How a Restaurant Critic Taught Her Daughter to Love Food
From avocado by the spoonful to a full embrace of sashimi, surprise, excitement, and sharing can crack open the wide world of flavor.
Round two: The endless test of nature versus nurture stares at me through big brown eyes. Ridley’s almost 5 months old, and it’s time to start feeding her real food. A baby’s first tastes can influence her preferences for decades. It’s a big moment.
My toddler, almost 3, dives for pink sashimi. She knows the difference between rice and farro. She scoops up chickpeas by the handful. She might say her favorite food is broccoli. She’s also human. If there are french fries on the table, that’s all she’ll eat. She’s never too full for a milkshake.
Windsor becoming a good eater was my number one goal for motherhood. She had to be a good eater. She also didn’t have a choice: I’m a restaurant critic. From birth, she has spent multiple nights a week at restaurants. She doesn’t understand a restaurant outing as a special occasion. She understands it as a Tuesday—not that she knows days of the week yet.
A parent doesn’t have to be a restaurant critic, and incessant dining out isn’t the only way to cultivate an adventurous palate. Starting young can help. While other parents were reading about sleep training, I was studying food training.
In First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, author Bee Wilson writes, “From four to seven months, it seems that there is a window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavor.” Wilson cites studies showing babies are more open-minded to vegetables at this point, noting “it can take fewer exposures to persuade them to like a new flavor, and the effects are long-lasting.”
As we’re about to offer Ridley a spoonful of avocado—Windsor’s first food, and a tradition we’ll continue—I’m reflecting on how our first baby turned into the miniature omnivore we dine with today.
Surprising: Windsor could never fall into the chicken-tender rut because it was never an option. Every night was different: Ethiopian, Korean, Middle Eastern … you get the point. But we also made it accessible. As long as she could identify the meal’s main component—rice, noodles, chicken, mushrooms—she would eat it. It didn’t matter if the noodles were dressed in a cream sauce or sesame oil.
Sharing: Because ordering interesting food is how to understand a restaurant and write a thoughtful review, we never ordered from the kids’ menu. Everyone at the table shared dishes, including my daughter. She was a part of the team. Food made her our equal. Just as I would ask my husband what he thought of the duck, I’d also ask Windsor. Sometimes she liked it, and sometimes she didn’t. But she tried it (sometimes after the fourth time we asked) because that’s what mommy and daddy did.
Exciting: I’m a restaurant critic, so I obviously love eating. My husband does, too. We dine with enthusiasm, and it’s contagious. It’s when we can count on being all together, trying new foods and having fun.
We’ve never bribed or forced Windsor to eat vegetables. There was nothing virtuous about seaweed salad except that it tasted good and gave her the opportunity to play with chopsticks. Vegetables were a part of the meal and could bring the same joy as short rib or barramundi.
Does Windsor always like everything? Of course not. Does she only want the steak and not the tomatoes? Definitely. But we keep it light. If she doesn’t like something, she knows it stays on her plate and she doesn’t have to eat it. I’ll casually ask her throughout the meal if she wants to try a bite, as I do with my husband, and by the end of the meal, she’ll usually take a taste. We focus on the positive, praising her for taking a bite out of a Brussels sprout as if it were an apple.
We’re far from the perfect family, and there are nights when my husband holds Ridley, football-style, while he rushes Windsor outside to avoid a meltdown at the table. And that’s happening more as she turns into this little person who’d rather say ‘no’ and only eat from the bread basket than please her parents. But then Windsor and I talk about feeding Ridley avocado one day soon, and she smiles and eats another pea.
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