I'm not an expert in childhood development or nutrition, but what I can state with certainty is this: the Gravy Baby eats a scary amount of food, and adventurously. He picks apart edamame pods with aplomb, loves a wobbly spoonful of roasted bone marrow, and never turns up his nose at a fall-off-the-bone braised meat.
Our mission to mold him into the eater he is today began before he was born. The hubby and I vowed that we'd try as hard as we could to avoid having a picky eater in our house. We both love to eat, cook and talk about food way too much to have our child push away a plate of slow-roasted osso bucco or steamed whole fish. We read what we could find about encouraging adventurous eating in children, but were dismayed when we found a whole lot of sentiment out there about disguising food for young children. We ended up consulting our friends who have raised hearty eaters themselves, and here, over the course of two years, is a list of seven rules we've combined from them that we try to abide by:
1. For the first two years, avoid refined sugar or foods that are excessively high in sodium. The hubby and I view the palate as a spectrum, with extremely salty on one side of the spectrum and extremely sweet on the other. For the first two years, we tried to stay in the healthy middle. We didn't feed the Gravy Baby ice cream, baked goods of any kind, and even pre-flavored yogurt (check an ingredient label the next time you dig into strawberry yogurt -- there's an astonishing amount of refined sugar added!). That also meant that we didn't consume these things in front of him or make them readily available to us, either. The same held true with salty foods -- we avoided salty snacks like chips and pretzels, and I always carefully scrutinized the sodium content of any snacks we chose for him. Of course, this meant that the Gravy Baby's second birthday was a sugar explosion. Since then, we've eased up on this rule and let him indulge along with us every once in awhile -- after all, some of the best food out there is ridiculously sweet and decadent.
2. Everybody eats the same. As soon as the Gravy Baby started eating more solid food and eventually picking up small bits of cut-up food for himself, I began making only one meal for the entire family. Sure, this often meant separating a bit of the Gravy Baby's food and cutting or pureeing it so that he could eat it, but he never has had the option of eating something different from the rest of the family. Our only exception to this rule is leftovers day. On that day, if it's in the 'fridge, then it's fair game for anyone to eat, even if it's different from someone else's leftover meal that night.
3. Don't force something you wouldn't eat yourself. One of the biggest lessons I learned was at a disappointing meal we ate at an otherwise very reputable restaurant in downtown Charleston. Our appetizer, a bowl of she-crab soup, was a gluey, over-salted mess. I barely took two bites before trying to get the Gravy Baby to eat some, which he also refused. After a few frustrating attempts, the hubby pointed out that it wasn't fair for me to try to force the Gravy Baby to eat something that I wouldn't eat myself. Of course, in our case the soup was virtually inedible, but the lesson still remains: if you're not willing to expand your taste buds, it's hard to get your child to do the same.
4. Dine at home. We eat at home most nights of the week, together as a family, all at the same time. This gives us a lot of control into what exactly we're eating -- at restaurants, there can be a lot of added flavor (ahem, delicious, delicious butter and bacon) that we just don't need. In order for us to do this, I have to plan our meals out mentally at least three days in advance of the work week. This gives me time to shop for the ingredients we'll need, and to make sure that I'll have the time carved out to prepare it. I try not to repeat a meal in a two-week cycle so that we have lots of variety, and at least one night a week is dedicated to clearing out our refrigerator. Is this lots of work? Absolutely. But I view the work as my commitment to making sure my family eats a variety of healthy, well-balanced meals and that we get to do so together. This also means that dinner is served at 5:30 pm every night, which is much earlier than we used to eat when it was the hubby and me. But -- c'est la vie, with a kid.
5. Try, try again. One of the best nuggets of advice I got from a seasoned mom of grown children was to never take "no" as the final answer. If one of her children ever refused to eat something, she wouldn't push the issue that night, but she'd serve the same food again a few days/weeks later. If the child refused again, she'd say, "Well, that was a few weeks ago, and you're older now, so try it again and maybe you'll like it now." We practice this with the Gravy Baby, and we've been delighted to discover that it works a lot of the time.
6. Happy meals make happy eaters. The hubby and I are pretty much always looking for the good part about a meal we're eating. We like to talk about the food I've made while we're eating it -- how it tastes, what we like about it, and how it might be improved for next time. The hubby has eaten his fair share of disastrous meals (once, I made this bechamel-sauce based mushroom and pea pasta that honestly tasted like gray pigeon poop), but he always will find the silver lining ("At least you used all the mushrooms, honey!"). The Gravy Baby has caught wind of our practice, and he always comments on his meals now, too -- "Delicious!" "Super yummy!" or "I love it!" are usually meal openers. It warms my heart.
7. Make a rainbow. It doesn't always work out this way, but I try to serve a variety of food that looks good, too. That doesn't mean I'm dyeing cauliflower blue or anything, but just that I try to find a variety of fruits and veggies to make each meal diverse and satisfying.
Of course, this isn't a comprehensive list by any means. The Gravy Baby's tastes have also ebbed and flowed as he's matured from infancy to toddlerhood. Some days, we score big and he eats everything on his plate, and other days he cherry picks what he likes. I chalk all of that up to the ups and downs of childhood, and the hubby and I celebrate that he's willing to try most foods at least once.
Still, I know there's a lot of other good tips out there, and I'm eager to hear what you're doing to raise your adventurous eater. Let me know!