10 Tips to Raise and Encourage Adventurous Eaters

Yo, yo, yo! Let’s clarify one thing at the start here:

My kids are not perfect eaters!

They have been known to gag. And cry. Sometimes they even play dead to avoid eating the tomatoes barely visible in dinner’s pasta.

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But thankfully, those moments are few and far between. And overall, my kids (ages 9, 7 5, 4, 1), while not perfect, are pretty darn good eaters…dare I say, they’ve actually become adventurous eaters.

Now by adventurous, I don’t mean that my kids are begging for marinated jellyfish and kimchi. Our available food is far less exotic than that. But what I do mean is they eat a wide variety of foods and for the most part, they eat everything I make for dinner; from Coconut Shrimp Curry to White Bean and Sausage, Kale and Tomato Ragout with a lot of vegetable sides (usually steamed veggies of some sort) and a plethora of quinoa and other grain dishes. Basically, any recipe you see here on this site? My kids will eat.

Granted, not always with smiles and cheers, but they have come to expect new and varying foods at the dinner table and are very willing to try new things.

It is a work in progress and we have a long way to go, but I’d love to share with you 10 things we do in our home to encourage fearless, adventurous and healthful eating. Please understand this is not a “Do as I Do” post but more a “Hey, Maybe At Least One of These Will Be Slightly Useful” post. At the end, I’m also sharing my kids’ top 10 meal requests of all time. Think: no-fail kid food that is healthy and fun.

Let’s go!

#1: Make It Fun and Consistent

While we use dinnertime to try and create boys-with-manners (uh, this may or may not be a battle I feel like I’m losing most days), we also do a lot of talking and laughing and some of our favorite family memories have come from eating dinner together. I’d share them but honestly, they are the types of situations that are kind of like “you had to be there” moments and are probably only rib-clutching funny to us.

Dinnertime is the first time we are coming back together as a family after going our separate, frantic ways in the morning and it’s where we connect again. You might wonder how this tip plays into the adventurous eating part, but I really believe that because the kids know dinnertime is a consistent expectation (not only are they expected to sit and eat as a family, they are expected to eat what mom (i.e. me) prepares for dinner) and because it’s fun, relaxed family time, the atmosphere is very non-threatening which means introducing new foods can be done in an environment that usually breeds success. I’ll talk about this in more detail in other tips below, but truly, dinnertime (not the making of, which I sometimes dread, but the eating of) is one of the funnest times of the day for our family.

I believe in family dinnertime. It helps our family to continue liking each other, and I have no doubt that eating together nearly every single day has helped the kids be adventurous in their eating. Now, I do recognize that my kids are young and not over-involved in extra-curricular activities and also that Brian and I are lucky enough to have work hours that coincide to being home for dinner – I can see this structure changing based on those two factors but for now, it works for us and so we’re running with it.

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#2: Eat a Variety {Colors & Food!}

The phrase “eat your colors” is repeated 53 times a day in our house. My boys are utterly obsessed with it even though we had to have a long talk about how fruit snacks and Jolly Ranchers don’t count. It has to be natural colors, boys, natural.

Whenever we sit down to dinner (or really any meal), the eating cannot commence until colors are counted. The other night we were eating these black bean and sweet potato burritos along with honey lime fruit salad and steamed broccoli, and my boys were nearly apoplectic at all the colors. My 7-year old announced that he couldn’t wait to tell his friends the next day that we had eaten NINE colors at dinner. (I’m really hoping his friends weren’t like: “Dude, I’m so glad I’m not in your family.”) They’ve really, really gotten on board with this and it’s become a sort of competition to try and reach the all-time record for colors at dinner. Competition + My Boys = Major Success. To be honest, it has put pressure on me, as the main cook around these parts, to incorporate a variety of colors but I’m up for the challenge!

Generally speaking, the more colorful a food (again, natural colors here), the more health benefits it has and there are some pretty darn adventurous, colorful foods out there: kale, sweet potatoes, all sorts of berries, roasted red peppers, jicama, kiwi, avocado…I mean the list goes on and on and on. Eat your colors! You’ll feel non-boring in seconds.

