From Gen X Mom Sarah Krause:

Earlier this month my family went out for my oldest son’s birthday. We took him to one of those Japanese hibachi restaurants where they cook the food right in front of you. I figured my three kids would have fun and maybe find a new food they liked (they did: steak‼), but the trouble started when the chef put the cooked veggies on their plates. “What is that?” said the birthday boy, peering down at the shriveled brown lump on his plate. When the chef explained it was a mushroom, my son shook his head, proclaiming he didn’t like mushrooms. The other kids quickly shook their heads no, too.

The chef was stunned the children had never had a mushroom. I tried to explain that since my husband and I don’t like them, we never buy them. In fact mushrooms have yet to cross the threshold in our home, I told him. Well, there was that one unfortunate pizza that quickly got picked apart and tossed in the garbage disposal.  I’m sorry to all the folks who love mushrooms out there. Really, I’ve tried to eat them through the years. In fact, my mom loves to tell the story of my preschool days when I’d take a huge raw mushroom in my lunch, munching all around down to the stem. Shudder. In my defense, I love most other vegetables. Brussels sprouts? Delicious! Swiss chard? Yummy! Asparagus? Can’t get enough.

So I began to wonder – do other moms worry about not serving certain fruits and vegetables? Do they think about the impact their own impressions (i.e. dislikes) about food have on their children? What if you or your spouse doesn’t like lima beans (for the record: love!). Do you just never buy them because you can’t stomach them and then risk turning your kids into lima-bean haters? Or do you force yourself to serve lima beans so your kids are exposed to them? The blogosphere is filled with a mass of opinions on this subject – over 4 million links come up when “getting kids to eat healthy” is typed in. I decided to ask some mom friends about this and it turns out they all have various viewpoints.

I asked my friend Chris, who has two boys, if she worries that not serving certain fruits and vegetables will cause her kids hate them for life? “Well, I didn’t like cauliflower when I was a kid, but now I do,” she said. “I think you grow into adult tastes and eventually you get used to foods.” With that said, Chris admitted she does have a few tricks up her sleeve. 

“I’m a sneaky chef!” she proudly proclaimed. In fact, she had to whisk away to the bedroom to whisper her sneaky tricks to me so her family wouldn’t overhear. “Even my husband doesn’t know – he’s almost as picky as the boys!” She cooks, purees and freezes fruits and vegetables to sneak into dishes. Cauliflower has hidden in mashed potatoes, mac ‘n cheese might include pureed squash or sweet potatoes and spaghetti sauce could hide spinach, blueberries or zucchini.  “I pull these out all winter long and use them in my cooking.”

Clever. I tried fooling my kids by adding a tiny jar of Gerber mashed carrots to their beloved box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. No one liked it. Now I just inform my crew of the health benefits and nutritional value of certain fruits and veggies and hope that they’ll be more persuaded to try it. The rule in our house is 1. you have to have it on your dinner plate, and 2. you have to take a taste of it.

Chris said she wished her boys were more willing to try things before they immediately said no. She and her husband talk about healthy food choices and nutrition, too. “But they get tired of hearing about Dr. Oz because I talk about him all the time,” said Chris, who cooked kale for the first-time after hearing about it on his show. “They always say, ‘We don’t want to eat what Dr. Oz says to eat again!’”

For Melissa, another mom of two boys, it’s a little easier. “They eat really well and will try most everything,” she said. “I think it helps that they see us eating everything.” So I quiz her: spinach, green beans, mushrooms? Yes, yes, yes. Brussels sprouts? “Well, I’m not a big fan, but I eat them in front of the kids because I don’t want them to not like something just because I don’t like it,” Melissa said.  “I try not to put any of my fears on them; I don’t want to pass that on.” She adds that she also tells them, “The more you try it, the more you’ll like it!”

My friend Janie, agrees somewhat. “The rule is (my kids) need to have 1-2 vegetables on their plate, and I tell them to keep trying it to see if they’ll like it,” said the mom of three. “But I tell them, ‘I will never make you eat a Brussels sprout because I don’t like them!’”

Research tells us that kids need repeated exposure to new foods. If adults continue to serve those new foods in a positive way, children will usually learn to like them.  But it may take 10 attempts or more.  If they know they can try it when they are ready, they will be more open to it. “My daughter will tell me something she’d like to try and I’ll make it and try it with her,” said Courtney, who recently had a first-time adventure with edamame. “She has to take a bite just to see if she likes it, and I tell her you have to try something 10-15 times before you know if you like it or not. I’m pickier than you and I’m trying it!” Courtney sighs: “It’s a process getting kids to eat.”

My neighbor Jeanne, a mom of two children, knows that process well. She said her family eats a ton of fruit. In fact, she and her middle school age daughter make a fruit smoothie to share most days after school. But what about veggies? “The vegetables on the other hand, could use some work!” she laughed. “I should be making broccoli, but truthfully, I just don’t like it! I didn’t grow up eating it, so I don’t think to serve it.” When I asked if she feels bad that she isn’t exposing her kids to broccoli she replied: “Nah, they’ll figure it out when they’re older!”

Like Jeanne, several of the moms said they were influenced by what produce they were served as children. For my friend Susan, who has four children, everything was either canned or frozen when she was young. Now, she tries to always buy fresh produce, especially seasonal. Eating fruit is not a problem for her kids, so she focuses on the vegetables. She looks for recipes using veggies (she has a soup recipe where she hides tons of veggies and “no one complains about it!”)  and grills them during the summer. “I serve almost everything,” she said. “It’s not like I torture them by serving stuff they don’t like, but if you don’t like it the first time, you’ll mostly likely get it again sometime!”

Growing up, Beth, mom of two young girls, says her family didn’t branch out much, opting for the standard peas, corn, beans route. “I don’t remember ever having collard greens, Swiss chard, turnips, things like that.” One year when she participated in a local farmer’s co-op, she received a variety of produce. “Suddenly I had all these new foods!” she said. “I’d go look up a recipe online to try, like roasted beets since I’d only ever had them canned.”

Mom Julie said that while she “generally won’t make stuff I don’t like,” she doesn’t really worry about exposing her three kids to different fruits and vegetables now. “I know there’s still time for them to try new foods and develop a taste for it,” she said. “I mean, there are things I like now that I didn’t like as a kid, like asparagus.” Here’s a great tip from Julie: when introducing a new food or dish, she buys a pre-packaged or deli version (“So I’m not slaving over a recipe for two hours for something they won’t even like!”), and then if her family likes it, she’ll find a recipe and add to her repertoire.

Chris added that however her kids get food works for her. “As long as they’re getting the nutrition, whether it’s broccoli on their plate or pureed zucchini in the spaghetti sauce, I’m fine with it,” she said. “I feel that kids are exposed (to new foods) when they go somewhere else, too, like a friend’s home or a restaurant and that broadens their horizons.”

So, back to the Japanese restaurant. We did encourage our kids to try the mushrooms to broaden their horizons. I reminded them of their Good Eater Challenge (yes, I’d brought our chart along to dinner) and challenged them to compete with each other to take a bite. It worked. They all tried it and the family cheered and clapped. All three of them earned a tally mark, and our daughter even thought she “kind of liked them.” As for me?  Let’s just say I’m still waiting to have my horizons broadened.