Late last year, my pregnant wife and I were out for one of our last dinners together before we became parents. As a family with a pair of preschoolers sat down at the table next to us at 2 Amys, a part of me happily thought, “That could be us in a few years.”
When the waiter arrived to take their order, the mother put down the menu. “Could the kitchen make something for the kids? Maybe some buttered noodles or chicken nuggets? They won’t eat anything else.”
“I hope that isn’t us in a few years!” I thought.
I’m a food writer, so my diet spans the globe. One day I might be eating Ghanaian stew on a ball of fufu for lunch, then sushi for dinner; the next might include dim sum in the morning and roasted duck breast with orange marmalade at night. Don’t get me wrong: Chicken nuggets and buttered noodles aren’t inherently bad; I’ve enjoyed both. However, the thought of my child exclusively eating the so-called “beige diet” — fried foods and carbs — made my stomach churn.
So what could my wife, Indira, and I do to ensure that didn’t happen? Could we raise an adventurous eater?
As it turns out, my wife’s dinner that very night (anchovy crostini, burrata drizzled with olive oil, and prosciutto-topped Neapolitan pizza) was already stimulating and shaping our child’s tastes. So was the vegetable burrito, drenched in hot sauce, she had eaten for lunch.
“Learning about food occurs long before the first taste of food,” says Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Center in Philadelphia, where she studies how we learn and accept flavors. “The flavors of the mother’s diet get into the amniotic fluid.”
The same thing happens when the mother breast-feeds, she said. We had already decided that Indira would, and because her diet is nearly as varied as my own, she’d expose our child to a panoply of cuisines.
Born in early January, Zephyr was a healthy little boy with a full head of chestnut hair, a cute button nose and a ravenous hunger. The next few months were a happy blur, and it wasn’t long before we were talking about adding solid foods to his diet.
Though I have a set of rudimentary cooking skills, I’m no culinary maestro. Before Zephyr was born, Indira did most of the cooking, but now the opposite was true. Because I work from home, I had more time to spend in the kitchen.
Still, I needed help crafting the purees that Zephyr would like now and that could be the bridge to more complex solids. After consulting our pediatrician on a flurry of questions, I reached out to Tucker Yoder, executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville and father of 11-year-old Ella, 9-year-old Joshua, 7-year-old Gabriel and 2-year-old Hannah. He agreed to come and teach me a few tricks.
Yoder and his wife have a few simple rules for feeding their children. “We try to give them what we’re having,” he says, “and we’ll try giving them anything.” The children enjoy a wide variety of food, including kale-fortified breakfast smoothies and omelets filled with freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms.
His next rule sounds identical to one my mother enforced. “If it’s on your plate, you’ve got to try it,” he says. “For me, it’s if you don’t eat it, you go to bed hungry.”
The couple shop seasonally and locally as much as possible, and they draw on their home garden for tomatoes, leafy greens, herbs and root vegetables.
Our own backyard plots contributed basil and oregano to the joint cooking session, buttressed by trips to Glen’s Garden Market and Safeway. We made five purees, lightly spicing them to add depth of flavor: curried carrots, minted pineapple mango, basiled beets and strawberries, sweet potatoes with a dash of crushed red pepper flakes, and cauliflower accented with cumin. I would have enjoyed eating any of them, but we weren’t catering to my palate — and I didn’t want my wife to accuse me of stealing food from our baby.
Placing Zephyr in his high chair that evening, I mentally crossed my fingers as I dipped the rubber spoon into the pineapple-mango mixture, the color of sunshine. Slipping the spoon past the white ridges of his two new front teeth, I fed him solids for the first time.
He looked confused for a moment. Then his eyes lit up, he worked his jaw, and he swallowed. He pulled the spoon toward his mouth for seconds. In his haste, Zephyr managed to smear most of the mixture on his hands, chin and bib, but another smidge made it into his smacking maw.
