Good eaters: How to raise an omnivorous child

These ain't SpaghettiOs! Maisie munches down on her favorite, tavola's pork ragu. Photo: Cramer Photo These ain't SpaghettiOs! Maisie munches down on her favorite, tavola's pork ragu. Photo: Cramer Photo

According to karma, I should have a picky child. (I once threw a fit when my parents stopped at Wendy’s because the hamburgers there are square instead of round.) But not only has Maisie never even eaten a fast food hamburger in her nearly five years of life, but she’s a better, more adventurous eater than many adults.

Eating habits are as much nature as they are nurture, so while I can’t take full credit, I can point to several things that may have contributed to the miracle that is our child who’s never said “eww” to anything she’s tasted.

As soon as Maisie was eating solids, I introduced single ingredient purées of whole foods, rather than blending three different components the way the commercial brands do. She gobbled up everything from beets to zucchini. Finger foods were tiny squares of tofu, sweet peas, black beans, and ditalini pasta instead of just Cheerios. I never muddled flavors by covering things up with ketchup or applesauce. Now, she can pick out even the subtlest flavors—like lemon zest in couscous or cumin on chicken.

The “try it once” rule stands in our household, though Maisie rarely needs prompting. She’s always eager to try something new and even foods she hasn’t cared for in the past, she’ll try again to see if she’s “grown up to like it” (as she says). She gagged the first time I gave her goat cheese at 18 months—I felt terrible, but she kept trying it and now eats Caromont’s Esmontonian like a champ. Capers, olives, cilantro, raw ginger—anything and everything goes into Maisie’s mouth —and even when it’s not a favorite, she just says so (and why) and moves on.

I never make an assumption about what she might like or dislike and am sure not to impose my own (albeit few) food aversions onto her. She actually gets a kick out of liking foods that others don’t.

Rather than suffering through meals at restaurants that cater to kids, we held off on dining out much as a family until Maisie was at an age to enjoy the entire experience. We wanted her to be part of the conversation and didn’t want her to think that watching a video on an iPad at the table is appropriate. Now, she sees dining out as entertainment and is an absolute pleasure to have at the table. She chose to celebrate her fourth birthday at tavola, loves the vegetable soup and warm rolls at C&O for a weeknight dinner, and brings her own “training” chopsticks to Peter Chang’s, where she delicately drapes the napkin across her lap before asking the server for “dumplings and Beijing duck, please.”

I imagine that karma might still be lurking around the corner with an “I’ll only eat white food” phase, but for now she’s a bona fide foodie. And I can’t wait to find out where she wants to take us for her fifth birthday!

  • Jenn

    Not sure I care for the judgement in this piece. While I agree it is best to introduce them to wholesome, homemade first foods, this system in and of itself does not guarantee a foodie. We followed the same system. Our 4.5 year old has never had fast food, food coloring, and the only processed food she gets is occasional crackers as a treat (mostly because we can’t find good recipes). She is a fantastic eater now, requesting things like calamari and ratatouille, but still went through some of the typical toddler pickiness. So I think it’s better to adopt this style with the assumption that the exposure will persevere in the end, but that it is more normal than not to hit many bumps along the way. I think the more important thing is to not cave to the over salted and over sugared processed food during the fussy stage. The best start we can give them is breastmilk followed by wholesome, balanced meals and assume the best. And I’m sorry, but the ipad has nothing to do with a child being a good or bad eater!

  • Brett

    Maisie is so cute! I will admit I feel a little judged for the Cheerios in my pantry…eesh…I’m just trying to get food on the table sometimes! But good for Maisie! And good for Mama for introducing good habits that Maisie will carry for the rest of her life.

  • Megan Headley

    No judgment meant at all, Jenn or Brett! We did plenty of Cheerios and do plenty of crackers and cookies and other wholesome treats. Maisie’s offered every food imaginable at school and, to my surprise (and delight), she usually opts for the less-processed option (though Pirate’s Booty has made quite an impression on her). Creating a foundation for mindful eating and then letting her loose with it was the main point I was trying to make. I regret that it maybe didn’t come across fully. And my goal in not pulling out an iPad at a restaurant has to do with wanting her to learn that the very act of dining is entertainment and a special treat.

    Parenting is such a Herculean effort in itself that I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have an adventurous eater with a sincere interest in and respect for food. Like I wrote, karmic forces should have left me with the opposite–and the tides may very well change at a later age. Every parent knows that settling into a pleasant routine is the fastest route to upheaval!

    Thanks for reading and know that I commend everyone who teaches their children to have a positive relationship with food. Sure, it’s fuel, but it’s also one of life’s pleasures!

  • esteban

    Wow, so wasn’t there any Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut to go along with the Caromont’s Esmontonian? This sounds more like a day in the life of Mitt Romney’s grandkid than a food column. How about writing something for the 47% once in a while instead of for the bourgeois crowd….

