To Raise Intrepid Eaters, Skip the Children's Menu

One spring weekend, during a college semester abroad in Paris, I found myself the houseguest of a large French family at their home on the coast in Brittany. I didn't know them, but my friend Jenny's French aunt, Katherine, did, and she had insisted they would be thrilled to host Jenny and me for a long weekend.

Instead they had no idea who we were when we arrived with only Katherine's phone call as an introduction. Still, they opened their doors and offered us the guest room. Even though I was a couch-surfing, poor college kid, our brazen arrival still managed to embarrass me.

But that was nothing compared to the self-consciousness I felt the next day when the family's traditional Sunday brunch evolved into a five-course gastronomic feast featuring, among other things, oysters. I had never seen an oyster, much less tasted or manhandled one. I felt so provincial.

While everyone else gleefully indulged, I studied the family's six-year-old to learn how to put away a mollusk. She palmed the rough casing, loosened the oyster with a small fork, gave it a squeeze of lemon, stuck out her tongue and slurped it down without hesitation.

"Delicious," she exclaimed, grabbing another. Of course she did. In France, learning to eat à la francaise is part of the school curriculum.

I followed her lead. The rough shell felt cool against my lips. The slippery, salty, briny thing slithered down my throat. The meal began, and so did my education into adventurous eating.

In the 15 years since then, I've sampled guinea pig, cow's brain, fois gras, snails, anchovies, tempeh, extraordinarily pungent mushrooms, even stinkier cheeses, and more. These dishes are a far cry from those of my childhood, where adventure was tempura, which is what we called the deep-fried, breaded vegetables that bore little resemblance to what's served in Japanese restaurants.

It wasn't that my mom was a culinary wimp. As a single mother on a tight budget, she scripted our meals within the confines of price and convenience. Rarely did we eat out. And, living in Colorado Springs, where steak and potatoes were standard and conservatism rewarded, food was never considered an experience.

But it should have been.

Developing intrepid eaters starts at an early age and can lead to a lifetime of adventure. How, exactly, do you accomplish that? For one, skip the kid's menu. For another, force your kids to try everything.

That works—in theory. But it also risks drawing battle lines at meal time that could transform food into a power struggle best avoided. Perhaps adopting Michael Pollen's Food Rules is one answer, particularly the rules that say not to get your food where you get car fuel and to always eat at a table.

Or check out Photo from Matthew Amster-Burton's blog, from Matthew Amster-Burton's blog, Amster-Burton's book Hungry Monkey, which offers insight and recipes into turning your kid into a foodie. In the introduction, Amster-Burton writes: "Hungry Monkey is the book I wish someone had handed me before Iris was born so I would have known … that there are two simple rules to take a lot of the stress out of feeding kids, and that it's okay to feed a baby sushi and spicy enchiladas. Most important, I would have been reassured that having kids doesn't require dumbing down your menu: if you love to eat, a new baby presents an opportunity to have more fun with food than ever before in your life."

My own baby, Henry, is only three months old and is quite content with breast milk for now. But I've bookmarked Amster-Burton's blog where his entertaining writing often offers invigorating recipes, like the one I tried last night: Sour Napa Cabbage with Lamb.  As my husband and I tucked into the savory dish, Henry snoozing in his crib, I had only one regret: that I couldn't wake him up and share the deliciousness. At least not yet.

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Sour Napa Cabbage with Lamb  (serves 2 to 3 with rice)

1 lamb shoulder chop, fat and bones discarded, meat sliced thin

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon rice wine

2 Tablespoons peanut oil

1 large carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 small onion, thinly sliced

half a medium head of napa cabbage, shredded

1 clove garlic, minced

For the sauce:

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons rice wine

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon chile-garlic sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch


Stir together the sauce ingredients until the sugar dissolves, and set aside. Stir the 1 teaspoon each of soy sauce and rice wine into the lamb.

Heat the peanut oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high until it begins to smoke. Add the lamb and cook until well-browned but still slightly pink in spots, about 1 minute. Remove to a bowl, reserving the oil in the pan.

Add the carrot and onion to the pan and cook until the carrot slices are well browned on both sides, about 2 minutes. Add the cabbage and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is markedly reduced in volume and well browned in places, about 2 minutes. Add the reserved lamb and sauce and cook, stirring, until the sauce is thickened and coats the meat and vegetables, about 1 minute.

Serve immediately with steamed rice. And make sure your kids try it.


Rachel Walker is a Boulder-based freelancer who writes about food, adventure, and fitness when she's not coo-ing back to her three-month-old son.