Get kids to try new foods with no tricks, no fibs, and no strong-arming
Fried scorpions. Spicy chiles. Savory tamales. As we travel the world with Aster and Connor, we encounter new foods, flavors, aromas, and textures (especially all the yummy street food!). We globetrotting parents try to be at least somewhat adventurous with our eating. We encourage the kids to try new foods wherever we go. Yet our approach isn’t what you might think.
Do we try everything? Um, no. Like the fried scorpions on a stick at the Chiang Mai Saturday Walking Street. They’re not calling to any of us yet.
We’ve aimed to take a pretty low-pressure approach to how we get the kids to try new foods. No fibs, strong-arming, threats of punishment, or tricks. For starters, all that stuff is simply too much work—not to mention too much frustration and conflict between us and our kids.
1. We focus on hands-off encouragement. The kids will come to a food when they are ready
Instead, we focus on encouragement. Different foods are available everywhere we go. The kids know they can try whatever they fancy. They gain confidence and open-mindedness, though, because they have the reassurance that they don’t have to eat anything they don’t want to. Yet whenever they feel ready to try something, they know we will support them, whatever their opinion is.
Traveling is a way to experience not only new-to-us places and cultures, but fascinating food and drink. While we parents have fairly broad palates, here are some things we do to encourage not only our kids, but each other, to try different foods during our global family travels.
2. No yum-yucking and no yuck-yumming
The fundamentals never go out of style. Whether around our dining table at home or standing next to a things-on-sticks stall along a busy street in Bangkok, we talk openly about how different people have different tastes at different times. We are each free to express our opinions about a food, but we don’t tell each other how they have to feel about it.
Flavor, aroma, and texture are all highly personal and subjective. Jodie and Connor, for example, prioritize texture more than Anthony and Aster. A texture that puts Jodie off might be in a dish that has Anthony wanting seconds.
At the same time, the kids do not care for spicy food, but we parents do. Over the years, we’ve talked about how it’s okay to dislike a food, or not be interested in trying a food. But we also respect each other’s opinions and perspectives. We don’t yuck each other’s yums, and we don’t yum each other’s yucks. We acknowledge and respect how we each feel. That lack of tension at the table carries over into everyone being interested in the food, and not concerned about reactions about potentially disliking something.
3. At a store or a market, we challenge each other to pick out one food we haven’t had before.
In Bangkok, a wander down the street by our hotel revealed a tasty-looking produce shop. So we set a challenge for each child to pick out something new for us to try.
The shopkeeper offered each kid a longan. About the size of a cherry, a longan has a brown, leathery skin you peel. Inside, a jelly-like flesh surrounds a pit like a cherry’s, and the fruits come on big bunches, a little like grapes. Connor loved them, and we bought a big bunch.
Aster wasn’t as fussed about the longans. However, the dragonfruit fascinated her. No surprise. For starters, it’s called “dragonfruit.” The name alone is enticing. The fruits themselves are pink and elliptical, with flat fronds poking out almost like some sort of tentacle. Inside the inedible skin, the dragonfruit has a tender, mild, crisp-flavored white flesh, dotted with little crunchy dark seeds. We all loved it, but especially Aster. Whenever we find it, dragon fruit has now become a near-daily breakfast staple.
4. There is always the option to try, but never an obligation to finish.
The adage about cleaning your plate makes sense… to a point. Food waste literally throws away your food budget, and it can be frustrating when a kid only takes a small bite of a larger portion that they then reject.
We’ve typically gotten around this by, for starters, serving smaller portions. A small portion can also feel less intimidating to a child, so they might be more open-minded. If they want more, they can get another, smaller portion. Or, sometimes, say at a street market, we parents will wait and see how a kid likes a dish before we order something ourselves. Odds are if the kids don’t like it, one of us will, so nothing goes to waste.
We have long talked with the kids about how there is always the option to try, but never an obligation to finish. Typically that’s all they need to be willing to give something a bite or two. But when they make it clear they’ve had enough, we respect that and move on. We want them to listen to their bodies, to learn their own signals, so they can be better positioned to make eating choices that are right for them.
During our Thanksgiving Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, learning about chile jam made Connor very spicy curious. We got a jar, and he tried some. He enjoyed it, but didn’t eat very much. Still, it was a beginning, a bit of progress that has him feeling more confident about trying other foods—even when they’re a bit spicy.