Trying the strawberry-beet puree the next evening, I experienced similarly gratifying success. Two days later, however, when I picked Zephyr up from day care, his provider, Rose Ribeiro, told me: “He didn’t like the sweet potatoes. He spit them out.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Maybe we got too cocky putting crushed red pepper flakes in there, though it was just a few specks. Indira has an insatiable appetite for spicy food, and I thought Zephyr might have inherited it. But his palate wasn’t ready.
“They’re not going to eat everything,” Jenny Carenco, author of “Bébé Gourmet: 100 French-Inspired Baby Food Recipes for Raising an Adventurous Eater” and the former owner of the French frozen baby food manufacturer Les Menus Bébé, reassured me. “My kids don’t eat everything. My daughter hates zucchini.”
Repetition is the key to winning children over to new tastes, says Carenco. “Just keep serving it and make it a positive experience,” she says. “The mistake is to stop serving it. If they don’t like peas, it’s not going to kill you to cook up and throw away a spoonful of peas after every meal. Serve them at every meal. And if they have one, it’s a victory. Then they’ll have two.”
Heather Stouffer, founder and chief executive of Mom Made Foods in Alexandria, concurs. “You’ve got to be patient, consistent and a good role model,” she says. The company launched in 2006, selling organically certified frozen pureed baby foods at the Del Ray farmers market, though it has phased out those products. (“It was too niche of a market,” explains Stouffer.) Now it produces frozen meals and snacks for the 2-to-10-year-old set available nationwide in Target, Whole Foods Market and other grocery stores.
Stouffer is highly conscious of what she feeds her own children, 8-year-old Emory and 3-year-old Audrey, and her pint-size customers. “I’m a huge believer in starting kids out from their very first bite through childhood with healthy, real foods,” she says.
Despite busy days in the boardroom, Stouffer (no relation to the frozen food giant) comes home almost every evening to cook for her family. Like Yoder, she believes in feeding the children the same meal that she and her husband are eating, in a slightly modified form. To see how that is accomplished, we met at my house to cook a tilapia fajita dinner with mango salsa and guacamole, then pureed some of the fruit and fish plus spinach for Zephyr. Mashing some of the leftover avocado with a little water yielded him a small bowl of guacamole, too. Both were a hit, though Zephyr’s bib looked like a Pollock when he was finished.
It’s meals like this that Stouffer says helped make her son a budding epicure. She knew she had succeeded when she asked him what he’d like to eat for his seventh birthday and he responded that Pakistani food would hit the spot.
Similarly, Michael Harr, executive chef at Food, Wine & Co. in Bethesda, knew when he tried feeding commercial baby food to his son after a few months of homemade purees. “He wouldn’t take it,” says Harr, who shares cooking duties at home with his wife, Maria. “He knew what real food tasted like, so that didn’t cut it.”
These days, 22-month-old Benjamin is eating more complex solids, but he’s selective. “He doesn’t eat chicken nuggets or plain chicken breast,” says Harr. “However, if you give him well-spiced, moist rotisserie chicken, he’ll eat it up.” I envision Zephyr one day passing on a Happy Meal and asking to head across the street to the hole-in-the-wall Peruvian chicken joint instead.
For novice parents and cooks like myself, Harr offered basic advice, which was starting to sound like a mantra: “Think of simple dishes that you like, then puree them.” He created a play on peaches and cream for Benjamin, and when he shared the recipe, it became a favorite in my household. Zephyr grinned broadly as he devoured his first portion.
As my wife and I laughed over his reaction while eating our own dinner, I thought back on something his pediatricianhad said: “Make eating enjoyable, and do it as a family as much as you can.” This was just the beginning of Zephyr’s appreciation for food, but so far, so good.
I was still smiling as I went to store the remainder of the peaches and cream. When I opened our refrigerator, the second shelf was filled with a rainbow of purees — not one of them beige.
Martell is co-author of “The Founding Farmers Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, October) and blogs at nevinmartell.com. On Twitter: @nevinmartell. He and Tucker Yoder will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.