Ok, so technically most of our formal lessons occur at the dinner table. Occasionally, when chaos reigns and just clearing it off seems like too great a task even for team effort, we’ve been known to improvise and have school on the floor or on Mommy and Daddy’s big bed. But hey, we haven’t had to do that yet this semester, so pretend I never mentioned it.
What I’m actually talking about are the lessons that happen at our dinner table outside of “school time”. Namely, teaching our kids to appreciate real food, why good nutrition matters and how our food affects us (with a few manners on the side). We’ve had some serious success this year with broadening the palates of our picky eaters, as well as becoming more pleasant dining partners for one another. We’ve certainly still got some room to grow, but I wanted to share what has worked for us so far…
#1 “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.”
We implemented this rule with a lot of supportive strategy. At the very beginning, I made meals that I knew everyone liked but added one new (or previously rejected) side dish. I added very small servings to everyone’s plate and explained happily “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.” Then dropped the issue until later in the meal. If they asked for second helpings of anything, they were only granted them after having tasted everything on the plate at least once. Also, when they tried something new and decided they didn’t like it, I would thank them for trying it and I’d casually talk about how it’s good to keep trying things because as you grow up, your tastes can change… “so even if you don’t like it now, you might like it someday!” The most helpful thing here is trying to approach everything casually and happily and then to drop it once you’ve said your piece.
#2 “Thank the Chef and find something to compliment!”
As you can imagine, when all of these (initially) unwelcome foods began to make a regular appearance, they were accompanied by a chorus of complaints. I would emerge from the kitchen with a lovingly prepared dinner and before I was even able to sit in my seat I would hear “I don’t like (insert undesired vegetable here)!” At first, I was totally exasperated and to be perfectly honest – I was angry! Dinner comes at the end of a long day for a homeschooling mother of three and to have my efforts met with disgust instead of gratefulness… well, it stung a little. After a few misguided attempts at curbing this behavior, I realized we simply needed to implement a new habit that would be helpful, not just in our own home, but when we are guests in other’s as well. As soon as the food is served, you should thank the person who made it for you. Next, you should look for something that looks really delicious and compliment it! Last, if you see something you think you don’t like, you don’t need to say anything about it at all. It only took a few gentle reminders for our kids to catch on and after a few nights, they loved taking turns “complimenting the chef”!
#3 “Try, try, try again…”
Persistence is key here, folks. There are all kinds of statistics out there about how many times a food must be introduced to a kid before they’ll accept it. I’m not saying you have to serve the same foods over and over again until your child submits to liking it, but I am urging you to keep presenting new foods, even if they’re all just getting shut down. Make smaller portions so you don’t get frustrated wasting food. And when life gets crazy and you go into whatever your “survival mode” looks like for a few days (ordering pizza, making plain pasta, pb&j, whatever easy food that gets you through), cut yourself some slack and then get back to it! You haven’t ruined your efforts if you skipped a couple of days, but you will ruin them if you don’t keep at it on a “more often than not” basis. I have to say that #3, combined with #2 and #1 produced a dramatic change in the way my kids approached new foods. Once they’d learn to taste foods at least once, stop verbally complaining about them, and grew accustomed to seeing new things on a regular basis – our dinner table became a much more pleasant place to be together. And instead of cooking meals that were 90% things I knew everyone like with a 10% addition of something questionable, I started to be able to cook meals that were almost entirely new, without feeling like I had to add a “filler” (like rice or pasta) just in case they wouldn’t eat it. On the night that I served chicken with roasted cauliflower and asparagus and everyone happily ate and complimented and asked for seconds and thirds of the vegetables – I knew we were doing something right!
#4 “Hunger is the best seasoning.”
We’d been working on #1, #2, and #3 (but weren’t quite to the glorious night of cauliflower/asparagus successfulness) when I heard about this book called French Kids Eat Everything. It chronicles a Canadian family and the year they spent in France. The mother realized that the French approach food (especially as regards their children) completely differently than Americans. Namely, that they didn’t approach food for children differently than they did for adults! I found this book to be a fascinating read and highly recommend it. This point and the next one are tips I picked up in the course of reading it. “Hunger is the best seasoning.” Simple. The more hungry my kids are, the more willing they are to try something new. So I planned our days accordingly. Afternoon snacks were limited/light and if I knew a particularly “adventurous” food was on the evening’s menu, then I’d actually watch the clock and not allow any snacks for at least two hours or so before dinner. This was profoundly successful. Profoundly. In the book, she even met her childrens’ grumpy “I’m hungry!” complaints with a cheerful “Oh good! Food always tastes best when you’re hungry, I bet you’ll really enjoy dinner tonight.” (Or something along those lines.) Granted, this line wasn’t as helpful for my children as it was for me. It kept me from caving and giving snacks just to get a moment’s peace.
#5 “Feeding kids is a means of educating them.”
I feel like there’s a better way to word that, but I can’t think of one, so there. When you feed kids, you have an opportunity to teach them about nutrition, how our bodies work, how food affects us, where our food comes from, and on and on! It’s totally commonplace now for the topic of conversation at our table to be about how our food is traveling down our esophagus and into our stomachs then our intestines and how it will be turned into energy and the rest will become poop. Or whether what we’re eating is a healthy food or it’s something to just have as a treat every once in a while. Or whether the fruits and vegetables we’re eating grew on a vine or underground or in a tree. Which is why I’m writing this on our homeschool blog. I honestly feel like this has become part of our “curriculum” even though there are no formal lesson plans. And though we’ll formally study all of those things at some point along the way, thinking of it this way holds me accountable to teaching nutrition as a life skill and not just an academic idea. If we hadn’t started making changes, teaching nutrition would have been pretty hilarious. “Mom, if fruits and vegetables are so important to be healthy, we do we eat plain pasta or cheese pizza for dinner so often?” Yikes! Plus, kids are just plain curious! Letting them learn crazy stuff about what they’re eating or what happens to it inside them just might get them excited enough to forget why they didn’t want to try it.
Now, this is a pretty short summary and it doesn’t include the many total failures along the way. It wasn’t a totally smooth journey and we’ve still got a little way to go, but we’ve certainly made progress! So press on, keep trying, don’t give up! (And order a pizza now and then when you really need to.)
Sidenote: I felt like it was worth mentioning that we never tried any “gimmicks” to get our kids to eat new things. I didn’t hide pureed veggies in brownies or mac and cheese. I didn’t dye anything or carve intricate woodland creatures. I just made food. Pan seared asparagus, steamed broccoli, roasted cauliflower – just food. The only thing I really have against the gimmicky stuff is that it just seemed like so much extra work! So, if the gimmicks work for you or if you just have a passion for creating “mashed potato” snowmen with pureed cauliflower – then by all means, go right ahead. But if you’re prone to being tired/cranky/overwhelmed and need to get dinner on the table in 15 minutes or less (like me) – don’t worry, there’s hope for you too. 🙂