By Melissa Lee
I became a mother when I was twenty-five, much earlier than most millennials who become parents in this country. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the only cohort of women in the United States showing an uptick in first-time births are women over 35-years-old. Now, most of my friends have children. Even though my friends became moms when they were ten years older than me, it didn’t make it easier for them.
Parenting is not easy. No matter how successful, driven, intelligent, and hard-working you are, introducing another life into the world is a different story from only taking care of yourself. When your baby is born, you can’t leave a note on the crib to remind the baby to sip the bottle on his or her own. You can’t close their eyes when they are supposed to sleep. At every stage in a child’s life, there are different challenges.
Being a Chef Instructor, the most common question that parents asked me is, “How do I encourage a picky eater to try new food.” First, I have good news. If you’re reading this blog post, you care if you’re screwing up your kids. Those who are really are screwing up their kids would hardly care about this topic and read this blog. So you’re already ahead!
In other good news, palates can develop over those years. I hadn’t been adventurous at all until I enrolled in culinary school. When I was little, I wasn’t a picky eater, but I wasn’t adventurous. Every palate has the potential to expand into adulthood. So, if your child is currently on a white diet—cheese pizza, mac and cheese, and French fries—they will have the potential to become a renowned food critic in thirty years.
I am a typical type-A perfectionist. After becoming a parent, I had to learn to let my perfectionist side go. No one can be the best parent, and your child can’t always be the best either—sometimes a child just wants to eat pizza and leave the sushi to mommy—and you love them no matter what. So, just do the best you can do, and take it easy!
Here are some tips that I found helpful in encouraging children to venture out their comfort zone and try new food.
- Tip Number One: Take Them Out To the Farm Land
You may have heard the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Since I am a Chef Instructor, I would like to encourage you to take your children to the farm as often as possible. Let your children experience the season and its changes through food. That’s the best gift you can give them. The process of harvesting fruit and vegetables is fun and humbling. When they realize how much work it takes to harvest strawberries to fill a basket, they learn they shouldn’t take food for granted.
They also learn about a variety of fruit and vegetables by harvesting and tasting. It might not be appropriate to grab each kind of apple and take a bite in a supermarket, but it’s expected at a farm. Let them taste different kind of apples and compare the flavor profile and texture. Which kind is crispy? Crunchy? Soft? Sweet? Tangy? I can never get bored with my little ones on the farm!
- Tip Number Two: Cooking with your children
When your children make food with you, they are more likely to try the product since they were involved in making it. If your child is a picky eater, you can start with something simple and safe, such as mac and cheese. And then slowly you can add mushrooms, green peas, broccoli, ham, chicken, and other nutritious foods into the mac and cheese. Let the child “create” their own mac and cheese. When they are in charge, they have an opportunity to be creative!
There are also cookbooks for little children. My little girl Amber has one called Fun Food by William Sonoma. This book is full of photographs of children making delicious and nutritious meals on their own. She reads it and gets inspired with new ideas like creating her own pasta dish. Sometimes we take a concept from Fun Food and improvise a meal, using whatever we have in our fridge. That’s the “fun” part of making “fun food”! Remember to take it easy. The end product doesn’t have to look like the ones in the cookbooks. The most important thing is to spend quality time with your children in the kitchen and to create memories!
- Tip Number Three: Expose Your Children to Different Cultures
Traveling with your children will broaden their minds. They will have opportunities to try different food in different cities around the world. If you don’t have the budget to travel with your children, you still have plenty of opportunities to be adventurous and have tons of fun! Find the China Town or Little Italy in your city, and go to those bakeries where you don’t recognize most of the pastries. The other day I randomly walked into a Brazilian café in Framingham and had the most delicious Pão de Queijo (Brazilian puff). The joy of discovering a delicious thing at a place I randomly walked into was beyond amazing!
You can also encourage your children to make friends with people from different ethnic backgrounds. One time we got invited to have dinner with our Indian church friends. My son tried non-spicy Biryani for the first time and totally loved it! Keep an open mind, try new food, and be surprised. That’s the mantra!
- Tip Number Four: It’s about Them, Not You
We live in the age of social media. Yes, it is wonderful indeed that you can see what your friends and their children are doing. And yes, it is great that you can share what you and your children are doing with your friends whenever you have access to the internet. But do you ever feel like your life is so much less glamorous than your friends? You wonder how they take their children on trips all the time. You wonder how they got their children to appreciate Kobe beef, yellowtail crudo, and ceviche—while your child is not even willing to take a sip of corn chowder.
Don’t worry if you feel like you’re not “keeping up with the Joneses.” Just know that for some parents, what their children eat is not about their children. Those photos tell people more about them than their children. I believe, at the end of the day, what matters the most is our children. So, if your children enjoy a basic cheese pizza and pasta, and they are having a great time in their lives—then you are doing great! Life is about cherishing every little moment we spend together—even if it’s over mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What’s on the table is secondary. What stays in our memory is what counts. Be yourself and let your children be themselves. It’s about them, not you!
One day, I was listening to Foodcast—a podcast hosted by the editors of Bon Appétit—an American food and entertainment magazine. The episode was called “Kids Will Be Kids,” and the special guests were two young children—Marlon Rapoport, the chief editor Adam Rapoport’s son, and the other was Cosmo Music, senior editor Carla Lalli Music’s son. I thought since both Adam and Carla are well-established food editors, their children must grow up eating gourmet meals. When the children were asked to name their dream dinner, I thought their answers would be sophisticated dishes such as beef bourguignon or bouillabaisse. Guess what they both said? “A very very good mac and cheese.” So, relax my friends. Kids will always be kids. All we can do is to guide them. As long as we have done our jobs, just let them be kids!
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