How I Got My Toddler Interested in Food and Cooking

How to raise a kid with a broad palate, healthy eating habits, and an appreciation of food? Allow them to be picky, but offer them a huge range of options and experiences to be picky about.

Illustration of a pile of gnawed-on chicken wings in front of a child's messy hands and face
Illustrations: Michelle Kondrich

All kids are picky. All of them.

What's that? Not yours? You with your little Johnny Escoffier, who's been gumming down artichokes barigoule and slurping up lark's tongues in aspic since before his baby teeth were in?

Okay, not your specific kid. Your kid is perfect. You can stop reading here and go check on your duck à l'orange reduction (or is your perfect toddler managing that for you, too?).

By most accounts, my daughter isn’t a very picky eater. Of course, she loves kid-friendly staples, like pasta and pizza and toast (and candy), but she also loves tofu and fish. She wolfs down peas and green beans and broccoli, though the latter only if she gets to pretend she's a giant eating little trees.

She does Daniel Gritzer proud when we have chicken wings, gnawing away at the delicious little bits of cartilage and meat scraps my wife, Adri, inevitably leaves behind. She's eaten rice with goat intestines, guinea pig livers, and cock's combs; she adores salmon eggs, and she's pretty keen on rice and beans, too.

The thing is, once it comes time to actively try to feed her, it turns out she's actually quite picky. At any given meal, she’ll decide what she is and isn’t going to eat. One day, she might not eat anything that’s had sauce applied to it; on another occasion, she’ll refuse to eat anything green. The next time, she might be extra particular about getting perfectly matching pieces of asparagus, or maybe she'll eat nothing at all.

So she's picky, but she's completely un-picky about what she's going to be picky about. You know what I mean?

Here's what I think, though this theory is hardly unique to me: Kids aren't picky because they really care about particular foods; they’re picky because it offers one of the few opportunities in their heavily guided and chaperoned lives to express opinions and exercise control.

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Chorizos Santarosanos. My favorite kinds of Colombian chorizo are made with big chunks of hand-trimmed and pork stuffed into casings - no ground meat! Hanging in the open air gives them a nice sour fermented flavor accented by a squeeze of limón mandarina. Wish you could find chorizos like this in the US but I suspect the labor cost is just too high. Alicia refused to taste these but ate the whole limón. It’s one of those days for her.

A post shared by J. Kenji López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) on Apr 3, 2019 at 11:02am PDT

So, what’s the path for a parent who wants their kid to develop a broad palate, healthy eating habits, and an appreciation of food?

One method is to limit their control. My mother took this approach—at mealtimes, we were told exactly what we were going to eat and how much of it, and we weren’t allowed to leave the table until it was finished. In my kid sister's case, on oatmeal days, this would mean sitting alone at the table for hours after everyone was already done. She still hates oatmeal.

But there's another way: Instead of resisting their pickiness, you can allow your kids to be picky, but offer them a huge range of options and experiences to be picky about. Meanwhile, you can also use sneaky psychological tricks, like "encouragement" and "physical expressions of enjoyment," to get them to continually expand their palates and engagement with their food.

Here are some of the techniques we use at our house. Before I get into them, I want to be entirely clear: I realize that, as a part-time stay-at-home dad in a two-parent household, I’m in a very advantageous parenting situation. Much of this advice will be more difficult for some folks to apply to their own lives, but as long as you make time for meals with kids and cook at home now and then, you may find something useful here. (You might also consider adding mandatory paid parental leave to the ever-growing list of policy issues to care about—currently only 14% of American civilians in the workforce are guaranteed any kind of paid parental leave.)

Don't Use Negative Words About Food

Kids do gross things. For several months, mine would combine everything on her plate into a single bowl, pour her drink on top of it, then mash it up and eat it with her hands. It didn't matter what it was. Grilled fish with sparkling water and Brussels sprouts? You bet! Was it disgusting? Yep. Did she eat it? Usually. Does she still do it? Nope.

