It may seem like an impossible dream right now, but your kid has the potential to love all kinds of food. Here’s how to prime their taste buds for life with help from chefs, nutrition experts, and fellow moms and dads in the chicken-nugget trenches.

By Salma Abdelnour Gilman
January 08, 2021
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child playing with green beans
One Green Bean, Please: Decades ago, dietitian Ellyn Satter, R.D., developed her now-famous method for raising kids who have a healthy relationship with food: Caregivers decide what to serve and when to do it, and kids get to decide whether to eat and how much.
| Credit: Priscilla Gragg

My kids spent their first couple of years eating anything we put in front of them. “What’s the big deal about getting kids to try new things?” I’d say as I roasted arctic char or stirred a chickpea stew. But then the jig was up. My 5-year-old daughter refused anything except mac ’n’ cheese. Her big brother pushed away his old favorites, from his grandma’s stuffed Lebanese meatballs to his dad’s lemony scallops.

Bringing up adventurous eaters, we learned from experts, is a moving target. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," says Katie Morford, R.D., author of Mom's Kitchen Handbook. Meanwhile, we try different foods, different moves. We're silently grateful every time our kids discover a new dish they love (linguine with clam sauce was a recent win), or at least tolerate. Whatever your kids' eating habits look like now, take heart in knowing they will evolve.

Although the flavor exposures that kids can get from eating dinner at a friend's house, sharing snacks at the playground, traveling, or trying new cuisines at restaurants have mostly vanished in the last year, they'll return. And in the meantime, you can create some food adventures at home with some help from food experts and parents.

Make Their Comfort Foods Work for You

Pairing your kid’s on-repeat favorites with other foods can be a helpful way to nudge them into new territory. Consider these go-to ingredients as some good gateways.

1. Cheese

Sprinkle shredded cheddar or Gruyère over vegetables like spinach and asparagus which, in all fairness, can taste bitter to kids. Wrap it all in packaged puff-pastry dough, and bake as the box directs. (Veggie puffs for the win!) —Hillary Mamis, R.D., a dietitian in Andover, Massachusetts

2. Breadcrumbs

The familiar taste and crunch can entice kids to eat the protein du jour. If you're serving fish or meat, coat it in breading and—voilà—fish fingers or schnitzels. —Mamis

3. Muffins

Savory muffins and quick breads are a tasty, soothing delivery system for veggies. Try adding 1 cup shredded zucchini to a chocolate muffin recipe. —Mandy Sacher, a cookbook author and founder of Wholesome Child Academy

4. Bacon

The sweet-and-salty strips draw kids to almost anything: Crumble as a topping for soup, or wrap a slice around a scallop. For a meatless option, toss shiitake mushrooms in olive oil and roast at 400°F for 15 to 20 minutes to mimic an umami-packed, bacon-like taste. —Maya Feller, R.D., a nutritionist in New York City

child and parent eating carrots
Credit: Grace Huang

Rewrite Your Script

Getting kids to try whatever you're serving is sometimes a matter of spinning your words the right way. Give these phrases a whirl next time.

5. Say: “Which do you want, kale or cauliflower?”

Instead of: "Do you want a vegetable?" "They get to make a choice, but they're still getting a vegetable." —Morford

6. Say: “Many fire chiefs love broccoli because it makes them great at their job.”

Instead of: "Broccoli has vitamins. It's good for you." "Little kids don't care about their long-term health. We have to start connecting food and their passions. My son wants to be a firefighter, for instance." —Sam Kass, a food policy advisor and former White House chef

7. Say: “Would you like your chicken grilled or sautéed?”

Instead of: "Do you want chicken?" "You're still deciding what's for dinner and what the options are; you're not being a short-order cook." —Feller

8. Say: “Did you put salt or pepper on your broccoli?”

Instead of: "Oh wow, you ate the broccoli!" "If your kid finally tried a food, don't make a big deal about it. Rather, show interest in how they seasoned it, for instance. Now you're making that child feel very powerful in their decisions around broccoli." —Melanie Potock, author of Adventures in Veggieland

9. Say: “My kid is an adventurous eater in training!”

Instead of: "My kid is so picky!" "Labels can be self-fulfilling." —Morford

10. Say: “Thanks for helping me wash the basil.”

Instead of: "But you do like basil! You ate it yesterday!" "If your kid helped you prep an ingredient they've liked before, but they're refusing to eat it now, focus on what they were able to do." —Potock

Look, Sniff, and Lick

A French teaching method called Sapere encourages kids to get to know foods by using all five senses before and during eating. "They're allowed to explore food without any pressure to eat it," says Bettina Elias Siegel, author of Kid Food. Here's how you can adapt the concept.

