The other day at dinner, a waitress nearly dropped her tray to rush over to us.
"Your kid! He's drinking the salsa! The spicy salsa!" She huffed, completely out of breath.
"I know," said my husband, putting down his phone. While it looked like he was absentmindedly checking his email, he was making a video of Hugo's latest culinary adventure. Yeah, that's right. We let our kid drink the salsa and he loved it, just like he loves pretty much every other thing he puts in his mouth.
Now, I'm not talking about smiley face pancakes or straws with tassels. I'm talking about making the dining table an awesome place to be. From the time Hugo was born, we always make a point of eating at the table, and even if it's just the two of us, I put down the phone, focus on the kid, and just have fun. We play with our noodles, dip our fingers in the yogurt, and slurp our soup. Now that he's walking and climbing, he can't wait to sit down at the table for breakfast. It's not always efficient, and hardly ever clean, but he will try everything that is served to him at least once.
When Hugo's tastebuds were still developing I got a lot of grumpy looks as he would spit out his food, wipe his tongue and sign "Done!" so that he could get his favorite dessert: a big bowl of blueberries. Rather than getting frustrated and forcing him to eat, I decided to test if maybe, he just wasn't used to the new flavors yet by putting them all on one plate. Blueberries, cheese, veggies, egg… whatever was on the table that day. Once I did, he would happily pick around and quickly came to associate all the flavors on the place with blueberries, and was getting a balanced meal that wasn't turning his poop blue.
Let Them Try
I have never, ever said no to Hugo trying my food. Going back to the concept of making the table a place of pleasure, there is nothing more frustrating to a toddler than hearing no, so I just don't say it. Want coffee? Go ahead! And when he makes that angry face I say: "Bitter." Chili? Sure, knock yourself out, but know that it's "Spicy." Wine… ok, you can try a tiny little sip (half a teaspoon in the bottom of the glass. This one kind of backfired because he loved it (perhaps because mom drinks it with such gusto!), but after his mini sip I simply tell him: "all done." And he moves on to something else. We also made it a habit of ordering IPAs when we eat out, because he can smell how bitter it is and moves on.
Well, there is one rule that is completely non-negotiable at our dinner table: you have to sit your butt down.
The few times in life I've tried to force Hugo to eat something it did not end well. I was angry, he was angry… and the person who ended up eating the food was the chicken. If he refuses to eat something, I simply set it aside and will periodically offer it to him again. Half of the time, he will try it then and love it, and if not, at least I haven't created a negative association with the dining table.
Establish Basic Rules
Sometimes life is way more exciting than dinner. New Curious George books from the library, anyone? Well, there is one rule that is completely non-negotiable at our dinner table: you have to sit your butt down. If he doesn't like something I will gladly offer an alternative, and if he's just not hungry that's fine, but he's not allowed to leave the table until one of us finishes our meal. Oftentimes, he will get so bored watching us that he'll settle down and start eating again. Once Hugo learns to communicate, that will change into: you have to try at least one bite from each dish.
My mother-in-law is known as the picky eater whisperer. Kids try one bite of her stuffed breads or dumplings and go completely nuts. Why? Because they are really delicious and well seasoned! It's that simple. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is serving completely unseasoned foods to their kiddos, meaning the only tasty food they get in their diet is breast milk/formula and fruit, all of which are sweet. By regularly exposing kids to seasoned food (you can always dip it in a glass of hot water if you feel it's too much for your kid), they learn to appreciate a wide variety of flavors and textures, rather than forming a negative association with bland and slightly bitter vegetables.
Be a Great Example
Finally, remember that everything your child knows about how to behave around food comes from you. I'm not saying you have to eat salad every night and chew each bite at least 10 times. Come on, we're all human! Just remember to show your kids that all foods are enjoyable, and that you eat them in a certain order and in balance.