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I wrote a post with this very title for my own blog eight months ago. Not surprisingly, it was pretty popular. Every parent wants to know the secret weapon that’ll get his or her kids to eat a well-balanced meal. I’m not here to share some infinite wisdom, but I do have a story that I think will provide other parents some comfort.
There was once a little girl who rolled her eyes at the thought of eating meat. In fact, she went so far as to hide it in the opening under the table where the leaves were supposed to be tucked away. She also had an issue with any type of sauce on her pasta. She survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all of elementary school, and well into middle school.
You’ve probably guessed this is my thinly veiled attempt at cluing you into my own early eating habits. So when did I begin to branch out? Believe it or not, my palate didn’t fully expand until I was well into my mid-20s. I remember the first time I met my late husband, Mikey. We sat at a now-shuttered restaurant on Third Avenue and 27th Street called Albuquerque Eats, and he ordered fried calamari. Having grown up in an Italian-American family this shouldn’t have been an adventurous food, yet the tentacles always freaked me out, so I always passed this dish aside at gatherings.
Not wanting to seem picky, I let him spoon a portion onto my plate. Rather than play with it, or try to hide it under the salad, I decided it was time to be courageous. It took me 21 years to realize what I’d been missing out on, and while deep-fried anything isn’t a diet I’d recommend on a daily basis, those crispy rings and tentacles are certainly a treat I look forward to now.
In the 16 years I spent with Mikey, along with my time working in the restaurant business, I went on to taste foods much more exotic than calamari. The list includes almost every part of a lamb, pig heart, bear loin, rabbit, veal, sweetbreads, shark and sea urchin. That’s not to say I love all these foods. In fact, I prefer to eat a mostly vegetarian diet.
The important takeaway here is that I needed to grow into my palate at my own pace. My mom didn’t stop cooking vegetables, and she certainly didn’t stop serving meat for dinner. She didn’t cook a separate meal for me, and there were no purees snuck into brownies. She simply made one dinner and it was my choice whether to eat or not.
I’ve used that same theory when cooking dinner for my own girls. I don’t let their preferences dictate the meals — we’d eat homemade mac ‘n cheese every night if I did — but I do try to serve up a well-rounded meal that includes foods we all love. They’re not big vegetable fans, so I compensate and make sure there’s always fruit on the menu. I still serve vegetables, though, so they can see that green beans, Brussels sprouts and spinach are foods people actually like. I just don’t force them to eat it, unless they say “yuck”; then I invoke the one-bite policy — it’s one thing to not want to try something, but you can’t have an opinion about something you’ve never tasted. My hope is that as they grow up, the mere exposure to a variety of foods will mean they’re eager to one day give them a try. As with any healthy relationship, you can’t hurry love. Some kids are natural-born eaters, and others need to grow into their palates, so be patient.
Thankfully, there are others who share this mindset towards dinnertime. For more advice and practical tips, take a look at this article Melanie Rehak wrote recently: 10 Tips for Dining (or Not) With Picky Eaters. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the never-ending quest to raise a well-rounded eater.
Jennifer Perillo is a recipe developer and food writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her recipes and tips for feeding families homemade meals are a regular feature in Working Mother magazine, where she’s the consulting food editor, as well Relish Magazine, Parenting, Kiwi and her blog, In Jennie’s Kitchen.