11. Stop to smell the rosemary!

Pick up a few herbs with strong scents (basil, mint, rosemary), or gather assorted pints of berries. At home, get your kids to describe the smell, look, or taste of each item.

12. Every exposure counts.

"If a child resists tasting a certain food, I'll say, 'Are you ready to try licking it?' If they say no, then say, 'How about giving it a kiss?' It's about starting to expose kids to foods, even if they're not ready to actually eat them yet." —Sacher

13. Food play is fun.

"One day I brought home fresh peas, and we made airplanes and dragonflies out of the shells.[My then 2-year-old] enjoyed that game, and suddenly he was more open to trying peas. He loved them; they're still a food he consistently eats." —Shireen Tawil, a researcher in London

14. Mystery foods add intrigue.

"I'll choose five foods, and the kids have to taste them and guess what each one is while they're blindfolded. Then it's their turn to do it to me. They'll taste anything just to get Mom." —Sacher

assortment of veggie snack foods
Credit: Linda Xiao

Make It a Self-Serve Night

Put out all the ingredients and let kids handle the assembly. When the pressure’s off, the veggies just might pile on.

15. Fish Taco Night

Choose a flaky, mild-tasting variety like flounder or cod. Include shredded red cabbage for a change; kids tend to gravitate to the color and crunch.

16. Loaded Baked Potato Bar

In addition to staples like cheese and bacon bits, add tuna and broccoli florets.

17. DIY Noodle Bowls

Pair soba noodles with shaved carrot strips, sliced scallions, tofu cubes, sesame seeds, and crushed peanuts.

18. Naan Bread Personal Pizzas

Challenge kids to use toppings (like bell pepper strips, halved cherry tomatoes, and meatballs) to spell their name or initials.

19. Snack Board

Lay out cold cuts, cheese, veggies, hummus, pitted olives, bowls of nuts, raisins, and other dried fruit, and let kids ages 4 and up graze.

Remix Their Veggies

If your kid eyes all things vegetable with trepidation, try presenting those dishes in cool new ways (skewers and smoothies help).

20. Salad = Veggie Skewers

"Thread cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella balls on a stick, and let the kids eat with their hands." —Morford

21. Kale = Green Smoothie

"My kids don't always love to eat vegetables, but they will drink them in a smoothie. I blend together mango, kale, and coconut water." —Adanna Dill, a lifestyle blogger in New York City

22. Plain Sautéed Spinach = Sesame-Lime Spinach

"My 5-year-old wasn't too big on spinach, but when I sprinkled lime and salt on it and sautéed it in a bit of sesame oil, she loved it." —Nancy Jiménez, a mom in New York City

23. Mushrooms = Hand Pies

"I make veggie hand pies for my little brother, who isn't as adventurous as I was at his age. Cut store-bought pie dough into hand-size circles, top with sautéed mushrooms or other cooked veggies, and fold into moon shapes. Pinch the edges closed and bake until the crust turns golden brown." —Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, finalist on Top Chef Junior

24. Parsnips = Apple-Parsnip Pie

Sub in parsnips for half the apples in a pie recipe. Cooked parsnips get a sweet flavor that blends nicely with the apples. —Potock

parent and child making a salad together
Credit: Stephanie Rausser

Level Up Their Kitchen Skills

Hey, if they make it, they’ll be more likely to eat it. Dial up the fun factor to maximize your chances.

25. Make A Masterpiece

Put a variety of veggies on the table, and slice them into different shapes if the kids are too young to do it themselves. Ask the kids to create a work of veggie art on parchment paper. Drizzle with a little olive oil, add a dash of salt and pepper, and roast at 400°F for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and admire their creation. —Potock

26. Cook The Kit

Get inspo from Eat2Explore’s international boxes ($25; eat2explore.com). The Japan box comes with kid-friendly chopsticks plus recipes for chicken katsu, salmon teriyaki, and okonomiyaki pancakes. Seasonings are included.