The trick is to resist the urge to tell them to stop, or to suggest in any way that what they’re doing may be considered gross by the restrictive societal and aesthetic norms to which you’ve become accustomed as an adult. If you want your kids to have fun learning about food, you need to let them explore it in their own way. Let them figure out for themselves what textures and flavors go well together. Who knows, maybe they'll invent the next French-fry-dipped-in-a-Frosty trend.

The only times we use negative words are when safety’s at stake. Moldy apples are bad to eat. A grape that's rolled in a puddle on the ground is bad to eat. But as long as it's not going to physically harm her, we won't discourage any of her exploration.

Let Them Taste Everything

"I want to try the flavors," my daughter says, pointing to the spice drawer. She also does this every time we visit a friend's kitchen or a rental home. We go through every bottle one at a time, smelling and tasting each one as we identify it. Often, we pick a few we want to cook with.

I find that this kind of exploration is key to getting my daughter engaged with cooking. We don't limit it to the spice cabinet, either. She smells and tastes all the fresh herbs in the fridge and the garden. She takes little bites of vegetables as we prep together. She also gets to taste things as they’re cooking, so she knows that onions are "spicy" when they're raw and "sweet" when they're cooked.

I mean, obviously my daughter is a special kind of perfect genius, but I really believe that even your very average cubs can pick all these things up. Kids want to know things—it's just a matter of keeping them engaged with cooking in a way that provides these learning points, while also giving them some degree of control over the finished product.

But thoughtful engagement shouldn't stop at cooking...

Encourage Thoughtful Eating

The more you watch random YouTube channels devoted to a single niche, the more you realize that virtually anything in the world can be interesting if you engage with it in a thoughtful way. Food is even better: It’s just naturally interesting. It engages all the senses—kids can feel texture, taste flavor, smell aroma, look at color, and listen to the sounds of cooking and eating—and it comes with built-in stories, whether those stories are just about how it got from the supermarket to the table, or the actual history of the dish.

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Grilled cow teats in Socorro, Santander 🇨🇴. They’ve got a kind of... spongy texture. Not everyone’s thing, I think (definitely not mine). But Alicia enjoyed the avocado at least!

A post shared by J. Kenji López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) on Apr 27, 2019 at 4:15pm PDT

I’ve found that the best way to keep my daughter interested in eating at the table is to make sure that she’s paying attention to all those senses, and eating in a way that makes her actually think about what she’s doing.

Even if she’s decided that today is the day she’s not eating cucumbers, I can usually get her to eat some—or even all!—of them if I lead her to think about them in a new way. For instance: “You know what’s really good? If you take the cucumber and put it in the yogurt sauce,” or “Can you taste the green part and the white part and describe the difference? Which one do you like better?”

Getting her to think about her food as she eats it not only teaches her to appreciate and identify different flavors and textures, it also makes dinnertime more fun. “What kind of noise do you think this broccoli will make when you bite it?” “Is this sauce sweet or salty, or maybe a little of both?”

Of course, there are meals at which she’ll decline to answer any of my questions, eat a few cubes of tofu, and declare that she’s done. This is fine.

Make Mealtimes Fun

This one seems pretty obvious, but I still often find myself accidentally falling into the bribing-with-food trap: "You can have some chocolate if you eat three bites of chicken and two bites of asparagus."

And yet, studies show this doesn't work. Kids who are bribed to eat certain foods will end up liking those foods less, decreasing their overall consumption of them over time.* Your best bet is to serve them the food you want them to eat, give them a few options, and apply no pressure.

*This makes me wonder if I could trick my kid by telling her she can't have her asparagus until she finishes a cookie?

We like to do our best to make sure that mealtimes are a fun and relaxing time, something that everyone in the family can look forward to. This means no phones (and no screens generally); we all sit at the table together (except on Sunday nights, when we eat pizza while watching a movie); and, above all, we keep the conversation about fun things. Dinnertime isn’t when Adri and I discuss our finances or figure out who's taking the car to the shop.

