Here’s the recipe for raising an adventuresome eater, according to mom-of-three Catherine McCord, founder of the recipe site Weelicious: Take one kid. Gradually add more and more different, wholesome foods right from babyhood. Mix in plenty of fun and everyday opportunities for the kid to explore those foods, like shopping, growing, and cooking with you. Season with love.
Even better (and this is the part we love about her), we can do all this in ways that are easy for us too. Though she cooks six nights a week, with one day reserved for “date night,” she sticks to speedy dishes that her kids can help out with AND will love to eat. Last year, she co-founded the meal-kit delivery service One Potato, one of the first to emphasize kid-friendly foods and portion sizes.
We asked McCord, shown in the photo below, to share her insights from her life as a culinary-institute-trained food entrepreneur and from her tasting panel at home in Los Angeles: happy eaters Kenya (9), Chloe (7), and Gemma (1).
How having kids changed the way I think about food: I realize they’re sponges for everything. If we introduce them to a variety of nutritious foods at a younger age, they’ll be more excited to try them as they grow older.
The most important ingredient in family meals: Love. I’m all about the family table and eating together. We all gather for dinner, but breakfast or weekend lunches also work—just some regular time to be together, show your kids good eating habits, have conversation, and catch up.
One thing I really wish all parents knew: Cooking as a family can be one of the most bonding activities you do—and taking 15 minutes a day to really tune in to your kids is better than an entire day of feeling all over the place.
One thing parents worry about—but shouldn’t: Developmental milestones. Kids will hit them in their own time as long as you give them the tools.
One thing parents don’t worry about—but should: What TV and movies they watch! We’re big fans of Common Sense Media when trying to decide what’s age-appropriate for our kids.
Best first food for a baby: Any seasonal fruit or vegetable.
Best first finger foods: Cooked rice is really delicious. Watching a baby nibble it off her fingers is precious!
Surprising food babies like: Olives! I avoided giving them to my kids because I didn’t like them. But when Chloe was 18 months old, my father-in-law had a pint of them out, and she ate the entire pint! I thought they’d be too briny. My 1-year-old loves them too. It goes to show that you don’t know what they like until you try.
A kitchen job that even toddlers can do: Let your kids season food. They can use their “pinching fingers” to sprinkle salt into your dish.
Great kitchen tools for young sous-chefs: A whisk. Safe and fun.
A meal any grade-schooler can make: Sushi sandwiches, which are little roll-ups made with sandwich bread, hummus, and grated carrot.
Most popular recipe I ever posted: Crock Pot Spaghetti. Cooked meat, a jar of pasta sauce, and spaghetti noodles go into a slow cooker. It’s the total jam if you’re busy and want an easy dish!
What I feed my kids when they’re “hangry”: A big thing of hummus and veggies. That’s a great time for something optimally nutritious because they’ll literally eat anything—it works every time. Also good: Dipping veggies into salad dressing, peanut butter, or olive oil with salt and a squeeze of lemon.
My take on kids and sugar: It’s all about balance. I grew up in a house with no sweets and didn’t like that. I give my kids dessert every night—sometimes it’s cookies or just fruit. Last night it was persimmon cake. I want them to enjoy things like going out for ice cream. But I don’t go overboard or use sweets as a threat (“Clean your plate first!”), so they’re not something forbidden or a bad thing. I’m matter-of-fact about it.
My take on eating in the car: Not a safe move. If we’re in a morning rush, I let them take smoothies in the car. But anything that involves chewing is too much of a safety hazard for me. By the time your child is choking, and you realize it, and cross four lanes of traffic on the freeway to be able to stop and get out and give the Heimlich—it’s not worth it.
Something parents always ask me (and what I tell them): “How do I stop my kid from being so picky with food?” Grow something together, nourish it, and then make something with it. Grocery shop together and allow your child to pick one new whole food to try. Talk about it and educate through that food.
It’s really about constant exposure. In Mexico, for example, older babies are given very spicy foods to build their palates. In America, we just give up and say, “He tried it and didn’t like it.” My daughter refused salmon five times in a row—then last night, she double-fisted it!
Something kids always ask me that would surprise their parents: “Can I have coffee?” I drink decaf and have given it to my older kids from a fairly young age, so their friends see it. It’s decaf! Their idea of a great dessert is affogato (ice cream and coffee). And…it’s always decaf!
My take on hiding veggies: I’m the opposite—I want kids to know there can be veggies in all kinds of good things. I’m always trying to re-invent vegetables—like as kale chips or in smoothies or in fruit leathers—not to hide them but to explore new ways to eat them. You can do this with any food your child doesn’t like. My son hated cottage cheese, but when I made cottage cheese pancakes (and yes, I called them that), he thought they were the greatest thing ever.
Our idea of a fantastic birthday party: Having the same number of kids to the party as our child’s age.
A food our holidays wouldn’t be complete without: I make pumpkin waffles every Christmas morning.
Family tradition I wish we’d started sooner: Breakfast for dinner. It’s so much fun and makes dinner time easy!
Most underrated kids activity: Being bored. Let kids use their imagination!An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: My mother-in-law. She’s a preschool teacher and gives me so much good advice. She’s also a big advocate of early interventions for all kinds of things. We parents often think, “My kids are perfect! They don’t need anything!” But now I see we all need some sort of support—physical, mental, speech/language, for reading, for anxiety, or whatever. She’s wise beyond words.
The best parenting advice I ever got: Two choices! You give two choices that work for you, but it also gives your kids a bit of choice.
One resource I recommend to every parent I know: RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers)—a parenting approach that emphasizes kids developing at their own pace. We did it with all three of our kids, learned how to be patient parents, and met dear friends as well.
My definition of a great kid: A happy kid is a great kid.
My motto as a mom: Hug and kiss your kids as many times a day as they’ll let you!