Raising an adventurous eater

children eating
children eating 

Late last year, my pregnant wife and I were out for one of our last dinners together before we became parents. As a family with a pair of preschoolers sat at the table nearby, a part of me thought, "That could be us in a few years."

When the waiter arrived to take their order, the mother put down the menu. "Could the kitchen make something for the kids? Maybe some buttered noodles or chicken nuggets? They won't eat anything else."

"I hope that isn't us in a few years!" I thought.

I'm a food writer, so my diet spans the globe. One day I might be eating Ghanaian stew on a ball of fufu for lunch, then sushi for dinner; the next might include dim sum in the morning and roasted duck breast at night. Don't get me wrong: chicken nuggets and buttered noodles aren't inherently bad and I've enjoyed both. However, the thought of my child exclusively eating the so-called "beige diet" - fried foods and carbs - made my stomach churn.

So what could my wife, Indira, and I do to help raise an adventurous eater?

As it turns out, my wife's dinner that night (anchovy crostini, prosciutto-topped Neapolitan pizza) was already shaping our child's tastes. So was the vegetable burrito with hot sauce she’d eaten for lunch.

"Learning about food occurs long before the first taste of food," says Julie Mennella, a bio psychologist at the Monell Center in Philadelphia. "The flavours of the mother's diet get into the amniotic fluid."

The same thing happens when the mother breastfeeds, she said – and because my wife’s diet is nearly as varied as my own, she'd expose our child to a panoply of cuisines.

Born in early January, Zephyr was a healthy boy with a ravenous hunger. The next few months were a happy blur, and it wasn't long before we were talking about adding solid foods to his diet.

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But I'm no culinary maestro and I needed help crafting the purees. After asking our paediatrician a flurry of questions, I reached out to Tucker Yoder, executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, and a father of four. He agreed to teach me a few tricks.

Yoder and his wife have a few simple rules for feeding their children. "We try to give them what we're having," he says, "and we'll try giving them anything." His children enjoy a wide variety of food, including kale-fortified breakfast smoothies and omelettes filled with freshly foraged mushrooms.

His next rule sounds identical to one my mother enforced. "If it's on your plate, you've got to try it," he says.

The couple shop seasonally and locally as much as possible, and they draw on their garden for tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs.

We ended up making five purees, lightly spicing them to add depth of flavour: curried carrots, minted pineapple mango, basiled beets and strawberries, sweet potatoes with a dash of crushed red pepper flakes, and cauliflower accented with cumin. I would have enjoyed eating any of them.

Placing Zephyr in his high chair that evening, I mentally crossed my fingers as I dipped the spoon into the pineapple-mango mixture. I then fed him solids for the first time.

He looked confused for a moment. Then his eyes lit up, he worked his jaw, and he swallowed. He pulled the spoon toward his mouth for seconds.

Trying the strawberry-beet puree the next evening, I experienced similarly gratifying success. Two days later, however, when I picked Zephyr up from day care, his carer said: "He didn't like the sweet potatoes. He spat them out."

I shouldn't have been surprised. Maybe we got too cocky putting crushed red pepper flakes in there, though it was just a few specks. Indira has an insatiable appetite for spicy food, and I thought Zephyr might have inherited it.

"They're not going to eat everything," warned Jenny Carenco, author of Bebe Gourmet: 100 French-Inspired Baby Food Recipes for Raising an Adventurous Eater. "My kids don't eat everything. My daughter hates zucchini."

Repetition is the key to winning children over to new tastes, says Carenco. "Just keep serving it and make it a positive experience," she says. "The mistake is to stop serving it. If they don't like peas, it's not going to kill you to cook up and throw away a spoonful of peas after every meal. Serve them at every meal. And if they have one, it's a victory. Then they'll have two."

Michael Harr, executive chef at Food, Wine & Co in Bethesda, had another piece of simple advice: "Think of simple dishes that you like, then puree them." He created a play on peaches and cream (and celery!) for his son Benjamin, and when he shared the recipe, it became a favourite in my household. Zephyr grinned broadly as he devoured his first portion.

As my wife and I laughed over his reaction while eating our own dinner, I thought back on something his paediatrician had said: "Make eating enjoyable, and do it as a family as much as you can." This was just the beginning of Zephyr's appreciation for food, but so far, so good.

I was still smiling as I went to store the remainder of the peaches and cream. When I opened our refrigerator, the second shelf was filled with a rainbow of purees - not one of them beige.