Aside from colors, one of my main goals is to serve our family a variety of foods. While we love the classics like any family (spaghetti, tacos, etc.), those beloved meals are interspersed with a plethora of new recipes and meals. I try to incorporate seafood a couple of times a month, meatless once a week or so (which allows us to experiment with a wide array of vegetables and legumes) and a variety of other meats thrown in there (pork, beef, chicken, etc.). Along with that, I like to change up the style of food: we eat a lot of Indian-inspired dishes as well as classic American, Italian-ish (read: pasta), and some Tex-Mex/Mexican-type food.

When my kids get used to eating the same foods and flavors over and over, they aren’t as likely to want to try new things. So in order to spare me grief at dinnertime, my coping skill is to throw lots of fun and interesting flavors and foods at them all the time. They are extremely adaptable! What I’ve learned is that by doing this they

a) don’t question new foods at all…sometimes I get the skeptical eyebrow lift but they have come to expect the unexpected and

b) they kiss my feet when spaghetti does make it on the menu.

#3: Don’t Short Order Cook

Breakfast and dinner at our house goes like this: eat what I’m lovingly serving or don’t. It’s your choice, but you don’t get Option B. Or C. Or D. The only exception is little Cam who is a year old and who is still getting introduced to a lot of new foods. She kind of rules the table and gets whatever she pounds her fists and demands. But if you are three years old and older, you don’t get to put in an order for mealtime. I cook it. You eat it.

If you think that is harsh, read the tips further down for some solace to your soul (I promise, no one is lacking for food around here). My boys would totally manipulate the situation and only eat the foods in their comfort zone if I let them push aside the dinner I fixed because they know I’ll fix them a cheese quesadilla instead. I understand this is not everyone’s philosophy but it works for us.

#4: One Slam Dunk Food

If #3 threw you into heart palpitations for its severity, have no fear. The boys’ (and sometimes Brian’s) saving grace is that I always make sure there is at least one food on the table they like. That is important to me and them because I feel like dinnertime should be a safe place (remember how I used the term “non-threatening” in tip #1?). So, even though I may have one “out there” dish to challenge everyone’s taste buds, there is also going to be a plate of apple slices or a side dish that is much-loved by everyone.

Like I said, no one is going hungry around here. Also, along these lines (but not really), if it helps the kiddo to down that carrot (or cucumber or whatever) by dipping it, then dip it they do. Dipping food in ketchup or ranch or whatever is totally acceptable here – not to the point that things get grody – but dipping happens and there have been a lot of foods that I thought the kids would never eat that got inhaled because they were dipped in ranch.

Believe it or not, the ranch slowly disappears over time leaving the kids continuing to eat whatever it was that started out smothered in dip.

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#5: It’s All About The Bite

When dinner starts, I dish up a small portion (and I’m talking, pretty small) of all the food on the table for each boy. The older boys have started dishing up their own food with the understanding that they shouldn’t get too aggressive with portions to start, because in case they forgot, their momma hates wasted food.

I start small and encourage the two older kids to start small because I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by a huge, heaping portion. They can always ask for more, right? The rule in our house is they have to take ONE bite of everything. Just one. If our windows are open, the neighbors probably hear a lot of “Let’s hear three cheers for Ty!” at which point the family shouts “Hip Hip Hooray” three times because Ty ate a big spoonful of beans or because he silently ate his entire dinner without complaining or because he was the first to try the new, slightly scary quinoa side dish I came up with (perhaps he should have gotten a double dose of Hip Hip Hooray for that one). One bite is all it takes.

Sometimes (not always, but sometimes), I am pleasantly surprised when their I-Know-It-Will-Make-Me-Gag attitude actually turns into them asking for more. I attribute the success of that to the one bite rule. You might be asking, “what happens if they absolutely will not take a bite?” Oh, yes, I see that you have some stubborn souls just like we do. Well, when that happens, we tell them they can hide their bite in another food on the table or take a big drink of milk after they eat it or plug their nose or hum or whatever – giving them lots of options to help them get it down. We play the game of “take the bite before the timer goes off” to see if they can race against the clock. If all else fails, we tell them they can either put the bite in their mouth or we will do it for them and we’ve never had to go beyond that.