    • Megan Headley

      Thanks, Esteban, but I don’t advocate preschool drinking in any way and don’t think that anything I wrote implied that. She eats dinner out MAYBE once every three months–about as often as her parents do–and the rest of the time, we cook for her…fresh, homemade meals that she eats at the dinner table. Is there error or criticism in that? For the 47%? For the 53%? Wouldn’t both parties align with such an exercise? Are you a parent? If so, I’m curious…how do you feed your children?

      • esteban

        Well, I can see that you missed the gist of the comment, so explaining it would be of no use.

        • WTF

          Why are there always know-it-all, self protectionist reactionaries out there, who are so inclined to chime in with petty criticisms, and unfounded gripes!? It bewilders me, it really does, especially in a town that is small enough that everyone is in everyone elses’ business, that you people (Jenn* / esteban) should not see the simple positivity of this story. The article has nothing to do with “bourgeois ” tendencies, or even implies them, but well done, nice use of a big word there, esteban! Don’t worry about it. *Jenn, I am slightly confused by your comments too, as reading over them you seem to endorse the essence of the article, but have, for some reason, opened with a snarky remark, rather than making it a positive recognition of the values that you too, seem to hold. There is no talk of exclusive products, or inflexibility to the ebb-and-flow of a child’s picky eating habits, so how did you find fault in the pleasure and value of feeding your kids decent food.

          • Jenn

            I do agree with the premise, but I don’t care for the underlying tone that suggests if you feed your child in this way, you WILL have a foodie and will NOT encounter the picky phases. I do follow this method, but we still hit the texture aversions and the carb addiction, both of which are common toddler feeding issues. If I didn’t know better I likely would have thrown in the towel instead of persevering. My point is that not every child in this method is going to gobble it up, therefore how do we still advocate for its importance even for the children who do not naturally eat all before them? It’s like advocating breastfeeding. We know it is the normal and healthiest feeding method and we know in the end it is easier than formula, but when we present it too simply, we end up losing too many people when they hit those first bumps of bad latches, sore nipples, and lack of knowledge about the beginning. Believe me I want others to feed their children this way, but there has got to be more acknowledgement of the bumps and how to power through.

          • WTF

            When I read the article, I do not read it as a preaching voice, which is trying to set a standard that people should meet, but rather a personal affectionate story about the pleasure of sharing food with a little person. With due respect, I think you might be projecting a tone onto the article which is not actually there.

    • aj

      silly esteban, don’t you know that mitt eats rotisserie chicken! and seriously why is everyone so sensitive and dismayed by this article? the author is simply stating how happy she is that her daughter appreciates most every type of food that is placed in front of her and fortunately does not opt for happy meals and cheetos. as the youngest of six children knowing what we put my mother through when it came to our picky palates i totally get where megan is coming from. she chose to emphasize (in the limited characters allowed for the article) the types of foods i can guarantee you 97% (thats 47% plus 50%) of children would wrinkle their nose at as opposed to including the obvious pbj, popcorn, or grilled cheese type meals that all kids typically love. one would think this would warrant a little less criticism and perhaps, i know i may be expecting too much, some intellectual thought before spouting off about how offended you are because their daughter enjoys food most would assume only adults do.

    • prole

      this is great.

  • Jenny

    I, personally, identified with the piece as my two daughters were raised for several years overseas where food is considered more than just something to stuff into our faces and dining IS seen as an experience where people gather around a table with food prepared with love and attention. And I disagree with the poster who says that an ipad has nothing to do with a child being a good or bad eater… if I take the time to prepare a meal OR if I treat guests to a lovely meal out, I would be quite insulted if a guest toyed with their iPad while dining with me. Food brings people together, iPads and cell phones tear them apart during meals. Wonderful article which showed your love and enthusiasm for both your daughter and your love of great food!! (and how cool it is that she’s sharing that love with you!)

  • Emarr

    Megan- GOOD JOB for doing what is right for your kid and sharing your story. I am sorry you had some comments that got distracted and didnt realize that you are simply sharing your success story and also realizing that things can and will change any day. I commend you for making great choices to expose your daughter to good food which is usually CHEAPER and so much healthier…. Sadly parents are often to lazy or selfish to do what is right for their child and choose the easy route. And i couldnt agree more about the ipad a the table… Meals are an interactive family experience and should be treated as such. Truely breaks my heart to see the family at a table with all thekids on some technical device, and mom and dad too. Where is the joy in that? I get its not perfect and yes we have used Mahna Mahna occassionally to make it through a doc appointment or car ride home but exceptions to the rule are just that, exceptions- not a way of life.

