Food is an integral part of my life—I make my living as a food writer—but even when I’m not working, I’m inevitably thinking about the next thing I want to cook or eat. Growing up in Calgary in the ’80s and ’90s, my diet consisted mainly of meat and potatoes. So when my daughter, Ruby, was born 11 years ago, I envied the fact that as a child of foodie parents, my baby would be able to discover the joys of fancy mustards and jerk chicken much earlier than I did. I was also convinced that our open-mindedness would mean she would eat everything with gusto.
In fact, this conviction was comically delusional.
Ruby’s relationship with food was contentious from day one: Breastfeeding was a struggle for both of us, but when I tried a bottle, she refused it. I was sure things would get easier when she was old enough for solids, and while she did reluctantly accept bland baby cereal and puréed sweet potatoes, most other vegetables were flung back in my face. I followed the experts’ advice to keep trying, hoping she’d learn to love green veggies, but eventually I realized I was wasting both my time and my fresh produce.
Up until early elementary school, steamed carrots and green beans were the only acceptable veggies, though she did become a fairly voracious meat eater and developed a solid dedication to carbs—as long as everything was served in the plainest way possible. Even the mildest curries were “too spicy.” The tiniest sliver of onion rendered a whole dinner inedible. And tomato sauce, a food I thought literally every kid liked, was consistently rejected.
But family life must go on, and while I tried to make nutritious weekday meals everyone would eat, I’d break out imported cheeses, spicy charcuterie and fussy desserts with friends on the weekend. Usually Ruby would watch the grown-ups eat while she nibbled a stack of plain crackers, but at one party I was thrilled to see her hand move in the direction of a spectacularly stinky blue cheese all of the adults were raving about.
“This is good,” she said, after eating about half of the block.
“I know,” I replied. “You should try some of the paté.”
And with that, she began to trust that foods she wasn’t comfortable with weren’t going to hurt her. One night at dinner she asked if she could taste a leaf of lettuce from a Caesar salad. She loved it so much that the next time we went to a restaurant, she ordered a chicken Caesar instead of her usual grilled cheese. This opened the door to other salads and then other foods. She began to boast that she was the kind of person who liked eating new things. By the time she was 10, she had declared sushi her favourite food and had devoured a plate of goat curry in a restaurant because the server told her the recipe had been developed by celebrity chef Vikram Vij.
That last part probably has more to do with my job as a food writer than anything else (most kids don’t give a hoot about celebrity chefs), but you don’t need ties to the restaurant industry to lead by example. If food is important to you—be it flavours from around the world or the glory of simply prepared farm-fresh vegetables—honour the act of cooking, don’t hide your pleasure when eating and gently encourage your kids to give things a try on their own terms. With my daughter, arguments and bribes didn’t work (and, believe me, I tried them all). Connecting food with happiness, celebration and creativity was what did the trick.