27. Get Them Gear

"My 7-year-old wasn't a fan of veggies until I got him plastic kid-friendly knives from Jovitec." —Dill

28. Encourage Experimentation

"When my son was making pancakes, I asked him to think about what he could add to change the flavor profile, so he decided to use almond flour. The pancakes were incredible." —Feller

Hold Out Hope!

Parents tell us about the times kids gobbled up a food no one would’ve guessed they’d eat. Moral of the story: Don’t assume you know your kid’s palate.

29. Kale Chips

"I made kale chips but accidentally overbaked them, so I knew they were going to be really bitter. I was about to warn my son off, but before I could, he took a bite, and then kept going back for more." —Siegel

30. Thai Curries

"We ordered in Thai curries at a friend's house, and my son ate them up even though he always refuses to try new foods. Sometimes it's all about having a different setting." —Nicole Seminara, a mom of two in Charlotte, North Carolina

31. Blini With Smoked Salmon

"At a party, my then toddler grabbed a blini with smoked salmon and shoved it in her mouth." —Morford

32. Cactus

"When my daughter was about 3, my mom boiled some cactus, put salt on it, and handed it to her in a resealable bag. My daughter started eating it, and she still loves it." —Jiménez

Spice It Up From The Start

Seasoning babies’ earliest foods with spices and herbs can help spur their taste buds to appreciate forward flavors.

33. Hummus

Just add: coriander and cumin

34. Roasted Vegetables

Just add: garlic and thyme

35. Oatmeal

Just add: nutmeg and cinnamon

36. Peas

Just add: mint and tarragon

37. Yogurt

Just add: dill and sea salt

Check Out How Food Is Grown

Learning where those walnuts (or pomegranates or mint leaves) come from might pique a kid’s curiosity just enough.

38. Read

How Did That Get in My Lunchbox? The Story of Food, by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti.

39. Listen

Play “The Vegetable Song,” by Kids Learning Tube: “I am fennel. My name starts with an F; your parents can cook me even though they aren’t a chef.”

40. Watch

Explore YouTube together to see how walnuts are harvested (mind-blowing!) or find the best way to get the arils out of a pomegranate.

41. Grow

Start an herb garden on your windowsill.

parent and child preparing a meal together
Credit: Luis Garcia

Get Inspired by a Chopped Judge

Maneet Chauhan’s kids, Shagun, 9, and Karma, 6, are growing up around Indian flavors and spices, thanks to both parents’ heritage.

42. Rumble-Tumble

“This is a dish that Vivek Deora, my husband, used to have as a kid. It’s scrambled egg with Indian spices and cream in it. It’s delicious, and we’ll have that along with paratha, an Indian flatbread.”

43. Indian Bread

“My kids love idli, which are fermented cakes of creamed rice and lentil. They also eat parathas, which can be stuffed with potatoes, paneer, or vegetables.”

44. Fruit Sushi

“I make this with the kids, with sweetened rice. When we go out to dinner, they’ll ask for sushi, even sushi with salmon or tuna in it, because they’ve had something like it at home.”

45. Turmeric Milk

“In India, you use spices not only for flavor but also for health benefits. We give the kids warm milk with a touch of turmeric, cardamom powder, and honey.”

Inhale. Exhale. Hang In There.

Our kids may not be the eaters we want them to be right away. So take the pressure off and stay calm. (Repeat ad infinitum.)

46. Shift the focus.

Talk about something besides food. Ask kids about a favorite part of the day, or get kids to name the funniest characters in the books they've read. When it's a relaxed context, that's when they are more likely to try a food for the first time. —Siegel

47. Stand your ground.

"If you're saying, 'This is dinner: We're having grilled steak with broccoli and rice,' and the kid is like, 'I won't eat this! I want mac 'n' cheese,' don't give in. Your job is to offer varied, nutritious food, and it's up to your kids how much to eat." —Mamis

48. Or offer a ho-hum backup.

"l'll usually have something around that they can eat if they really don't want what I made, like leftovers. But I try not to give them anything that they super like so they won't be tempted to reject dinner too often." —Dill

49. Accept the rejection.

"They'll have ups and downs, liking certain foods one day and rejecting them the next. Know that some rejection is inevitable and normal. Give them the space." —Mamis

50. Wait for it.

Many feeding experts say kids need to see a new food ten to 15 times before they'll try it. The 16th might be the charm! —Siegel

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2021 issue as "50 Ways to Raise an Adventurous Eater" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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