How I Taught My Kids to Eat EVERYTHING

 Some kids are born adventurous eaters, but a lot of them are picky. My six kids eat everything from sushi to Brussels Sprouts and love it. Even my daughter with sensory issues has learned to eat just about everything because of how we approach meal times. Meal times don't have to be a battle with toddlers, preschoolers, or at any age.

When my husband and I order pizza for the kids and pick up sushi and nigiri for ourselves, there is much complaining. “Why do you get the sushi?! Can I have just one piece?” When we have fajitas, we have to make huge amounts of onions and peppers because there will be a brawl if we run out. At home my kids eat pork belly, pear gorgonzola salads, and bacon-wrapped asparagus. 

Out in my summer garden they snack on cherry tomatoes while they play in the yard. They love hummus, fish, quiche, stinky cheeses, Brussels sprouts, poached eggs, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, yogurt and spinach. They beg me to make Super Hero Juice (recipe below). My son actually cried when he developed an allergy to shrimp (one day he broke out in hives after eating them. It was a sad day). They love our tradition of Indian Food on Sundays.

Their ages are 9, 9, 9, 8, 6, and 3. Are you shocked?

When others see what they eat, I always get asked, “How on earth did you get your kids to eat like this?”

“My kids will only eat like, five things. I would kill to have them eat real food.”

“I hate making two meals every night. One for us, one for the kids.”

And restaurant servers who are astounded by what our kids order and devour from the menus.

So how did I do it? How did I raise six foodies? How did I avoid a steady diet of blue box macaroni, chicken dinos and frozen fries for my kids? 

The Short Answer: Ever since our kids were old enough for table food, I have fed them like adults. They eat what we eat, and we like to eat good food. I’ve never fed them blue box macaroni, chicken dinos and frozen fries because we don’t want to eat those things. Ick.

The Long Answer: My inspiration was partly the way I was raised, and partly a book called, “How to Get Your Kids to Eat, But Not Too Much.”

Growing up in a family of six kids myself, that leaves a lot of room for a wide variety of preferences. My mom’s philosophy was simply that what she prepared was what we were having for dinner. The end. She didn’t short order cook for anyone. We just ate it. Because we were hungry.

In the book, the basic idea is that you never allow food to become a power struggle. As the adult, my responsibility is to provide good food at appropriate times, and the child’s responsibility is to decide IF and how much to eat. 

My oldest has a sensory issue related to her mouth. As an infant I couldn’t just pop a bottle or paci in her mouth. She would flip out. I had to offer it by stroking her bottom lip and she would decide to take it. She didn’t like her face touched anywhere near her mouth. I never knew if she was teething because I could have lost a finger by sticking one in her mouth to check. I should add, that other than this fierce protection of her mouth, she is and always has been a very sweet-natured little girl and has been an extremely easy-to-raise child. 

As a byproduct of this sensory issue, she has aversions to certain food textures. She likes crunchy foods and hates soft foods. Toast yes, bread no. Soup definitely not. If I had allowed it, she would be on a strict diet of pretzels, toast and tortilla chips today, and she is 9 years old. 

HOW I DO IT

If one of our kids turns up their noses at the food offered at a meal, our response is this: “We’re having tacos for dinner. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always wait to see if you like breakfast better.” And that is the end of it. There are no substitutes, no fights, no cajoling, bribing, negotiating, pleading, deal-making, or begging of any kind. The decision is theirs. There are no thank you bites or airplanes fashioned from spoons full of peas. 

There were nights my sweetpea chose to wait for breakfast, and everyone was ok with it. We don’t force our kids to eat anything they don’t want to. I hate liver. I dislike olives and capers. I detest ketchup, and lima beans are an atrocity. I wouldn’t want someone to make me eat those. Why would I do the same to them?

They know that there is food available at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an afternoon snack. We don’t snack in between, so come meal time, they should be pretty hungry. Thankfully I’ve never been a snacker myself, so I’ve avoided the habit with my kids.

When she was a toddler she would wander into the kitchen and say, “I just want some little bit of milk.” I soon realized she was filling up on milk at meals and in between so she wouldn’t have to eat things that made her uncomfortable. We started treating milk like a food (because it is) and limiting them to 8 ounces per meal. “Milk is food. If you’re thirsty drink water.” My kids still drink water 95% of the time.

