Look, I’m going to be honest. I’m not an expert on parenting or kids by a long shot. The hubby and I still rely heavily on Google and word-of-mouth on how to figure out our kids. We delight and marvel at them, but we also constantly ask ourselves whether we’re doing the “right” thing, whatever “right” is.
One thing I’ve come to realize is that while I constantly tout the hubby’s unfailing support of my passion for food, photography and writing, I’m also not giving enough credit to my kids for being the adventurous travelers and eaters that they are. Genetics may not be on their side when it comes to athletics (much to the hubby’s dismay, at least one of our kids has inherited the slow clumsiness of their mother), but when it comes to trying new foods or hitting the road with their parents, these kids are champs. I can test new recipes, try new restaurants and visit places far down the highway because I’m lucky enough to have kids who are game for it.
That’s not to say that we haven’t invested serious time and energy into making mealtime a top priority in our house. So far, what we’re doing seems to be working. The kids clamor for dinner and clap their hands when I try a recipe that they’re excited about. Ge Ge can sit through multi-course meals, as evidenced in this month’s print issue of Northern Virginia Magazine (he reviews a tasting menu at Airlie Bistro in Warrenton with the magazine’s food critic; the online version will be available later this month). Meimei loves ethnic foods and will cram her face full of daal (curried lentils) and naan as fast as you can serve it.
I’m listing some tips here today on how to make happy kid eaters. I’m not saying that these tips are foolproof or that they will even remotely work with your kids, but, in a complete humblebrag moment, I need to show you this:
That’s Ge Ge eating grilled octopus. If our four-year-old can, maybe yours can, too?
Tip #1: Involve the kids in meal preparation.
I won’t lie: involving kids in meal prep is tough. I used to not let my kids pitch in while I was cooking, partly because I thought they were too young to help and partly because most of the time, especially during the weeknights, I’m rushing around to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible. Then I realized that by not involving them, I wasn’t sharing with them how joyful cooking can be and they weren’t invested in what ultimately arrived in front of them on the dinner table. Considering that during any given week I am trying around three to five new recipes, I want them to be just as interested and excited about trying new foods as the hubby and I are. I also realized that it’s not hard to involve kids, even toddlers, in meal prep, as long as I could accept that dinner might be ready later than I wanted it to be, or that it might not be as pretty as I hoped it would.
That’s when I bought the kids two inexpensive cutting boards from IKEA, two high step stools and these plastic chef’s knives made by Curious Chef. Every week at the grocery store, I make sure to stock up on easy-t0-cut fruits and veggies — bananas, avocados, small cucumbers, large tomatoes and eggs (which I hard-boil in batches, six at a time). These knives actually work pretty well, and I don’t have to worry about the kids cutting themselves. Whenever the kids clamor to “help” me, I pull out some veggies, have them wash them in the colander in the sink and ask them to pull out their cutting board and knives, which are stored in a low cabinet for easy reach. I tell them they’re helping by making a “salad,” which honestly, usually ends up in their tummies as they are cutting. But hey — it’s fruits and veggies. If cutting = eating, I’m fine with that.
Other ways the kids help are to push the buttons on the oven (with my supervision) to set the timer and watch it count down (no, I haven’t told them that they’re basically watching paint dry) and also to set the table each night. Even though my stomach lurches every time I watch Meimei pull a porcelain plate off of a stack and totter over to our dining room table, I’m just as determined as she is to do a good job. We make it work.
Tip #2: Bring quiet entertainment to restaurants.
I have piles of zip pouches in our house. We use zip pouches for corralling nearly everything — charger cords, toiletries, goggles (all kept in one pouch for every family member and stored in our swim tote bag, which is just a bigger pouch). I have a large, 8×10 zip pouch with a waterproof inside that I bought from West Elm ages ago that serves as my restaurant “go bag.” Inside is a small pad of paper, a random assortment of crayons (that we’ve collected from previous restaurant excursions), a few small toys and board books. I keep this go bag in our car, and I don’t step foot inside any restaurant without it. The pouch contains enough essentials for keeping the kids distracted from their hunger (because Ge Ge gets “hangry” not hungry) while we wait for our food. As soon as the food arrives, I can do a quick sweep of the table and contain everything back into the zip pouch. The go bag also gives me essential minutes to snap photos of the food we’re eating, since most of the time I’m scouting a restaurant for a potential blog post, either here on Grits & Chopsticks or for one of the other websites I’m writing for.
Tip #3: Never give up; reintroduce new foods often.
My friend Rita, who has grown children, gave me the best piece of advice before Ge Ge was born. She told me that whenever her kids rejected a food, she never took their word as set in stone. She’d calmly reintroduce the food a few weeks later, maybe in a different form. When her kid inevitably rejected it again, she’d just say, “Well, that was awhile ago. You’re a little bit older now, so maybe now you’ll like it.”
That mantra gets repeated in our house almost every week. Our kids weren’t born to sip oyster liquor, chew on grilled octopus or slurp bone marrow. We know that food can look weird or smell funny to sensitive little palates, but we never give up. If spinach is the reviled veggie of the week, it always makes a reappearance the following week in a different form. Ge Ge has also caught onto the bandwagon. This morning, when Meimei rejected blackberries sight unseen, he told her, “Keep an open mind, Meimei. You’re bigger now and everyone else in the family thinks these are delicious.” It didn’t work on her today, but she can be sure that blackberries are showing up next week in some form or another.
Tip #4: Have fun!
As is well-documented, I breathe food all day long. I get excited to try new recipes and I love nothing more than pulling up to a restaurant, sweaty with anticipation as to what tasty treats might be concocted inside. Any parent knows that, at least with young kids, if you’re excited and happy about something, it’s not hard to impart your kids with the same enthusiasm. The hubby and I talk about meals as if they’re destinations in and of themselves, and it shows. The kids excitedly “ooh” and “ahh” along with us whenever food arrives at the table.
I think our infectious energy about food helps make mealtimes easier with kids because they can’t help but be just as enthused as we are. We don’t look at mealtime as just another event to survive with our kids. It should be fun to try new things, to keep an open mind and to have a happy heart when there’s food involved. Some of my happiest childhood memories were spent around a table waiting for my dad, the family chef, to present some marvelous new creation for us to try. I want the same for my kids. So far, with a few bumps here and there, it’s working.
But I know this isn’t a complete list of tips, or even necessarily one that will work for your family, so I’m all ears. What works for you and your kids?