At the mere mention of toddlers and food, I see most parents cringing. Instead of rolling into the fetal position and bawling every time your toddler throws their dinner at you and demands chicken nuggets, why not try a different approach? Toddlers are basically just little people, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Try developing their taste buds and appetites by maintaining a variety of flavors and constantly adding something new.

My kids are good eaters. The type that could very well eat a single parent out of house and home. With the first one, I just thought I was lucky. But now that the Toddler is eating up a storm daily and after realizing that my siblings and I were all great eaters as kids (and not a one of us overweight in the family), I thought it might have something to do with the fact that we were raised in different countries and tried a countless variety of food by the time we were ten. So I began introducing any new food or spice I could get my hands on locally or during our travels and voila – my kids’ appetites only grew. Yes, I realize this is detrimental to our single-parent family budget, but I never skimp on food. Ever. And neither should you.

As a single parent raising two kids on a one-person income, I know better than most that you can’t afford to let anything go to waste and this might make you apprehensive about “wasting money” on strange new food items that your kids might not want to eat.

But the opposite is actually true – because picky eaters and processed foods that most kids tend to prefer are actually more costly. I’m no medical professional, but I’m pretty sure that I heard a few doctors say that a varied, colorful, diet of raw and fresh foods is the best for adults and kids alike. So try spending some of your budget on fresh items you wouldn’t usually buy and if the kids don’t like it, then make the sacrifice and eat it yourself so it won’t go to waste.

1. Anything Red or Orange

Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. In this case, it probably does take a rocket scientist to explain it, but all I know is it works. Kids will try at least a few bites of anything red or orange, be it a vegetable, fruit, spice or meat covered in gucky orange sauce – they’ll take it. Think about it. Even kids who allegedly don’t like fruits and vegetables will go for the odd orange or carrot. Not to mention that I’ve never seen a kid turn down a plate of spaghetti bolognese. Strawberries? Pumpkin pie? Gingerbread? Cinnamon anything? Down the hatch. Apparently green stuff = bad, while orange and red = good in a kid’s mind. Ok, let’s play their game then. Instead of the classic (and dull) red apples and strawberry shortcake though, try introducing your kids to fresh red bell peppers, papaya, rhubarb, red onions, and old-school beets.

Or just douse anything in red sauce and hand it to them. And by red sauce I don’t mean the stuff that comes in a can or a bottle. Classic Italian red sauce is incredibly easy to make and can sit in the fridge for a couple of days, so no excuses for single moms or any parent not to make them from scratch. Unless your kids are allergic to any of these ingredients, here’s the closest recipe to the one I have that I could dig up online, but any recipe that includes ripe tomatoes, garlic, basil, onion, salt, pepper, and olive oil will do. And don’t even go telling me your kid doesn’t like garlic. All kids love garlic and I once heard some other doctor say that garlic helps build the immune system. What kids don’t like is the taste of toasted or burnt garlic, like the stuff on oven baked potatoes or over-baked garlic bread. I might be wrong, but it can’t hurt to let them try.

2. Falafel and mini kebabs

I don’t know what they put in the stuff, but I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t absolutely love falafel and mini kebabs. I’m kidding, of course, I know exactly what they put in them and it couldn’t be simpler. Falafel are basically deep fried veggies that your kids would otherwise never take a bite of in their original form. But get them started on falafel early and they’ll move on to Moroccan chickpea soup in no time. You’ll have a little hipster foodie posting Instagram pics of his kindergarten snack in a couple of years.

I started school in the Middle East and I have Eastern European roots, so I understand that my family’s taste buds might be a little skewed in the general direction of the Ottoman Empire, but falafel and mini kebabs have recently become staples in North American diets as well so let your kids give them a try. They’re both easy to make at home, but for starters try something milder, like Knorr Falafel Mix Mediterranean Style.

3. Anything on a Skewer

Ok, now this may not seem like such a great idea right off the bat and you certainly won’t want to leave your toddler unattended with a bunch of pointy sticks with food on them, but think of it as a starter kit for getting your kid interested in new foods. Fruit skewers that they can dip in honey, maple syrup or sugar (if you must…) are a great way to get a toddler who is otherwise convinced he/she dislikes fruit to start liking it. And yes, it goes against my general conviction that children shouldn’t be spoiled in terms of how their food is served, but I’m going to defend this one by noting that it goes perfectly in tune with my claim that children who try a variety of new foods regularly and as soon as they can walk tend to be notably better eaters than the average kid. Also, when you’re a single parent, sometimes you just gotta break a rule here or there, even if you’re the one who came up with the rule. So just deal with it, cut some tropical and seasonal fruit up in cute bite-sized shapes, put the damn things on a skewer (colorful plastic ones are the way to go if you really want to make a party out of it) and watch your kid play with their food.

