daughter objects to a dinner, Zanne offers the less-appealing choice of yogurt and a banana. “In seven years, she’s opted for the yogurt and banana twice,” Zanne says.

As someone in my line of work, I can only hope for a good little eater. But even if I get one, what will it prove? At the moment, I still wonder if would all be the luck of the draw, rather than due to something I will have done right. Judging from my own childhood, I realize that if I want to raise a good eater, I might have to be willing to commit to the project for at least 15 years. God willing, I’ve got the time.