She was offered pasta of some variety about once a week, and she finally tried it when she was four. It took her three years of table foods to take me up on that offer of pasta. And guess what? She loved it. Soups literally made her gag until she was seven. Now my homemade chicken noodle soup is her favorite meal, and she loves all my soups. 

Her pediatrician and I discussed this at her well check last year, and he was very impressed with my approach, and said I did her a huge favor, because she could have been THAT GIRL for the rest of her life, an adult ordering chicken fingers and fries from every restaurant menu. No one wants to hang out with, date, or eat a meal with THAT GIRL.

PUT TO THE TEST

We know a family who has a child that refuses to eat anything just for the thrill of watching his parents beg. They beg him to eat pizza, pancakes, anything. He eats a lot of brightly colored cereal. He’s been doing it since he was old enough to refuse, and at his age now, I bet he doesn’t even know why he refuses. It’s a habit at this point.

One time we invited their family over for dinner (though I’m not sure why, because no one wants to have THAT KID over for dinner). We had seen the ritual before, so we were expecting it. They were begging him to eat some bread because he had already refused everything else on the table. He ended up with a bowl of Froot Loops they had brought with them. I cannot imagine the exhaustion of doing this four times a day with this kid.

During the same meal, one of our four year olds at the time decided to to try it out for himself. “I don’t want this, I want cereal!!!” He said it in the same nasty, hateful voice this boy used. I calmly replied, “We’re having pork loin for dinner, but you are welcome to wait for breakfast. Maybe you’ll like that better.” He repeated himself two more times, as did I. On the third time I added, “And if you choose to speak to me that way again, you’ll be excused from the table for the rest of the night.” Their mouths were hanging open, baited breath, waiting for the explosion. They were waiting for me to get mad, to start the negotiations, to make threats and demands, but I continued eating my dinner. After a few minutes my son mumbled, “Can I please have some pork?” Of course. Pass me your plate. And that was the end. We never went through it again.

THE FINE DETAILS

So do I allow substitutions and refusals? Let’s take my daughter as an example again, because even at nine years old she is still learning to like certain foods. She still prefers toasted bread to regular bread. I’m ok with that. Until very recently, if we went out to eat and she wanted a burger, she wanted just a plain patty. No bun or condiments. That’s fine with me. At home if we grill burgers she will toast her bun if she eats one. I happen to like a toasted or grilled bun myself. I allow them to customize their plates within the parameters of what I’ve prepared. They don’t have to eat everything on the table. I don’t let them hand pick what they do and don’t want out of the salad bowl because that is rude, but if they choose to eat the broccoli and skip the potatoes, that’s ok. If they want butter on their potato or prefer to skip the sauce on their fish tacos, I get that.

< p>If we have chicken tortilla soup, no one can have a plate of tortilla chips and pass on the soup. The chips are for eating with the soup. You don’t have to eat the soup, but that means no chips either. The chips are a garnish, not a meal. When we have spaghetti and meatballs, the sauce and meatballs come with the pasta. Always. No just eating pasta.

Have I really let my kids go to bed hungry? I have. It’s their choice. There is ample, delicious food available, and they have on occasion chosen not to partake. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. There were no tears or anger. Was it hard? Of course, but we are playing the long game. We are drawing a line in the sand. You only have to do it a few times at most.

I never make my kids clean their plates. I allow them to decide when they are full, because there are adults who don’t know how to stop at enough. They feel compelled to clean their plates and overeat. I do, however, say, “You can have more ____ once you’ve finished the food you’ve already taken.” Starting when they are very little they get to help fill their plates. They choose from what is on the table, and I help them not overfill their plates. They can come back for as many servings as they want until they are satisfied, but we always dish up small servings at a time.

A FEW TRICKS UP MY SLEEVE

When our triplets were toddlers, I liked introducing new foods at lunch. Many times this new food was refused at the table. After lunch when they were in the family room, I would take a plate of the offending item and sit on the couch and eat it. Suddenly they were all crowding around my knees begging for bites. At first I would say, “No. This is my lunch. I offered this to you at lunch.” After a couple of times I would cave and they would devour it. Devious right? But human nature makes us want the unattainable, and the other person’s plate is always more appealing.

