1. Keep it Simple
Children have many (funny) rules about their food preferences: they seem to prefer the foods on their plate not to touch; they dislike the color green, no matter how small the speck of herb; and they usually don't take to big, bold flavors. The last one I've chalked up to having young, impressionable palates -- that haven't been deadened by years of seasonings. With each meal, I focus on what I want my daughter to consume -- protein, fiber, and any possible vegetables -- and go about preparing it or even ordering from there. It's inevitable that a child growing up today will consume copious amounts of pizza and pasta, so for I try to stick to other basics for her standby meals.
Chicken tenders cook up quickly and can be frozen and thawed as needed. Though my kid would always prefer to have them breaded and fried with a side of ketchup, in a pinch, she'll eat a few bites of plain chicken just to get to the dessert I dangle at the end of each meal. (Fruit is our daily dessert mainstay, though ice cream is a regular during the summer.) Her favorite vegetable is a sliced cucumber, preferably sprinkled lightly with sea salt; if I'm feeling fancy, I'll squirt lemon juice over the slices and we call them "pickly." She also likes sweet potatoes (from baked to fries), broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, which seem to be the favorite vegetables of many children willing to consume vegetables. There are a few tricks I employed to get her to eat them (more on that, below) but having this stable of simple foods in rotation makes it easy enough to feed her a healthy meal at home and out and about in the real world.
2. Consider texture
When she was first eating solids, my daughter's go-to dish was pureed steamed zucchini I thickened with some Greek yogurt and seasoned with the slightest dash of salt. I came up with this concoction trying to make something healthy and delicious and soon realized if I gave this treatment to just about anything -- beets, sweet potatoes, even fish -- she would eat it. This preference for pureed foods led to an early intro to soups, which continue to serve as my go-to take-out meal. Now, as a six-year-old, her preference for textures has expanded -- she'll ask for sweet potato fries over a puree anyday. She's a fan of crisp foods, but is wary of foods that are "al dente." For instance, I steam broccoli for her until it's fork-tender all the way through -- she is not a fan of a toothsome bite. She'll also eat most any roasted or pan-fried vegetable, provided it's soft on the inside and it's only the outside that's crisp with delicious browned edges. Our experiments with texture also helped me realize that as she first started eating solids, apples thinly sliced on a handheld slicer were sweet treats for her to gum to death as she learned how to use her teeth; as she got older, the thickness of the slices increased to classic wedges; and now, as a feisty kindergartner, she'll nosh on a whole apple, though we occasionally still play the game of me taking out the initial bite. (She claims it gives her teeth something to grab onto!) Once she finds a texture she likes, the parameters have been set, and I keep them in mind when feeding her, wherever we may be.
The same considerations for texture apply to foods like red meat and chicken. Beef can be a tricky for kids; often it may be too chewy for them. Chicken is an easier sell, but an overcooked, rubbery chicken isn't going to appeal to young palates. If it doesn't feel or taste good to you, it's likely going to be the same for them.
3. Season it
Other parents seem to find it most surprising that I season my daughter's meals with salt. I'm not talking about seasoning the way I do my own meals, I'm an admitted salt fiend, just with a slight dash of salt -- enough to enhance the flavors. It makes a world of difference on her standby vegetables as well as simple proteins like chicken and fish. I've also started to borrow from the Italians and sprinkle freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese cheese on just about anything savory, from scrambled eggs and roasted potatoes, to plain brown rice and roasted asparagus (again, roast the spears until fork-tender!). Not only do most kids like cheese on just about anything, the flavor of the grated cheese exposes their palate to something new. I've started experimenting with cumin on roasted cauliflower, ground cinnamon on sweet potatoes, and brushing teriyaki sauce onto chicken, just to keep her palate open to new flavors. And so far, by going mild with the seasoning and paying close attention to getting the texture just right, it's been all thumbs up. So long as it's not a foreign concept to them, kids like flavor!
4. Make it Fun
Asking kids to play with their food might not seem the best idea, but having mealtime be fun or interactive has been a successful play in my book. As a toddler, my daughter's favorite tool was the egg slicer, which I'd let her use to slice strawberries, hard-boiled eggs (sprinkled with a pinch of salt!), and even boiled potatoes. She loved slicing them up into rounds and eating them with her fingers. The classic egg-in-the-hole was also a favorite, as she liked being a part of the toasting, then cooking process. When the time came to pack a lunch for her, I'd ask each morning to choose squares, rectangles, or triangles, just to have her be part of the sandwich-making process. And now that her preference for cherry tomatoes and cucumbers had officially become a thing (she'll ask for them at a grocery store) I started serving up vinaigrettes as a dip, and we've slowly added carrot sticks and lettuce leaves to the mix. At this age, they're merely vessels for the dressing, but you're only young once, right?