When we talk about the food, it's almost always to either suggest an interesting way to eat it, or to loudly and appreciatively explain how much we're enjoying it. Taking a bite of something and declaring it delicious isn’t a surefire way to get my daughter to eat it, but it's got a good 75% success rate.

Don't Worry Too Much

If there's one guaranteed way to get my daughter to stop eating, it's to upset her. And if there's one thing that's guaranteed to increase the odds of her having a mini meltdown, it's seeing her parents upset. So when she's not eating well for a meal or two, we try very hard to make sure we don't act worried in front of her, or, worse, try to force her to eat when she doesn't want to. Either of those reactions tends to result in her immediately refusing all food, and has the potential to create lasting negative associations with mealtimes.

Instead, our basic philosophy of nutrition is to make sure that she's always presented with a healthy array of foods. So long as she's getting a decent variety of things in her diet in a given three- to four-day period, we don't worry if she wants nothing but plain pasta for dinner one night.

Start Them Young!

Illustration of an adult's hands and a child's hands chopping vegetables side by side on a cutting board.

Get yourself a copy of Baby-Led Weaning and a copy of Hungry Monkey. The former is a guide to getting your kids started on solid foods, through a process called baby-led weaning. As soon as your child is able to sit upright on their own, they can begin eating solid foods. The benefits are immense.

My daughter has been eating the exact same meal as us (with a few exceptions for safety reasons) since she was six months old. We've never had to buy purées or make special dishes just for her. The method also encourages kids to try many different flavors and textures, as well as develop hand-eye coordination. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

The latter is an autobiographical account of a food-obsessed parent dealing with the feelings and will of a toddler as they learn to eat. It's wonderfully funny and inspiring.

But starting kids on solid food as pre-toddlers does present one big problem, which leads us to...

Forget About the Mess

If you're taking the above steps, you've probably discovered that mealtimes are messy. We tell ourselves that this is fine. Kids are messy. Messes can be cleaned.

We found it easiest to simply strip our daughter down to her diaper for meals, and place her chair on top of a spill-proof mat, like this Nuby floor mat. For a while, she went through a phase of tossing her entire bowl on the ground when she was done eating. A set of silicone bowls and plates that stick to the table solved that problem, while silicone bibs with pockets caught most of her big spills. Having dogs also helps.

Show Them Where the Food Comes From

Kids love being stimulated, and there are few places more stimulating than supermarkets. They're designed to stimulate you. They want you to buy those fruits and vegetables. Hitting the supermarket with a baby or toddler is a great (free!) way to keep them occupied and learning, while also getting them to make connections between the food on their plates and how it gets there.

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“Aaaahhhhhhi wanna eat it,” she says.

A post shared by J. Kenji López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) on Mar 4, 2019 at 12:00pm PST

There are tons of games you can play in the supermarket that don't involve running around and pulling products from the shelves. I ask Alicia what color soup she wants for dinner, then we play “I Spy” looking for an orange vegetable we can use for the orange soup she wants. The other day, we inspected zucchini and cucumbers side by side and tried to name all the ways they’re different. ("I can taste it?" was her first question.)

The cheese counter occupied us for a good 15 minutes last week as she systematically pointed her way through each display, asking what animal the milk was from ("What animal is this one? And what animal is this one? And...what animal is this one?"). I even ended up learning about a few new cheeses myself because of it.

(Side note: I use an OXO stroller that has an extra-roomy basket beneath the seat, and was pleasantly shocked by how much easier grocery shopping is with it. Not only does it include all that built-in storage space, it also clears the way for you. Nobody wants to block the baby, right?)

We also work hard to help our daughter make the connection not just between her plate and the supermarket, but between her plate and the land as well. We recently germinated some beans with her, which we'll plant in the garden. She's been plucking tomatoes and eating them straight off the vine since before she could walk (it took her a few weeks to learn not to pick the green ones). We love to take her to visit farms of all kinds, and we don't hide the fact that the animals she's seeing are the same animals that end up on her plate.