They don’t want us feeding them. Really, a lot of it goes back to consistency – we’ve had this same expectation for so long that they don’t question it anymore. Even though it was a challenge to implement when we first started a long time ago, it is just part of the family dinner routine now.

#6: Monkey See, Monkey Do

This is a quick and simple tip: we don’t expect our kids to eat anything we aren’t willing to eat. If peas are being served as a side dish? Well, peas appear on all seven of our plates.

Brian may not like me admitting this to the world, but he isn’t always jumping up and down with excitement about vegetables. In fact, he would go without if we didn’t have kids sitting around staring at him, but bless his heart, he always takes a scoop of whatever is on the table (sometimes after a discreet but hard kick to his shin from me) so that the boys can see their dad and mom eating exactly what they are eating. Interestingly enough, there have been times that dinner has been downright awful (think: pork chops so dry even I couldn’t swallow them) and clearly, if it’s nasty for mom and dad, no one is expected to eat it and there are cheers all around when gag-dinner is swept off the table replaced by PB&J. It’s a unified, group effort here.

While I make no effort to hide my hypocritical tendencies elsewhere like hiding in the pantry scarfing chocolate chips while telling the kids no sweets are allowed right now, during dinner, we all eat the same stuff, like it or not.

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#7: Dessert Is A Privilege

We are a sweets-loving family and I’m not ashamed to admit it. However, when it comes to dinner, everyone knows that dessert is a privilege. We reserve bigger desserts for Sunday dinners but because I am wired to want something a little sweet after dinner, there is usually a cookie from the freezer or at the very least, a couple of chocolate chips to enjoy after dinner. I know, we are so gourmet. Those treats, however big or small, are for the mommies and daddies and kids who ate their dinner.

I really hate the philosophy of “clearing your plate” for what it teaches about overeating – but because the kids start with very small portions of dinner (see #5), to get dessert they have to eat the majority of what’s on their plate. Not all of it, but most of it. As in, give it their best effort.

They are more than welcome to get down from the dinner table or forgo dessert after they’ve followed the “one bite rule,”, but to earn the dessert privilege, they have to eat their dinner. Pretty simple.

We hardly have to even talk about this rule because it’s just generally accepted and there are very, very few nights when someone is willing to sacrifice the precious four chocolate chips up for grabs. See? They may look exactly like their dad but they have my chocolate-loving DNA.

#8: Don’t Drink Your Dinner

Drinks are definitely not the highlight of our every day dinners. I’ve found that serving juice or anything else out of the ordinary just makes for a lot of whiny kids that want to drink their calories instead of eat them.

So it’s milk or water for us. Boring but functional.

#9: Kitchen Helpers Make Good Eaters

My kids love, love, love to help in the kitchen. And if your kids are anything like my kids, that sweet offer to help sometimes leaves me cringing because often it is the exact opposite of the kind of help I really need. However, I have found a very clear and scientific correlation between helping and eating. The meals my boys help cook? Well, they eat those foods 100 times more willingly than when they don’t help.

Amazingly, a red bell pepper chopped by a 4-year olds hands (wielding a butter knife) tastes completely different than a red bell pepper chopped by a 35-year old mom wielding a santoku knife. Really. Plus, you better believe I allow all sorts of snitching when they are chopping up vegetables and ingredients. If it’s going to get them to try something they normally wouldn’t, well then I’m all over that. My 9-year old has taken a huge interest in cooking as of late and consults the cookbook he got for his birthday all the time. He’s made our family dinner a handful of times and I am shocked (seriously, jaw-dropping shocked) at some of the meals he’s made and how well he and his brothers eat them. The entire time they are slurping up the food, they are oohing and aahing about how good the spinach pesto is or how fabulously delicious the creamy peas and potatoes are and how I should definitely take a picture of it and post about how I’m not the only one who knows how to cook around here.

I swear if I would have made those exact same meals, I would have had some very skeptical eaters on my hands. I’m a believer that my boys have become more adventurous eaters when I finally relaxed (another work in progress) and actually encouraged them to help cook meals.

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#10: Repeat, Repeat and Repeat Again

I can’t emphasize this tip enough. If my boys weep and wail and plead for the earth to swallow them whole because of the dinner I made, then their pleading is all in vain because that meal will appear again. And again. And most likely again.

