The Clean Plate Chronicles: How I Got My Son to Eat the Basics

At first blush my son, Ben, sounds like a foodie parent’s dream: By age 2 he was downing spaghetti squash, arugula and asparagus. He loved mushrooms on his pizza; he would only eat seedy bagels. By 3, he liked the taste of beer (that was an accident) and garlic chives. Last year, when he was 4, I caught him trying a whole peppercorn. As I readied a culinary firehose (a.k.a. a glass of cooling water), he screwed up his face, announced, “This makes me want to sneeze,” and laughingly went to grab another. Now 5, he is still a kid with an adventurous palate.

And that’s the problem. I’m no gourmet. Sure, my son willingly runs to the kitchen to eat tomatoes, raw onions and raw garlic, but he won’t touch those ingredients mixed together in my marinara sauce. Beans and rice? No way. Grilled chicken? “Blech” he regularly declares at the dinner table. No amount of cajoling or spicing will get him to eat the standard fare I rush home from work to get on the table each night. Meat or any kind of protein is an especially tough sell.

And then we accidentally introduced Ben to Japanese cuisine. After a thorny night trying to get him to eat fish sticks, I decided I deserved a treat and ordered sushi. As my husband popped open the plastic covers, my son’s interest was immediately piqued. He was eating the ginger within seconds, then pinching the flying fish roe off our plates. Before we could stop him, he was putting a fingerful of wasabi in his mouth. He loved it. He sampled the raw fish. He unraveled and ate the seaweed wrappers. His tastebuds were on fire and he was in heaven. I admit, I was proud.

A few visits to the local sushi restaurant proved—not surprisingly—that he is downright daring. He prefers squishy salmon roe and octopus to California rolls. He asks to try a new type every trip and yes, he still eats chunks of wasabi. Fun? Absolutely. Protein? Abundant. Expensive habit? Well, yes. However, I saw a glimmer of hope. Amidst his still adamant proclamations against my weekday cooking (with the added annoying explanation that he only likes raw, not cooked, fish), he was asking a lot of questions about anything Japanese. “I want to go to Japanese, Mom,” he’d say, referring to the country. And that’s when I caved.

A friend had recently passed along a recipe for panko-crusted chicken. I’d demurred on principle (it’s still just fried food, yes?), but decided to try it. First I showed Ben the Japanese letters on the package of panko. I told him we were having Japanese chicken that night. He loved it. A few nights later, in the midst of my regular battle with him to use utensils, I handed him some kid-styled chopsticks. Victory!

Fast forward a month later, when I took him to an Asian-fusion restaurant and ordered udon soup. He inhaled it, so within a few nights I promptly made my regular chicken soup—with udon noodles added in. He was smitten. Gradually, after a few more panko chicken meals, he stopped griping about regular chicken. He flung less rice around the room if I reminded him that Japanese food includes a lot of it. When I gave him some lentils, he asked if they were Japanese. I lied. He ate them.

The true test came last week at a friend’s house. It was a still-chilly, spring-in-Chicago damp night. The hostess made a weather-appropriate, traditional beef stew. “Will your kids eat it?” she asked.

“Only if we tell Ben it’s Japanese,” I answered. She raised her eyebrows and watched as I handed him the meat. He started to protest; I declared its authentic Asian roots.

“He paused! I saw a glimmer,” my friend said. Ben took a bite.

“Delicious,” he announced, and ate every last morsel.

I consider it a white lie, maybe a white-miso lie. Is that so wrong?

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