I think she gets it. The girl's favorite food after tofu is fish eyeballs, and the last time she saw a live pig, she said, "I love pigs. I also love to eat them." (This is actually a lie: Though she enthusiastically eats tofu and fish, she’s lukewarm about chicken and pork, and doesn't care much for red meats.)

In any case, she certainly gets that food is made up of ingredients, and that some of those ingredients come from the ground and some come from animals. (And some come from the mysterious "flavors" rack in the pantry.)

Cook With Them

I’m a rare example of a cook (okay, technically a chef now that I have my own restaurant, I suppose) who learned to love cooking before learning to even enjoy food. At the time I started my first restaurant job, you could barely get me to touch a tomato or, worse, a piece of cooked fish. But I loved working in kitchens, and through that passion, I started to appreciate food in new ways.

I was able to taste the work and technique that went into making something. I could identify ingredients, and I learned a little bit about their history and culinary uses. Food started to develop more layers and take on meaning, and trying new foods became an intense source of pleasure.

I didn't start cooking until the ripe old age of 18 years old. My daughter, on the other hand, has been cooking since before she was 18 months old. When she was an infant, she spent part of every day parked on a pillow on the kitchen counter while I made dinner, and ever since she was big enough to open her eyes and smell things, she's been smelling every ingredient I cook with. (Again, with some rare exceptions for safety, like hot chilies or raw meat or seafood that she might touch and then get in her eyes or mouth.) This is something a child of any age can do.

Once she could stand on her own, I built her a stepstool with a safety rail around the top (see our post on the best tools for cooking with kids for some models you can buy), and got her her own little cutting board, a little mortar and pestle to match my big one, her own little whisk and wooden spoon, and a wooden knife. She's since upgraded to a Curious Chef nylon knife set, which features blades that are sharp enough to cut a wider range of foods.

With those tools, she can help me pound garlic or herbs into a paste; she can chop all but the toughest of vegetables; she can help measure, dump, and stir ingredients in a bowl; she can pick herbs and grate cheese—she can do virtually every cooking task that doesn't require heat or dangerous equipment.

Does she make a mess when she helps? Yes, of course. But she also loves to help clean up, and we make sure to build that time into our cooking. After meals, she enjoys pushing her helper stool over to the sink to help with the dishes.**

** Speaking of washing dishes, this NPR piece, "How to Get Your Kids to Do Chores (Without Resenting It)," is worth a read.

Essentially, the advice boils down to this: Very small children are naturally inclined to want to help around the house. Let them do it, even if it means that the tasks will take longer, or maybe you'll have to repeat them later. In very short order, kids pick up the skills they need to do the tasks right, and encouraging them from a young age makes them far more inclined to enjoy doing housework later on in life.

These days, one of Alicia's favorite activities is cleaning the windows. Granted, it's so that she can draw on them again, but at least it's a hands-off cycle for us.

The funny thing is, I can 100% guarantee my kid will want to help me cook in the kitchen every single time, but I cannot rely on her to actually eat everything we cook. This is okay by me for now. As long as she continues to develop a fundamental love and understanding of cooking, she'll learn what she does and doesn't like to eat, at her own pace.

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Alicia insisted on assembling her own eggplant Parm.

A post shared by J. Kenji López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) on Aug 28, 2019 at 6:40pm PDT

By the way, I'm not saying this because I want to brag about how much of a special little genius my kid is (though of course she is), and I’m completely aware that kids are individuals and what works for some might not work for others. These particular methods made sense to me, as they seem to maximize the range of foods that my kid gets to experience, and therefore widen the pool of potential foods she'll be willing to eat on a given night of pickiness. It also helps her develop important physical and mental skills, all while letting her maintain some level of control over what goes into her body.

Most of these tips are based on reading parenting books and columns, and paying attention to those techniques that are backed up by the most actual science and expert agreement. As with all parenting articles, the most I can really tell you about this advice is that it has worked for me. If you think you may enjoy the same types of things I do, and have similar values you want to bring to your own family's table, then it may work for you as well.