So, do my kids eat the myriad dishes I concoct? Certainly not always! Jack has tried beets several times but has decided that they are something he'll like "when I'm a grown-up," and he cannot tolerate some mushy stuff like mashed potatoes, goat cheese, and cheesecake. He does love applesauce, ice cream and so forth, but the former three literally make him throw up immediately. So, I don't force those at all. Oliver goes gang-busters on most foods but on occasion you can tell that something just does not look appealing to him. Again, I encourage tasting but don't force it too much. A number of books I've read and courses I took reiterated that taste-acquisition can take up to 10 times of repeated trials, so keep offering, keep encouraging tasting and one day, some previously disliked food might just become a love. Strategies I employ and have had success with:
1) As much as you can tolerate, cook with your kids. Involving them in the process (like gardening with them) makes them feel pride and ownership in the outcome. I was once making a Brussels sprouts salad in which you blanch, chill and then food process the B. sprouts. Jack asked if he could man the food processor, and ever since has professed to "LOVE" Brussels sprouts. He walks the walk too, and while he doesn't eat a full plate like I do, he'll nosh on a couple, and I figure that's a great start. Likewise, he has now twice asked to experiment and make a dip. Both times I vetted the ingredients he was considering (I wouldn't let him waste anything or mix items that would be revolting together) and let him go to town. Both times he's actually come up with good dips that he has then devoured. The first was a white bean and avocado concoction, and the second was avocados, capers, lemon and something else. Oliver, too, loves the process and the outcomes.
2) Suggest foods that align with their interests, or find connections between their interests and foods you'd like them to eat. For example, while Jack has always loved beans of pretty much any stripe, once he learned that cowboys eat beans when out on the range, he will eat at least half a can at any sitting. Seeing him do so encourages Oliver to eat the other half. You should see them go nuts on kidney beans or garbanzos, both of which pack a huge nutritional punch.
3) International lunch/dinner: I got this great idea from a dear friend; every Sunday, she and her hubby take their kids out to dinner at a restaurant that highlights a different global cuisine. I like this because a) it's cool and the parents get to eat yummy food too, b) making something part of your family routine ultimately makes said activity easier because it's expected, and c) the kids get used to going to new places with new flavors and connecting that experience to family time. It's also a great way to learn about a new part of the country or world with food as the starting point. Because my boys have always gone to bed so early, we do international lunch. They have been troopers at Indian, French and Middle Eastern spots!
4) Make faces on their plates with food. While I am strict about food not being a toy and not being something we play with or waste, I definitely want eating to be a pleasurable and fun experience. Banana rounds with raisins on them make great eyes, peas make funny hair, cheese makes a funny nose... Or try buildings... carrot sticks make great log cabins or towers. You see where I'm going with this. Don't be too serious or strict, have fun!
5) Don't make a big deal out of foods not always considered "kid-friendly." All foods can be kid-friendly! For example, salmon. I have been feeding the kids salmon since they were tots. Capers go a long way in making it thrilling for them, and it is extremely rare that they don't clean their plates when I serve it. I have never seen any reason to eat American cheese. What is it? Why? Why does it look waxy? So, I've never introduced it in my home. Instead I've just taken them to markets and cheese stalls and other shops that offer "tasters," as they love to say, and let them know that whatever they truly love, I'll buy for home. Hence their obsession with the marble cheese full of ash. Smoothies- I just load them with spinach and recently, when we didn't have any, Jack bemoaned its absence. I don't know that he'd eat a huge plate of plain spinach but he's happy to eat it when it's blended in. It "makes the smoothie pretty." Again, a great start. Remember, taste counts, and a little salt is ok. Lemon is great, spices yum! If it's something that would make you turn up your nose, it might cause them the same reaction.
6) Eat with them! Pretty much every day, as you might know, Oliver and I share a huge salad for lunch. It's a great bonding time and he will try anything in "our salad." Tom regularly grills kofta burgers (Lebanese flavors; see Em-i-lis Recipes), and the three of them eat like voracious animals!
7) Do give them some choice! I don't want the boys to think I'm a short-order cook who'll indulge their every culinary whim, but I do think it's respectful of their preferences and developing palates to offer choice. Not the whole kitchen sink, but a reasonable 2-3. Do you want broccoli, edamame or bell peppers? Apples or grapes? Chicken or meatballs? Here again, I'm drawing on the idea of empowerment, asking themselves, "what am I hungry for? what sounds good to me?"
8) "If you don't have room for those last few bites, you don't have room for dessert." If the boys say they're full but then ask for dessert, I respond with a line like this one. While I don't ask them to finish everything their plate, I do take real notice of how much they started with and where they are when they start thinking sweets. If they're at about 75% done, I might suggest two more bites. If they're not even close to a quarter or such, I don't even entertain the idea until they've made greater progress. Almost always though, when we get down to the time that dessert is becoming a possibility, and I say "no dessert OR x # of bites more" they will either eat the bites or turn down dessert.
I'm sure these aren't fool-proof, but I've had really good success with them.