When they were four years old I started pushing lunch a little later, made dinner a little earlier, and skipped afternoon snacks for a while. I wanted her to be really, really hungry at dinner. Then I would intentionally serve things she didn’t love. I knew she’d be so hungry she would try it, and guess what? She did. And guess what? She liked it. Her food repertoire opened up a lot during that time, and that was a big break through. She was more willing to try new things after that.

Along with the above, I sometimes served our meals in courses in those early days. They came to the table STARVING, and I would say, “Oh, this thing isn’t ready yet, but you can start on this.” Then I would offer up what I knew would be the least appealing item on the table. For a long time, I would “forget” to bring bread to the table until they were 3/4 finished with the meal. I didn’t want them to fill up on bread. Now I serve everything at once. 

I still control snacking. Now that they are older and have after-school activities, dinner is later again, so an after-school snack is a must. However I still remind them it’s a SNACK not a MEAL. It’s meant to tide them over, not fill them up. Whoever has sports that day has a more substantial snack because they are chasing soccer balls, swimming laps and dancing, and that requires energy. 

THE DISCLAIMER

I’m not a doctor, nurse or healthcare provider of any kind. You should always talk to your child’s pediatrician about nutrition and feeding plans. I am sharing what I did. This is not medical advice. Every child is different, and some kids have different circumstances. You are the parent in your family, and you make your own choices for your children. I’ve had so many people over the years ask me for this very advice that I am finally writing it down. 

I also want to be clear that this can be hard. It is hard to let your child go to bed without eating her dinner, especially when she’s so petite she’s not on the growth chart. It was just as hard with child number six as it is was with child number one. It never gets easy, and your mothering instincts to feed-that-child-no-matter-what will be STRONG. However, it is HER CHOICE. No one is depriving her of food. There is plenty to eat, and it’s delicious. I lived in a very poor part of Brazil for a couple of years where some people were literally dirt floor poor. No electricity or running water in the houses. Some had propane tanks for stoves and others cooked over the fire. I can tell you I never, ever saw one of those kids turn down their daily portions of beans and rice. Not once. They ate the exact same thing every single meal, every single day, and they were happy to have it. I’ve never met a Brazilian who didn’t like beans and rice. It’s what they eat because for some of them, that is all they can afford, and they are grateful for it. Their choices are beans and rice or nothing. Picky eaters are a product of affluence. 

Super Hero Juice

We have a Breville juicer like this one and this one is very affordable. I wash the produce and push through the juicer. These amounts are really flexible. If the apples are really sweet, I will do fewer, and if they aren’t, I do more. Honestly I don’t make it that sweet, but my kids love it and ask for it all the time.

4 celery

2 apples

4 cucumbers

Juice and enjoy!

 

11 thoughts on “How I Taught My Kids to Eat EVERYTHING”

  1. I read that same book and have tried a similar approach with my children. It worked in that we don’t fight about food and that everyone is offered the same food. However, this approach did not help my kids to eat everything. They still aren’t very adventurous and once they became teenagers, I lost a lot of control over their food intake. I still offer meals at set times but now they can feed themselves things that I would not choose for them between meals.
    Anyhow, I’m impressed this has worked so well for your family. I might tweak a few things based on your article and cross my fingers that it works as successfully for my younger children.

  2. Lindsay it sounds like you still got a lot out of the book’s approach. Not fighting your kids over food is a big hurdle. I’ve seen it too often. I did take a few steps further. The fact that we never eat those kid foods was big. We have spaghetti, but it’s not Chef Boyardee. It’s my homemade sauce and very flavorful. They have been exposed to more exotic foods on a regular basis their whole lives. Frequency is key. Ultimately kids will make their choices, but you gave them the opportunity. My mom could have served olives or liver every day of my whole life and I still wouldn’t like them. I occasionally try them to see if I’ve changed my mind, and I haven’t. They just don’t taste good to me. On the other hand, I never liked cantaloupe until 3 years ago, and suddenly I do. It had a weird aftertaste to it that I no longer detect. Our taste buds change as we age. I hope some of these tips help, but it sounds like you’ve done a great job.

  3. Fabulous post! We have been dealing with this in our home too. How early did you start this with your children? I have a toddler old enough to "eat table food," as you say, but she doesn’t communicate well yet. Were your kids fully communicative when you started this method?

