Believe me when I tell you that the young gentlemen of my household, ages 12 and 9, are not cosmopolitan or gourmands.
The best thing you could ever pack in their lunch boxes is a nice cold package of Lunchables, and they love beef jerky, french fries, and pizza.
But – here's the surprise – they also sometimes get a yen for sushi, tofu, fried calamari, artichokes, Mexican food, or dim sum. They love to eat out, and they love to eat well.
I'm afraid I can't attribute their tastes to any exceptional quality of their attitudes or palates. I guess it's simply a result of continued exposure to these foods and environments.
According to Isobel Contento, a professor of nutrition education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City, “Continued exposure to new foods is extremely important. Research suggests that children sometimes need to be exposed to food ten to fifteen times before they develop a liking to the food.”
Research by Contento and many of her colleagues supports my hunch: Any kid can learn to dine out and enjoy a broader range of foods, if given the chance. Unfortunately, resisting the temptation to feed kids only “kid food” ordered from “kid menus” at “kid-friendly” restaurants is no piece of Tastycake.
But if you don't, you wind up with kids whose narrow palates and general cluelessness about restaurant behavior are the self-fulfilling prophecies of Ronald, Wendy, and the Colonel.
I love going out to eat, but I don't love anything that comes in a nugget or is served in molded plastic. My solution is this: While we do consume our share of burgers and pizza, our family also patronizes real restaurants. If you're ready to try something a little more civilized and adventurous than another trip to KFC, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Tasting Tips for Kids
The journey of a thousand meals begins with a single bite – or something like that. Here are some clues to guiding that first morsel safely into the hangar.
- Don't make a huge deal out of the new food in question. Start simply – just let your kids see the grown-ups eating and enjoying it.
- While you don't want to flat-out lie, remember the old “tastes like chicken” ploy. You might say in your most casual tone, “Want a bite?” Then, when you're asked what it is, say, “It's like steak” (in other words, it's venison). Or try, “Taste a bite and see if you can guess.”
- Never eschew bribes: “A quarter for the first person who can guess what it is.” “Taste it and you can pick the dessert.”
- If they absolutely hate it, do not make them eat it. If they're not sure, you might suggest a second taste, perhaps with soy sauce, pepper, or lemon to personalize the flavor.
Rules for Restaurants
Want to get your kids through an eating-out experience without a meltdown? Here are a few guidelines to make it more fun for everyone.
- Do keep paper and crayons or pens in your purse at all times. This way, the gimmick of kid-friendly restaurants is yours anywhere. Older kids can play hangman and “dots.”
- Don't make a federal case about dressing up. Most restaurants these days don't mind casual clothes, and by choosing one with a relaxed dress code, you'll eliminate one area of dissent.
- Don't let kids have too much sugary soda before the food arrives.
- Don't let the waitperson serve meals to the kids first. If you do, the timing will get screwed up: They'll lose patience before you've finished your main course.
- Don't bring other kids who have more limited palates than your own do. You don't want to get an “ew” thing going.
- Do allow a field trip or two to the bathroom or the lobby. Accompany your kids the first time to demonstrate acceptable behavior.
- Don't let your child order some expensive item she's never had before without having her first try an appetizer or tasting portion.
Marion Winik is a writer and a commentator on NPR. Her latest book is The Lunch-Box Chronicles (Vintage).
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