“Are we going to eat those?” my younger son asked me incredulously—or was it hopefully?—gesturing toward a pair of slippery, glassy-eyed fish heads that had been freshly cleaved from their bodies. I was on assignment in Virginia for a food magazine, eating with my husband and our two sons, ages 7 and 9, at the chef’s table in the kitchen of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville. While the fish bodies were being filleted and prepared for that night’s menu, the heads were seasoned, flipped on a grill, and quickly served up to us on a butcher block.

“You can eat the brains and the eyes,” said the tattooed sous-chef on the other side of the counter, “but the cheeks are really the best part.” To my delight, everyone in my family eagerly picked up their forks.

The next day, I was talking with the inn’s then-chef, Tucker Yoder, about how much my kids enjoyed dinner (the fish heads being a highlight). They tasted—if not devoured—all of the 24 small plates that were pushed across the counter toward us. Yoder, a critically acclaimed chef who has four kids of his own, nodded in solidarity: He told me how one of his daughters never wanted PB&J sandwiches in her lunch box in kindergarten, so he sent her to school with fruit and charcuterie.

We bonded over our kids’ shared adventurousness, which he lamented was rare among their elementary-school-aged peers. But why?, we wondered. And how do we fight the American diet, or the “endless pantry” syndrome (as my mom calls it), where parents scramble to offer option upon option to their kids at meal times, desperate to find healthy foods that their kids won’t reject? Tucker’s assessment: If you expose your kids to the good stuff, eventually they’ll eat the good stuff.

I, too, was once a victim (perpetrator?) of endless pantry syndrome. I distinctly remember tears—both his and mine—as I performed desperate circus acts trying to feed regular food to my first-born after his pediatrician told me that, at 14 months old, it was high time my kid stopped relying on jarred baby food. I felt deficient as a parent for letting my kid eat only mush for so long, and I wondered if I had screwed up his health for good.

Around that time, a friend who was also a nurse and a veteran mom watched me obsessively trying to convince my son to eat banana bread (come on—who doesn’t like banana bread!?), appealing to him with a new bite of bread every few minutes after he’d rejected the last one. She laughed politely at my totally ineffective helicopter-feeding techniques: “Well, if he doesn’t eat, it won’t be for lack of your trying.” I was both mortified and exhausted.

But by the time he was 15 months old, we discovered that homemade chicken barley soup was an acceptable alternative to those tiny jars of puree. Pancakes that he could smash in his fists and stuff in the general vicinity of his mouth were cause for celebration. Those were small victories in the early years, punctuated by even more struggles as I spent the better part of my days trying to figure out what to buy, how to cook it, and when to feed my kid for the best possible results. Finding food that he would eat was a daily stress-cloud that followed me from breakfast through dinner.

In a demonstration of God’s evenhandedness, our second baby transitioned to table food more easily than his brother (before he was 2 years old, he reached across the table and grabbed a fried oyster off my husband’s fork and jammed it into his mouth). But even then, for many of my kids’ preschool years, we were stuck in the American diet/endless-pantry routine, where it was just easier to heat up meals that consisted of chicken nuggets, pizza or mac-n-cheese with the requisite baby carrots. I didn’t have the time or energy for much more than that.

And then.

One summer night, when the boys were old enough to keep themselves occupied for an hour while I made dinner, I decided to try gazpacho out on them. I knew they would eat spears of raw bell peppers and cucumbers, and I had seen them chow down on chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants; I thought maybe I could use chips as an incentive for them to eat the soup. So in a fit of hopeful creativity, I whipped up some gazpacho and served it to them in artfully garnished bowls, complete with sides of tortilla chips. I took a step back to admire my creation and waited for Martha Stewart to call me so she could feature my adorable-and-healthy dinner idea in her magazine.

“Just like at the restaurant!” I chirped, hopefully.

Nothing.

“It’s made with cucumbers and red, green and yellow peppers—you like those! These are just blended up,” I tried to convince them. My boys just blinked at me, Morse code for Nice try, Mom. Cups of gazpacho were pushed aside as the chips—and my enthusiasm—disappeared. Martha never called.

