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toddler tip: creating a good eater

As I’ve mentioned, Vivi is a great eater. Aside from likely genetic factors (e.g. her father only has sweet potatoes on his “refuse to eat list,” and he’s been known to eat even those a time or two in the form of a french fry), I believe there are a few environmental factors partly accounting for her wonderful palate. Here are some suggestions based on what we did with her.

Offer a variety of tastes and textures. As they say, variety is the spice of life. I attribute half of Vivi’s willingness to try new food on our offering many different types as soon as she grabbed for a spoon. I made most of her baby food from scratch, which isn’t difficult you’d think and probably deserves its own blog post (see recipes here and here). When you make baby food yourself, you can gradually select spices to add and exotic foods to blend that aren’t offered in the jars, or even just basic proteins and like chickpeas or quinoa.

Give them what you are eating. When I see parents order a burger and fries off the kids’ menu for an 18-month-old, I can’t help but roll my eyes. When she was younger, Vivi’s meal at a restaurant consisted of parts of our own meals, except in rare cases when we ate at a place that didn’t offer adult food she could eat like sushi, Indian or Ethiopian. She has eaten Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Afghan, Italian, Mexican and Salvadoran food and loved all of it. She even ate an entire meal with chopsticks once! Whether in a restaurant or at home, always offer some of your own food to your children, even if you think they won’t like it. They might surprise you. Now that Vivi has a great palate and strong appetite, we do order her a meal off the kids’ menu. For her, it’s a special treat she can’t get at home.

Be a good role model. This one’s simple. If you want your kids to eat vegetables, show them how tasty you think they are not by sampling a single pea off their plate, but by serving yourself some peas too.

Offer one meal for everyone. After watching a number of parents make two or three different meals for their kids, I vowed I would never do that in my house. I wasn’t sure how to accomplish such a feat until Jacques Pepin, one of my favorite chefs, discussed his method of teaching his daughter to try new food when she was growing up. He said they always offered only one meal for everyone, and if she didn’t want to eat any of it, she would simply not eat that meal. His view is so refreshing to me. Americans seem overly concerned that our children might go hungry, to the point that we have created picky eaters. When Vivi won’t eat a meal, she sits at the table until I’m finished, then I let her down to play and simply feed her more at the next meal.

Put away the ketchup! I introduced condiments very slowly and only after I was sure she could eat everything, including fish sticks and meatballs, without any sauce. She learned the word “ketchup” anyway after eating with other kids, but she is still willing to eat her meals without it. I have been using butter for quite a while because I think the fat is good for her as is the small amount of salt in it.

Insist upon good table manners. Vivi knows it’s a rule that she tries two bites of every food, and then if she still doesn’t like it, she can say “No thank you.” While she sometimes forgets the latter part and says emphatically “I don’t like it!,” after a quick reminder she’s back on track. I think it often takes a few bites for kids to adjust to a new flavor and texture, so they shouldn’t be allowed to shy away from new tastes so quickly. What started as a way for me to avoid embarrassment should Vivi ever eat something someone else served her and shout “Eww, gross!” has, in my opinion, now contributed even more to her willingness to keep trying until she gets used to new foods.

It will be very interesting to see if Charlotte ends up with an equally good appetite. Good luck!

Vivi sucks the juice out of an orange slice at 9 mon old

Update (1/9/12): I’ve learned a few things since writing this post. First off, don’t reward good behavior with food unless you want your child to have a life-long association between the two. It may be better just to teach them there are “anytime” foods, “sometime” foods, and “rarely” foods. Additionally, Charlotte is an eater who is going through a tough low-eating phase at 16 months, which is something Vivi never did.I stand by my original encouragement to offer a set-amount of foods at each meal and not give up easily if your child doesn’t like it at first taste.