  • Angela

    I do not have children. Some will believe this gives me the ability to remain more objective when witnessing the never-ending mom wars which seem to be taking over the world. Others believe I have no right to read/hear the conversations at all. Some further believe that I should be exiled if I comment; which, of course, means I always do. So here’s what I want to say to you:

    Throughout the past 15 years that I’ve spent working with children in every capacity imaginable OUTSIDE of birthing them (nanny, daycares, pre-schools, high school classrooms, legal guardian, hospice provider, tutor, home health care aid, etc……) I’ve been paying very close attention to the HUNDREDS of parents and their children whom I’ve witnessed up-close and personally. I’ve been a witness to and a part of every discipline style, reward system, nap and bedtime schedule, educational tool choice, television interpretation, vocabulary bank, dietary habit and lifestyle system which exists. For each one, I’ve perked up my senses to notice every cause and effect my brain could handle and I’ve very intentionally (and very quietly) tucked those little nuggets away. The result? A binder which I’ve titled: “If I think I even stand a chance…..”

    This binder is packed full of things which I think I’m going to need to know and remember if I ever decide to take the leap and be solely responsible for the life and successes of another human being. The issue is still up in the air. My husband and I have yet to decide whether or not we’ll ever be appropriately preapred or willing to sacrifice what’s necessary to do the job right.

    Most parents, in my experience, will say “There’s no right or wrong way to parent.” Go right ahead and hang me now for disagreeing wholeheartedly. I’ve seen it, from my objective lens, time and time again: the children who nap well vs. won’t sleep by themselves….the children who throw temper tantrums and run around in circles vs. sitting at the table with puzzles…..the children who squeel if they can’t have Chuck E Cheese vs. the ones who are perfectly content (and well behanved) in a PF Chang’s……….there are absolutely right and wrong ways to do it.

    And if I don’t think I stand a solid chance of doing it right, I’m going to pass altogether and focus my efforts on being the best aunt and teacher I can be instead.

    In any event, if I do decide to take on the job….I’ve got my binder of nuggets which I’ll read instead of the “What to Expect when you’re Expecting” and “Parenting for Dummies.” I feel this real-world collection of narrations holds far more weight in its ability to educate me, guide me and remind me how to proceed when I need advice.

    I don’t know you. But it is my sincere belief that, if you continue to post pieces like the one above, my binder might have to be renamed accordingly to, “The Headley Method.”

    From my seat in the “She’s 30 and doesn’t have kids yet???” section of the auditorium, I stand and applaud you. Your child is amazing. If I were you, there wouldn’t be a humble bone in my body (likely evidence that not having a child yet has probably been a wise decision for me).

    Someday, if I’m going to do it….I hope to remember to do it like you do.

  • Emily

    I think my biggest gripe with this piece is the tone that reads: “I’m a privileged upper-middle class whole-foods shopping person that serves my five-year-old fancy goat cheese and takes her to expensive restaurants…and you should too!” While I don’t think this was your intention, I could certainly understand how someone might interpret your tone as arrogant or oblivious.

    That said, I think you’re right on in your approach (and also incredibly lucky to have such a food-loving child). In fact, in my experience, there is a direct correlation between picky eaters and closed-mindedness that continues on into adulthood. That’s why having an open mind about food is important beyond physical health. As a foodie myself, it’s no wonder the people I like best are adventurous eaters!

  • Guest

    While her heart is in the right place, Ms. Headley does sound a bit smug, and I wonder whether she is raising a foodie or a food snob. Maybe mother and daughter can share budget recipes that don’t involve imported olive oil or artisanal cheeses. Readers may be refreshed to see the duo in a more down-to-earth way, and it would be nice if Ms. Headley would give her articles a good reread and ask herself: do I sound like I am bragging? Do I sound smug?
    Some children are born picky to an extreme, with severe food aversions due to hypersensitivites. It can take them until adulthood to overcome their food anxieties. A parent can take all the same approaches as Ms. Headley, and still have a child who won’t touch a vegetable.

  • Kate

    Megan isn’t saying all parents should raise their children on goat cheese – she’s just sharing her experiences as a foodie mother. Great piece Megan. I hope my son grows up to eat like Maisie!

  • Molly

    While I think you’ve certainly done the right things to promote great, healthy eating habits and been rewarded with an open, adventurous eater, I’d just caution against premature self-congratulations. We eat the same way you describe and our first daughter is much like Maisie. Then feeling pretty full of ourselves we had baby number two who, to this day at age 13, will only eat chicken tenders. Number three is by far the most adventurous eater of the whole family, and frankly, by the time he rolled around I would have been happy to feed him Cheerios and hot dogs for the sake of exhaustion and convenience – but he likes spinach and almond milk smoothies and fried oysters and brie en croute. Go figure. So parents, don’t despair. You are not a bad parent if your child has their own distinct palate that is not as adventurous as others. Just offer good choices and enjoy learning about the individual tastes unique to each child (which will change over time – or not).


    What a little cutie pie! This is exactly how I want to raise my kids– though I will be throwing in some Wendy’s for good measure.

  • Laura Brooke Allen

    Megan, you are so brave to write about parenting with so many barracudas out there ready to attack! Loved your piece. Inspiring as always.

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