Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods

Everyone who knows me knows that I object to the yellow-only diet. You know, the one with the bagel for breakfast, quesadilla for lunch and chicken fingers and fries for dinner, with some sort of bar or cracker thrown in there for a snack. As a pediatrician, I teach parents the importance of having a rainbow of colors on the plate, starting from the first bite of solids. As a writer, I rail against the high-fat, low-nutrition content of the kid’s menu. And as a mom, among my kids’ friends I am well regarded as the purveyor of the most boring (read: least sugary, most likely to grow on a tree, vine, or stalk) snacks.

But this doesn’t mean that my kids’ eating habits aren’t monotonous.

I just desperately wanted them to try new foods. I wanted them to eat as if they were traveling the world.

Yes, they may eat well, but there are long stretches of time when I can count on two hands the entirety of what they are interested in consuming. One green veggie, one type of fish, one family of fruit. If you just catch a glimpse of them, my kids look as if they are eating enviably well, but if you were to record the contents of each meal for a week or two, you would find the same things repeating themselves over and over and over.

Now this is no crisis. I tell parents all the time that eating a limited but well-balanced diet is just fine. It’s better than fine. And I truly believe this. But setting this fact aside, I just desperately wanted them to try new foods. I wanted them to eat as if they were traveling the world.

Early in my career as a pediatrician, I was taught that something happens to the taste buds around kindergarten. Before my very own eyes, I watched as some of my pickiest patients became downright adventurous eaters. Moms would brag that little Aidan who only ever ate pasta with butter was now ordering spicy tuna rolls at the local sushi bar. And so I waited patiently for this moment to strike in my own home. Kindergarten came and went for my oldest, and then for her younger brother. No wasabi watershed. Just water.

Then, this summer, it finally happened. I am slightly embarrassed to tell you how.

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We had traveled across the country to attend the wedding of a close friend. He is Indian, and the wedding was a traditional affair, scheduled with ceremony after ceremony. The morning of the main event, we woke up early and fed the kids (plain yogurt with fresh fruit and a little honey, a piece of toast, milk for my son and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice for my daughter). We all changed into our traditional Indian gowns and made our way to the wedding site. Almost an hour after we got there, the elephant arrived. Several hundred photos later, the groom climbed aboard and for another 45 minutes we danced in a processional over to the bride’s family. In hour three, we filed into the ballroom, where we stayed for hours four and five watching the beautiful ceremony unfold.

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My kids started getting hungry about halfway through the wedding. They whispered in my ear, “Do you think there will be ‘regular’ food at lunch?” The night before had offered a smorgasbord of Indian dishes, but tucked away in the corner was a pasta station, and let’s just say my kids found it.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Watch the ceremony,” I answered.

An hour later, their questions became groans. “Look at all of the other kids who are so well behaved,” I said. It was a stretch. My kids looked at the dozen or so children in the room, all in various similar poses draped across their parents’ laps, playing with their hair, dropping and re-collecting rose petals from their flower girl baskets. “If they can wait, so can you,” I said.

At 1:45 p.m., five hours later, the groom kissed his bride and the ceremony was complete. The doors were flung open, revealing a room where lunch would be served. In front of us appeared a long winding buffet wafting with the smells of curry and lentil. No pasta in sight.

I will confess I got a little nervous as we approached the chafing dishes. But then, it happened. Without any prompting (or begging) from me, my kids piled their plates high with samosas and tikka masala, with naan and saag too. They walked cautiously from the buffet to a nearby table without batting an eye. They sat in their long gowns while a table full of strangers trained their eyes on my children—some with a third eye watching, too—and for the next 20 minutes my kids stuffed themselves gleefully with a series of foods they had never tried before, exclaiming that each one was better than the next.

“Ooh, it’s a little bit spicy,” my daughter said as she took a bite of a completely unidentifiable puree.

“Hot! Hot! Hot!” her brother huffed and puffed, drenching his mouth with cold water and then learning—both quickly and accidentally—that rice or naan cools the mouth faster.

Since then, they have declared themselves Indian food aficionados.

So maybe there isn’t an age-triggered switch programmed into the taste buds after all. Perhaps some kids stumble upon new flavors while others are inadvertently—albeit temporarily—starved by their parents and they “discover” new foods when they are finally given the option to eat. Either way, it is an embarrassment of riches. And it's also a good reminder that sometimes the very best way to get your kids to try something is to shut up and just let life unfold.

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