Eat up, son, or no guacamole: How a food writer set his child on the path to culinary adventure

As a new father and passionate food-lover, Nevin Martell wanted his son to enjoy the same foods that he did. So he decided to start from the very first puréed spoonful

Late last year, my pregnant wife and I were out for one of our last dinners together before we became parents. As a family with a pair of pre-school children sat down at the table next to us, a part of me happily thought, "that could be us in a few years".

When the waiter arrived to take their order, the mother put down the menu. "Could the kitchen make something for the kids? Maybe some buttered noodles or chicken nuggets? They won't eat anything else."

"I hope that isn't us in a few years," I thought. I'm a food writer, so my diet spans the globe. One day, I might be eating Ghanaian stew on a ball of fufu for lunch, then sushi for dinner; the next might include dim sum in the morning and roasted duck breast with orange marmalade at night. Don't get me wrong: chicken nuggets and buttered noodles aren't inherently bad; I've enjoyed both. However, the thought of my child exclusively eating the so-called "beige diet" – fried foods and carbs – made my stomach churn.

So what could my wife, Indira, and I do to ensure that didn't happen? Could we raise an adventurous eater?

As it turns out, my wife's dinner that very night (anchovy crostini, burrata drizzled with olive oil, and prosciutto-topped Neapolitan pizza) was already stimulating and shaping our child's tastes. So was the vegetable burrito, drenched in hot sauce, she had eaten for lunch.

"Learning about food occurs long before the first taste of food," says Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Centre in Philadelphia, where she studies how we learn and accept flavours. "The flavours of the mother's diet get into the amniotic fluid." The same thing happens when the mother breastfeeds, she says. We had already decided that Indira would be breastfed, and because her diet is nearly as varied as my own, she'd expose our child to a panoply of cuisines.

Born in January, Zephyr was a healthy little boy with a full head of hair and a ravenous hunger. The next few months were a happy blur, and it wasn't long before we were talking about adding solid foods to his diet.

Though I have rudimentary cooking skills, I'm no culinary maestro. Before Zephyr was born, Indira did most of the cooking, but now the opposite was true. Because I work from home, I had more time to spend in the kitchen.

Still, I needed help crafting the purées that could be the bridge to more complex solids. After consulting our paediatrician, I contacted Tucker Yoder, the executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a father of three. He agreed to come and teach me a few tricks.

Yoder and his wife have a few simple rules for feeding their children. "We try to give them what we're having," he says, "and we'll try giving them anything." The children enjoy a wide variety of food, including kale-fortified breakfast smoothies and omelettes filled with freshly foraged mushrooms.

His next rule sounds identical to one that my mother enforced. "If it's on your plate, you've got to try it," he says. "For me, it's if you don't eat it, you go to bed hungry." The couple shop seasonally and locally, and draw on their own garden for tomatoes, greens, herbs and root vegetables.

Our own garden plots contributed basil and oregano to the joint cooking session. We made five purées, lightly spicing them to add depth of flavour: curried carrots, minted pineapple mango, basil-flavoured beets and strawberries, sweet potatoes with a dash of crushed red pepper flakes, and cauliflower accented with cumin. I would have enjoyed eating any of them, but we weren't catering to my palate – and I didn't want my wife to accuse me of stealing food from our baby.

Placing Zephyr in his high chair that evening, I mentally crossed my fingers as I dipped his spoon into the pineapple-mango mixture and fed him solids for the first time. He looked confused for a moment. Then his eyes lit up, he worked his jaw, and he swallowed. He pulled the spoon toward his mouth for seconds. In his haste, Zephyr managed to smear most of the mixture on his hands, chin and bib, but another smidgeon made it into his mouth.

Trying the strawberry-beetroot purée the next evening, I experienced similarly success. Two days later, however, when I picked Zephyr up from nursery, they told me: "He didn't like the sweet potatoes. He spat them out."

I shouldn't have been surprised. Maybe we got too cocky putting crushed red pepper flakes in there, though it was just a few specks. Indira has an insatiable appetite for spicy food, and I thought Zephyr might have inherited it. But his palate wasn't ready.

"They're not going to eat everything," Jenny Carenco, the author of Bébé Gourmet: 100 French-Inspired Baby Food Recipes for Raising an Adventurous Eater and the former owner of the French frozen baby food manufacturer Les Menus Bébé, reassured me. "My kids don't eat everything. My daughter hates courgettes."

Repetition is the key to winning children over to new tastes, says Carenco. "Just keep serving it and make it a positive experience," she says. "The mistake is to stop serving it. If they don't like peas, it's not going to kill you to cook up and throw away a spoonful of peas after every meal. Serve them at every meal. And if they have one, it's a victory. Then they'll have two."

Heather Stouffer, the founder and chief executive of US company Mom Made Foods, agrees. "You've got to be patient, consistent and a good role model," she says. The company launched in 2006, selling organically certified frozen puréed baby foods at a farmers market, though it has phased out those products. ("It was too niche a market," explains Stouffer.) Now it produces frozen meals and snacks for children aged from two to 10 that are available in US grocery stores.

Stouffer is conscious of what she feeds her own children, eight-year-old Emory and three-year-old Audrey, and her pint-sized customers. "I'm a huge believer in starting kids out from their very first bite through childhood with healthy, real foods," she says. Like Yoder, she believes in feeding the children the same meal that she and her husband are eating, in a slightly modified form.

To see how that is accomplished, we met at my house to cook a tilapia fajita dinner with mango salsa and guacamole, then puréed some of the fruit and fish plus spinach for Zephyr. Mashing some of the leftover avocado with a little water yielded him a small bowl of guacamole, too. Both were a hit, though his bib looked like a Jackson Pollock when he was finished.

As my wife and I laughed over his reaction while eating our own dinner, I thought back on something his paediatrician had said: "Make eating enjoyable, and do it as a family as much as you can." This was just the beginning of Zephyr's appreciation for food, but so far, so good.

I was still smiling as I went to store the remainder of the peaches and cream. When I opened our refrigerator, the second shelf was filled with a rainbow of purées – not one of them beige.

A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post

Comments