A few weeks later, however, I took another stab at the gazpacho—only this time, I prepped all the veggies and piled them up on cutting boards alongside the necessary ingredients on the counter. I invited my older son to measure out the oil and vinegars and dump handfuls of raw veggies into the blender. He got to push the buttons while I supervised. Of course, his brother wanted in on the action, too. Lo and behold, not a drop of gazpacho was left in the bowls that night.

So what happened? Maybe their palates had matured just enough to be sold on cold tomato soup, or maybe each brother was trying to impress the other with what he dared to eat, but I was convinced that having them help make dinner—that they took ownership of what they were eating—was what made the difference.

I soon discovered that make-your-own versions of anything had a high success rate: Instead of preparing a salad for the table, we would make a “salad bar” with all the chopped ingredients for the kids to assemble themselves. A friend showed me how to make pozole (a Mexican chicken soup) with slices of lime and avocado, shredded cabbage and crumbled tortilla chips to pile into the bowls as you please. Both big hits.

Invent-your-own dishes worked, too: After watching a documentary on how Japan was combating its invasive jellyfish problem by eating them in a noodle-filled soup, my boys asked if we could make something like that (I tried to hide my horror at the idea, but figured out that, basically, they just wanted to eat noodle soup). We went about creating our own Asian noodle soup by looking up recipes online, subbing cod for jellyfish, and improvising to suit our tastes— “Faux Pho,” we dubbed it.

The journey from harassing a toddler with banana bread to refereeing for kids who clamor for the last quivering forkful of bone marrow didn’t happen overnight. I acknowledge that luck likely played a role—my kids don’t have the texture issues, taste sensitivities or reflux that some pickier eaters have. But I also think their road to culinary adventurousness was built on deliberately created habits: getting involved with choosing ingredients, helping prepare meals, and eating dinners together as a family—no special meals just for kids.

I never sneaked good-for-you ingredients into “deceptively delicious”-looking food. Instead, we openly discussed how to eat enough of the food required for our bodies to be healthy. My boys learned how to make smoothies in the blender when they were in kindergarten—sure, the individual ingredients were disguised in the making of it, but they still got to see each chunk of fruit or leaf of kale as it went in.

I also got in on the palate-expanding action: A few years ago, I found a way to overcome my lifelong aversion to eggs with the help of my kids, who were already eggs-for-breakfast lovers like their dad. Their suggestion? Bacon. Now I make “momlets” with mostly veggies and a little bacon glued together with eggs. Look at me, all grown up!

This is not to say that my kids always eat everything they’re served. I still can’t get the younger one to eat sautéed spinach, but he’ll eat it raw. We’ve adopted the try-a-few-bites-of-everything rule, although I admit that it’s not always enforced. My kids are allowed two foods (totally arbitrary number!) they can flat-out refuse to eat, but even those have changed over time. For my younger son, this used to include raspberries, but now he eats them with abandon. I recently overheard him talking to his brother about how that changed: “I think I ate them on top of ice cream once and decided they were pretty good,” he explained. “Maybe the key to liking new foods is trying them out with something you know you already like.”

I also think my kids’ willingness to try new foods gain momentum because they believe their own hype: They like the reactions they get when they slurp a raw oyster or order beef-tongue tacos at a restaurant. Like many of the other things I struggled with as a new mom, that stress-cloud that used to follow me daily is now a distant memory.

Listen, I know it’s not easy to negotiate your kids’ food issues, but I’ve seen both sides of it and I can attest that, at least in my experience, it gets better. I’m pretty sure that chef Yoder was right: Exposing your kids to the good stuff—where it comes from, how it’s made, why it’s good for you and how it tastes when it’s prepared right—encourages them to embrace more culinary possibilities.

That, plus a little bacon.

Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a freelance writer who still can’t bring herself to eat an oyster. Follow her on Twitter at @WichardEdds.

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