Tips for Foodie Parents
My oldest daughter came home the other day from her second trip to New York City. For as long as I can remember NYC has been her personal Mecca. She loves everything about that city and I suspect there will be many more pilgrimages there in her future. We sent her there the first time for her sixteenth birthday and when she came home from that trip she spent a lot of time talking about the fantastic shopping. This trip was different. All she talked about was the food. Because I usually do the same thing when I come home from most of my travels, it felt like a little parenting victory.
I should preface this post by saying that I believe in both nature and nurture when it comes to raising kids and I am by no means an expert. When I share my parenting experiences I like to think of it less as advice and more like an anthropological field report. These are the observations I have made and I will do my best to draw some educated conclusions based on my findings.
The birth of my daughter coincided with a wonderful awakening in my life. I had always liked to cook but until I was nearly 20 I was not an adventurous eater. I grew up in a meat and potatoes household and did not have much exposure to food outside those narrow parameters. Luckily on a cold and rainy Derby Day some friends and I found shelter in a Chinese restaurant near Churchill Downs. Not having a clue what to order someone suggested I try the Lo Mein. Pretty mundane by many people’s standards but for me at that time this was mind-blowing. Right then I began a 20-year love affair with food. These days, when I travel I fancy myself a disciple of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. 75% of my trip planning centers around where we will eat our meals. Likewise, if you visit Louisville I will only consider it a success if my restaurant recommendations are on the money.
As I was becoming a foodie my (then) young daughter was taken along on the same journey. I asked her recently if anything I did helped shape her eating habits today. Her reply was this, “I think it was just that you took me to a lot of really interesting restaurants and didn’t give me an option of eating anything else.” Sounds like tough love? Perhaps. I have always believed that a family should revolve around the parents, not the kids, and that kids benefit by having ‘grownup’ experiences. So I dragged my daughter to a lot of restaurants and luckily it worked out. We’ve pretty much employed the same strategy with my stepdaughter and I’m happy to say we are two for two. Here are some of the lessons I have learned;
Damn the Kids’ Menu
I have waged a one-man campaign against kids’ menus for nearly two decades. They are boring, predictable and infuriating but I also get it. Restaurants are businesses and you cater to the masses. My solution was simple: Don’t let the kids order off the kids’ menu. Sure, it costs a bit more and it’s a gamble, but that’s where you, the parent, come in. Steer your kids towards new dishes that are still within their comfort zone. Most kids will eat Pad Thai or Lo Mein. It’s like Asian mac & cheese. In an Indian restaurant, order the Paneer Korma and tell your server that it absolutely cannot have any heat in it. If you can’t find them something good in a Mexican or Italian restaurant, you need your foodie card revoked. The best part of this strategy is that leftovers end up in dad’s lunch the next day or tomorrow night’s leftovers if the kids enjoyed it.
Get Them in the Kitchen
Assuming you are a foodie that also likes to cook, have your kids help with dinner. And that doesn’t just mean letting them chop the vegetables. Allow them to have some input and let them include at least one ‘fun’ ingredient. A handful of Fritos in a salad might just become a family favorite. I’m happy to report that most of our joint cooking experiences have yielded positive results and my kids are now finding their own grooves in the kitchen and it’s pretty fun to watch.
Respect Their Boundaries
There is a fine line between the subjective and the picky eater. If you’re like me and you keep trying broccoli hoping you will like it, only to gag every time you swallow, it’s a subjective thing. Some people just don’t like certain tastes. Other people have a mental block on certain foods. One of my daughters hates seafood. Won’t touch it. On the other hand I will pretty much eat anything that comes out of the ocean so this makes me a bit sad. I used to fight her on this until she made such a scene over a bowl of shrimp & grits in Charleston that I finally realized I had to back off. Now I only ask her to try a bite of sushi as a joke and she knows that I respect her wishes.
Our youngest daughter will eat vegetables happily sometimes and other times she decides she hates them. Since she is 15 and should have outgrown that by now, this boundary gets filed under the picky category and we mostly ignore it. The catch there is lima beans which make her physically ill. That boundary is one I don’t cross and so she hasn’t eaten my succotash in years. Again, this is a tough line to navigate and you will make mistakes at times and sometimes you just have to let your kids be picky for a bit. Push too hard and what would have been a temporary phase becomes permanent.
Share Your Hobby With Them
Trying new restaurants is one of the only shared hobbies my wife and I have. Our kids get to tag along most of the time and so it has become a family hobby. I like to talk about the food with them as much as I can. When they were younger it was mostly just, “Do you like it?” Now we offer our amateur critiques to one another and it’s fun to play the game of thinking about how you would improve a dish.
The One Bite Rule
Someone shared this technique with me early in my parenting career. Kids have to try at least one bite of everything at the table. While still respecting boundaries (see above) be firm on this one. At home this is just part of their food education. In restaurants this should feel like an adventure. There is nothing I love more than sitting between my daughters and the three of us trading bites of our meals. If you order something that the other two wish they had ordered you pat yourself on the back for choosing wisely. It’s the closest thing to competition in the dining world.
And that’s what I have learned. I’m interested to hear from the commentariat on this. What techniques have you developed to help your kids become better eaters? Or have you accepted that these might be the PB&J years and there is time for a foodie education later? What is your opinion on the subject?