4. Spanish Tortilla

Aside from the Eastern European heritage and few years spent in the Middle East as a wee one, I was mostly raised in the Mediterranean. Hence the secret of the Spanish tortilla – a dish so ridiculously easy to make that I continue to be shocked by its lack of popularity in the North American continent. Would someone please open a chain of fast food tortilla joints already? They’re cheap, simple, delicious and, what matters most to single parents, nutritious and done in 15 minutes.

Now, at this point you probably think you know what a tortilla is. The Mexican flat bread stuff. So the Spanish version must be something Mediterranean wrapped in that stuff. Nuh-uh. Not even close. I’ve heard of the tortilla Española called a Spanish omelette in America and served up as a breakfast dish. One can only understand the phenomenal ridiculousness of this heinous act if one has had a real Spanish tortilla, served up properly with a garden salad and, for adults, accompanied by a glass of chilled fine wine.

Take away the wine (and hopefully your child isn’t allergic to eggs), and the Spanish tortilla can be anything from a favorite summer snack for your kids straight out of the fridge to their favorite Sunday night dinner with almost anything added. And there’s the secret of this particular tortilla – you can add almost anything to it. The Kid went through a phase when he was a toddler where he wouldn’t eat anything red or any meat (yeah, he’s one of those who shortly challenged #1 in this post). Unless it was in a Spanish tortilla. So we had Spanish tortilla at least twice a week for a year. I just made sure I had enough wine, salad, and a variety of cheeses to go with it and we were all good.

The recipe is in the link above and here’s another hint – feel free to make them the evening before when you have more time, they’re even better after a day in the fridge. Garnish with whatever the kids like (or think they don’t like) and make it a family favorite.

5. New Foods on Pasta

All children love spaghetti. This is a well known fact. And a perfect opportunity to encourage your kids to try new foods and develop their own personal gourmet tastes. Babies don’t have fully developed taste buds and can’t distinguish some flavors, like salt, until they’re at least 6 months to a year old. This doesn’t mean babies don’t have developed taste. Quite the contrary, it seems they have more taste buds than adults. Babies and most toddlers pick up sweet and bitter flavors better than we do, which is why they often won’t like them if there’s too much of one or the other. Salt, on the other hand, is almost entirely unrecognizable to the tongue of say a 9-month-old. Those taste buds aren’t yet entirely developed and they need to try new, varied flavors as toddlers to figure out exactly what to do with all those taste buds.

Pasta dishes are a great way to let your kids experiment and get used to new flavors. An upside for parents is that they’re usually done in 8 to 12 minutes, not much can go wrong, and you can add maybe add another half hour for a sauce made from scratch if you have time. On top of that, if you’ll pardon the pun, you can easily take the topping off if you’re toddler really doesn’t like it, add some melted cheddar or whatever your toddler does like, and “repair” the dish within minutes.

Bonus Points: Playing with Food

I mentioned playing with food a little earlier – please let your kids do that. Make meals fun. In lieu of “sit down, be quiet, and eat your food” try “let’s go make a big ol’ mess and fill our tummies with yummy stuff”. This is something I recall my father, otherwise a stickler for perfectly proper table manners, doing with us when my siblings and I were very small. He’d go way past the airplane motions and engine sound stuff too. Whether we were at home or in a restaurant, my dad would sit us in his lap and let us pick up pieces of food from his plate. Then, as we’d turn the piece of food over and look at it, he’d point out how shiny it is there, or how smooth it was here or how the oils glisten and disappear as you move the plate out of the sunlight. I’d take a piece of cheese and he’d tell me to squish it between my fingers and then he’d let me try it. He’d ask me if it was sour or creamy or mushy.

Food is an experience. One that begins through the power of vision and smell, and ends in the warm satisfaction of a full tummy. Don’t deprive your kids of that experience. Meals will be much easier, faster, and more enjoyable for all if you let your kids play with their food.

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