They might not be crazy about it the first time, and quite honestly, there are some meals I’ve made that at least one or two of the boys still aren’t crazy about even after eating multiple times, but usually, after the same dinner has appeared for the 3rd time and they realize it isn’t going to eat them first, they will eat it without complaining and sometimes even ask for seconds at which point I usually fall off my chair. A few years ago, we were having such a problem with them eating two of the most basic foods on the planet: potatoes and beans (legumes).

Seriously! What kids don’t like those foods? Ours. So I commenced The Great Bean and Potato Crusade. For an entire month, every dinner had either beans or potatoes in it. I thought I was going to die the first few nights. I mean seriously, the gagging and tears were painful. But do you know what? It.Totally.Worked. I am the proudest mom in the world because my kids do something most kids already do: they eat beans and potatoes without complaining. In fact, they don’t even bat an eye now when they appear on the dinner table and my 5-year old has declared himself the “potato king” because he loves potatoes so much (especially these skillet ones). If you would have told me and Brian a few years ago that this was possible, we would have laughed and probably wept. But the constant repetition made a huge difference. True, I personally didn’t want to look upon another potato or bean after that month was over and done with, but I’ll never tell my kids that.

Most, most, most of all, understand that change doesn’t happen overnight! Like I said at the beginning, we are still paving this trail for our family but I have seen such huge, tremendous growth in our kids’ taste buds and their sense of adventure about eating in the last few years. I am happy knowing that we can go just about anywhere and my kids aren’t going to throw a tantrum about what is being served for dinner (please no judging if I’m at your house next week and I’m proved wrong when my 7-year old decides he has a sudden aversion to carrots).

One final note is that while implementing all of these tips, our main goal is to be positive with the kids and encourage them to try new things. They have a huge sense of satisfaction when they see how many colors they are eating or being able to brag to their friends about the strange food they ate for dinner last night they can barely pronounce. Making it challenging and fun and trying new foods along with them has worked miracles for their sense of adventure. We are very up front with them about some of the foods that we each don’t like (Brian: pickles and beets and cabbage, me: Brussel sprouts and capers and Kalamata olives). I want them to know that it’s ok to not like something but they sure better be willing to step out of their comfort zone and try it a few times before they decide.

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Now, by popular demand, I polled my boys and here are the top 10 meals they would eat every day if they could. If you are looking for some kid-pleasing fare, this should do it! As you can see, when it comes to weeknight meals, I keep our side dishes ultra-simple (embarrassingly simple, really) but it’s enough just to get dinner on the table, knowwhatImean?

Top 10 Meal Requests at My House:

Sweet and Sour Chicken (always served with steamed broccoli or peas, rice and some kind of fruit or green salad)
Creamy Alfredo Sauce (my boys would eat this every day if they could; to get in some nutrients, we always eat it with cut up fresh vegetables like red peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower or some type of steamed vegetable like green beans, broccoli, peas, edamame, etc.)
Honey Lime Tilapia (again, with vegetables, fresh fruit and usually barley pilaf or rice pilaf)
Indian Butter Chicken (if I’m feeling like a rockstar, with naan made with whole wheat flour, and always with some kind of vegetable)
Ground Beef Stroganoff (yep, mushrooms and everything, although you could easily leave them out)
Cheesy Ham and Broccoli Quinoa Bites (served with cottage cheese and lots of fresh fruit)
Asian Lettuce Wraps (served with fresh fruits and vegetables and often cottage cheese or applesauce)
Spaghetti Pie (served with any of the above options: some kind of vegetable and often fruit, too)
The Best Tacos (along with lots of toppings, fresh vegetables, sometimes cornbread almost always made with whole wheat flour, fruit and often cottage cheese or yogurt)
Broccoli Beef (served with rice and fresh fruit)

I’m panicking because this list feels so incomplete – there are many more meals the boys crave and request like meatball subs, shrimp curry and shrimp penne. Enchiladas and sloppy joes. Tomato soup with grilled cheese. But I guess this will do for a start!

I hope these tips and meal suggestions will help you as you endeavor to raise adventurous eaters, too. Any tips to share? Great! I’d love to hear them.