    1. CG, I started this from around 12 months, as soon as they were weaned from breast/bottle. My triplets were late talkers, so they weren’t talking at that point. My fourth child spoke extremely early. His first word was octagon, and he was 8 months old (I’ve got that on video). He was stringing 3 -4 words by 12 months. What I learned from him is that most kids understand far more than they can communicate at that young age. As long as there are no cognitive developmental delays, she should understand everything you are telling her. If she can communicate yes and no in her own way, I think that is communication enough. Of course you should talk to your doctor about this, especially with communication or other special issues. My pediatrician was always on board with my approach. My daughter with the sensory issues has always been in the 1-2% for weight and height, so that was a concern, but my doctor and I decided she would decide how much and if to eat, and she did. She was being offered everything she needed and the means to get it. I hope this helps.

  4. Also, I think some kids may naturally be more finicky, but this approach can help them through it. And then some kids devour anything they see. Abby is already a very picky eater. She would never eat baby food (would spit it RIGHT back out if you happened to get a bite in), and throws any offending food (which she usually hasn’t even tried) off her tray and spits. (Interestingly enough, she has also never been one to put small things in her mouth, even as a smaller baby. I’ve never had to worry about her choking on something she finds!) I already feel like a failure with her, haha. But, I’m also determined to just keep offering because I’ve seen it work with her so I know she just takes time. I offered her bread at least 20 times before one day while the sacrament was being passed she took the piece I offered her, and of course now she loves it! She also will go weeks refusing something she has previously liked, but usually comes back to it. She’s 3rd percentile for weight so it stresses me out but I need to relax a little and remember she will eat if she’s hungry and I’m offering good food. Great post!

  5. Lisa you’re so funny! At least you finally pushed yourself out of your comfort zone and stopped being THAT GIRL. I can imagine that was scary and hard. I know adults who are into their 70s who are still THAT GIRL. So good for you! As for Abby, you are doing the right thing. Just keep offering. B was the same way. She went through a stage early on when she just wanted cheese all the time, and one day she stopped wanting cheese and stopped eating it for SIX YEARS. No problem. I continued to offer it with whatever we were eating, and one day she ate a little. Slowly she’s added it back to her diet. She’s also super specific about what kind of sushi she wants (spicy tuna rolls with the seaweed on the outside instead of rice on the outside, but she loves rice. I have no idea why). Frequency breeds familiarity, and familiarity leads to trust and confidence to try it. Even G likes to say she doesn’t like whatever, and I put a little on her plate anyway, and eventually she picks it up and eats it and declares it good. Keep it up! You’re doing great! All of my girls are in the itty bitty category as well, and they’ve never chosen to go hungry more than 1 meal.

  6. I had a similar approach when my oldest was tiny and she was a very adventurous eater. She hit 2 and suddenly only wanted to eat gluten free mac and cheese and quesadillas. I had a newborn and I was tired and gave in because it was easy. My younger daughter is a great eater but I noticed that she started refusing foods that her sister wouldn’t eat. I read your article and it gave me a new resolve to nip this issue in the bud! We’ve been offering one family meal and that’s it. Little girls who eat their dinner get a treat. If they don’t eat their food there is no treat and no more food until breakfast. So far it’s worked great! They both ate a whole bowl of speghetti squash, chicken and veggie "pasta" last night. Thank you for inspiring me!

  7. I had a similar approach when my oldest was tiny and she was a very adventurous eater. She hit 2 and suddenly only wanted to eat gluten free mac and cheese and quesadillas. I had a newborn and I was tired and gave in because it was easy. My younger daughter is a great eater but I noticed that she started refusing foods that her sister wouldn’t eat. I read your article and it gave me a new resolve to nip this issue in the bud! We’ve been offering one family meal and that’s it. Little girls who eat their dinner get a treat. If they don’t eat their food there is no treat and no more food until breakfast. So far it’s worked great! They both ate a whole bowl of speghetti squash, chicken and veggie "pasta" last night. Thank you for inspiring me!

  8. Stunning Style

    Carmen, when you’re pregnant or have a new baby, it is so hard to stick to your guns. I had to constantly remind myself I could fight X battle now when it’s easy or fight a much bigger fight later on. Even with my youngest now I have to remind myself not to cave. It’s those early battles that are so important. Good for you for getting back on track! It will serve you and them the rest of your lives.

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