I attribute the fact that my four year old daughter eats everything, from oysters and rabbit ragú to kale and carrot juice, to pure and simple luck. Other parents ask, especially when they see her slurp down an oyster, how we get her to eat so well. When I say it is all luck (and could change at any moment) I'm not lying.
But the truth is, I also use a few tricks.
The most important thing you can do to encourage great appetites in children is to model a good attitude toward eating. Children look to us as role models. Until the age of seven or so, their every waking moment is guided by the desire to imitate. Show them how exciting cooking and eating can be. Kids pick up on negativity, so keep it out of the kitchen. If you don't care for Brussels sprouts, don't hold them back from your children. And if you do offer them, don't wrinkle your nose and squint your eyes as they go for their inaugural bite.
I also think it's essential to make a wide variety of foods are available to kids from an early age. For me, that began at eight months, when Ursula had her first bite of solid food. And that first bite was not a spoonful of goopy manufactured rice cereal. It was a spoonful of sweet potato. Soon she was gnawing on steak with her gums. I'll never forget our pediatrician advising the "have them eat what you eat" philosophy. His example was "if you have Pad Thai, put it in the blender and that's what baby eats!" There's something to that.
Now what about the problem of: "My kid doesn't want to eat that." Or the zone I've recently entered into with a four-year-old: "No no no I don't want it, I won't eat it," which is what I heard as I chopped a butternut squash, something she usually loves. Panic set in, knowing dinner was 20 minutes away, the fridge wasn't full of other options, and I had a hungry child on the loose. But I noticed an apple in the fruit basket and employed my next two tricks. Get them involved in the cooking. and Sweeten the deal.
"Ooo, look at that beautiful red apple. You know what? I think I might to do something really crazy for dinner tonight."
Her tense "no no no" face relaxed a little and she asked me what crazy thing I was going to do.
"I'm going to put an apple in the soup." [her eyes light up] "and I could sure use some help cutting it."
When Maxwell came home that evening, she was just finishing up, licking the inside of the bowl. "Daddy, Mommy put a secret ingreeeeeeedient in the soup. Do you know what it is? I can't tell you. It's apple!"
Today is soup day at her school and each child is asked to bring a vegetable for the soup. You know what Ursula brought. As I write this, I know the children are proudly showing each other what they have in their little school-issue sacks. And my little girl isn't going hungry.
More on cooking with children from The Kitchn
• Bake Kid-Pleasing Escargot in a Mini-Muffin Tin
• On Cooking with Kids (With a Few Recommended Books)
• Weekend Meditation: The Clean Plate Club
• Jamie Oliver's TED Talk: Teach Kids About Food
• On Making Your Own Baby Food