Alex Guarnaschelli: How I Got My Daughter to Eat — and Like! — Broccoli

04/08/2014 at 06:00 AM ET

Alex Guarnaschelli: Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters
Sergi Alexander/Getty

Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.

I spend the majority of my time cooking or thinking about food. Running a restaurant can be challenging and stressful, and while I love that my hobby and profession are one in the same, I have to carve out ways and times to cook for pure pleasure.

After I had my daughter, Ava, I thought that creating her homemade meals would be a relaxing way to enjoy my love of cooking. And I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I wasn’t entirely right, either. I never expected to hear “I don’t like this, Mommy” or “This doesn’t taste good!” after investing so much of my time and energy on her food.

My 6-year-old daughter is a voracious eater but like any kid, also has her distinct likes and dislikes. She loves pizza but hates cheese in most other contexts. She loves tomato sauce but won’t touch a raw tomato. So I find myself, after years of dreaming up hundreds of creative restaurant menus, wondering what I should cook at home.

I wondered, how do I walk the line between sharing new ingredients and staying in my kid’s comfort zone?

After lots of trial and error, I’m ready to offer some suggestions. First, I think chicken fingers and mac and cheese should be part of every parent’s repertoire. But I also believe that we shouldn’t limit ourselves. I remember being a kid and whatever my mom or dad made, that was that. No other choices. No sauce on the side. No “liver with onions, hold the liver.”

I don’t think we need to go back to being this strict, but I also think that you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a food as something your child doesn’t like. A nutrition experts once told me a kid might need to see a new ingredient 16 to 24 times before they decide to even try it, let alone eat it regularly.

Alex Guarnaschelli: Tips For Feeding Picky Kids
LEFT: Broccoli comes in so many forms; RIGHT: This is portrait my daughter painted of herself (Courtesy Alex Guarnaschelli)

I conducted my own broccoli test to examine this theory. I steamed some florets and seasoned them with salt and lemon juice. When the broccoli hit the table, my daughter’s nose wrinkled in distaste. I ate the broccoli with gusto as she watched silently. I did it again a few nights later.

You’re probably wondering, is this the part of the story where she began happily devouring broccoli? Has she moved on to kale shakes and hummus burgers since? Of course not. She watched me do this many, many times over several weeks. Yes, I went through a lot of broccoli.

I had given up all hope until about round 12, when she took a piece of broccoli and nibbled it hesitantly. She ate a few pieces and didn’t say anything. Neither did I. (Acting like you aren’t invested in what your kids eat, to prevent battles for control, is another tip.) I will admit I went to the bedroom after dinner and did a secret broccoli-victory-dance before returning to do the dishes.

She now eats broccoli from time to time, and sometimes even asks for it. To continue my discreet PR campaign on behalf of fresh produce, I take her to the supermarket and greenmarket to wander around. She’ll grab and apple and bite into it with gusto. She’ll marvel at how tomatoes come in so many colors. I think there is something to the idea of showing children that food is beautiful, whether you’re browsing at your local grocery store or strolling through a packed farmers’ market during the middle of summer.

Of course, there are some fruits and vegetables that my daughter finds beautiful but she won’t dare eat. But I like to think she is building a file of food information in her brain to reference as she gets older. As I build simple, reverent dishes to draw her in, I’m reminded of things I used to love as well. I forgot how good an artichoke can be if you just roast it with olive oil and chili flakes. And how sour cream can set off a baked potato beautifully. She would still prefer french fries any day but with patience I never knew I had, I’ve made progress with green vegetables.

Like those earlier complaints, “Mom, can you cook some broccoli?” are dinnertime words I never expected, either.

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LeeAnn Trionfo on

My favorite chef!

Diane on

It’s not really that hard. If we, as parents, take care to not project our own food prejudices onto our children and simply offer them a taste without pressure, most likely the child will eat it.
Both of my kids loved ‘little trees’.

Diane on

It’s not that hard really. If we, as parents, are careful not to project food prejudices onto our children and simply offer them a taste without pressure, most times children will eat, and like, any given food.
My children have always loved ‘little trees’.

boke1 on

Alex is great. My husband hated all things green but I’ve gotten him to eat and like spinach, asparagus, avocado, artichokes and other things he never thought he would like. While not a child, a picky eater is a picky eater. She’s very nice to watch on Chopped. While honest and constructively critical, she always finds something nice to say.

Tina on

Diane, unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. My husband and I love a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, but our children have had a hard time moving past hot dogs. Our older daughter does love berries and corn, and occasionally asks for peas, but we can’t get her to eat her “rainbow”. I love that Alex understands a picky eater, and also gives permission, as a chef, to give kids what *they’ll* eat, not just what we make for them. I’ll have to try her idea of introducing certain foods for a few days, or even weeks, in a row to see if our little one will eat them.

soonergirl on

Alex, you worry too much. Just try different things on her plate occasionally, some she’ll try and some she won’t. Don’t make a big deal about it. Her tastes will develop and increase as she grows older. Worked with all 3 of my kids!

Shell on

It’ll get easier as she gets older. My son is 11, and by now he will give just about any food I put on the table a chance, and will eat fruits/veggies he is not crazy about because he knows they are good for him.

Kay on

I don’t understand what she means by “reverent” dishes (in the last paragraph) at all – but I really agree with most of this, in terms of how to get your kids to eat. I was a disastrously picky eater myself as a child, and since I was the youngest of five I think my parents just sort of accepted it. While I think it’s entirely wrong, and counter-productive, to force kids to eat (nothing will produce eating disorders like associating food with force and compulsion, no matter your good parental intentions), I also think the way she describes it here is a great way to go: just keep the good stuff visible and accessible until one day they might want some. And don’t EVER make a big deal out of anything the child eats – that’ll make them shut down for sure!

_Kristine on

I think we do forget that children are capable of having food preferences. They aren’t little blank slates that with the proper discipline or coercion, can be made to love all foods. I think the advice to keep introducing foods is great, but a parent isn’t a failure if the child never learns to embrace kale. Serve it to them, let them see you eating it, and maybe one day they’ll like it too. Or, maybe they won’t. I’ve never developed a love affair for beets, much to the disappointment of my parents!

Judy on

When she was a teenager spending weekends with us, my (step-)daughter used to ask me to cook broccoli for her all the time. Of course, I never minded but one day I decided to ask why she didn’t just make it herself. She said to me, it just tastes better when you do it. :D I never asked her again and would gladly cook it for her any time she asked!

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