5. We don’t trick or lie.
We’ve always been up front with the kids about our perceptions of foods we like and dislike. We’ve also never, say, hidden some hot sauce in something and fooled the kids into trying it. Sure, some parents do a bit of fibbing or tricking, and maybe that works out sometimes. We’re always seen it as compromising the children’s trust in us—not to mention setting an example for the kids that if it’s okay for us to lie to them, they’re going to decide it’s fine for them to lie to us.
So if they ask us if something is spicy, we tell them. If they ask what ingredients are in a dish, we reply that we’ll tell them after they try a bite, but we will always answer them truthfully.
That truthfulness? It’s paying off. Both kids know they can come to something when they’re ready, understand they have the right to know what they are eating, and trust that we respect their boundaries.
6. Let the kids come to the food.
During our Thai cooking class, Anthony asked our teacher, Apple, how Thai families approach introducing kids to spicy food. After all, Thai dishes can be intense on the heat, but it’s not like Thai kids are born craving chiles.
“We have spicy foods and condiments,” said Apple, “but we never force. We talk about what we eat. The kids know the chiles are there. Whenever they are ready for them, they can try them on their terms.”
This approach especially resonated with us. For starters, it gives agency to kids to try something when they feel ready. When the sliced chiles and vinegar are waiting in their own little pot, or the hot sauce or chile powder are simply one of the condiments on the table, the kids truly take decisive control. They pick out what they want. The child puts a little dash on the dish, or a drop on the spoonful they’re about to eat. When they control what they eat and how much chile they add, they know that they are in control.
Based on Anthony’s prior travels in Thailand, we’ve always had a condiment tray, covered in various seasoning salts, cheesy powders, and, of course, hot sauces. The kids have smelled them, peered at them and sometimes backed away from them. But they’ve also known that the spicy stuff is there—ready when they are.
7. Talk truthfully about what you like, dislike, and are or are not interested in trying
Above all, the biggest influence we’ve seen on our children’s willingness to try new foods isn’t what we eat, but what we say. We love to talk about food. We discuss our meals, break down flavors, and openly share what we thought was good about a dish, or what could have been improved or taken on differently in the prep.
Our family’s willingness to discuss food starts with us parents, but it’s an example, a tone we deliberately set with Aster and Connor. Eating is something we do multiple times a day. Traveling the world as a family, we eat foods different and familiar on a daily basis, and sometimes within the same meal.
8. BONUS Before you and your kids eat the world, try this at home
At home, we regularly try new foods, and try to learn from different cultures. After all, everyone, everywhere, is just trying to figure out how to get a good meal served for those they care about. Comfort food family favorites like macaroni and cheese? Oh, you bet. But also intense Thai curries, fragrant Senegalese jollof rice, Oaxacan or New Mexican-style posole are just as likely to be making the house smell amazing.
If you’re planning a trip abroad, we find it can help to do some sampling at home. You and the kids can try different foods from the place you’re visiting, but you can do so in a familiar environment. That can make it easier to try things, talk about them, and have some context before you get where you’re going. That can help everyone, adults and kids, feel more prepared and ready to try something that’s now less unfamiliar.
Our kids come to foods when they’re ready, and yours can too
Eating, after all, is one of the most important regular tasks we do in life. We find that it helps to normalize not only food, but our feelings about what we eat, our reactions to it, whether we like or dislike a dish.
We trust that our children can listen to their bodies, know what they need, and get enough to eat. As we put it, our responsibility is to ensure they have access to good food, and the children’s job is to take it from there. That hands-off, low-pressure dynamic has saved us parents a lot of anxiety and frustration. It’s also helped the kids be more excited and open-minded about the different foods we encounter. (And we kids and adults alike will just have to see about those fried scorpions.)
By being open and truthful about what we parents like and dislike, are wary of or excited about, we encourage each other to be open-minded about trying new and different foods. It also sets the children up for greater agency, broader perspective, and a bigger flavor palate as they grow into adults who will make their own food choices.
After all, what new foods we parents encourage our kids to try today isn’t really the point. The point is that we help them learn the skills to make their own good food choices once it’s up to them to decide for themselves.