Maybe you have one of those kids who just eats what you serve them. Well, I’m happy for you, Sarah, but the rest of us have picky little kids who are scared of vegetables and foods that come in colors besides beige. We have to get creative if we ever want to serve anything beyond mac and cheese. Sometimes, that means “marketing” a meal to render it less offensive to them.
Most parents have probably referred to broccoli as “little trees” to get their kids to taste it. Tricks like these aren’t ingredient swaps—they’re sales pitches. And in that grand tradition of salesmanship, we asked parents for their best examples of how they’ve cast certain foods in an appealing new light to get their stubborn children to try something new.
Mario Soup is a great example of how video game characters can be invoked to add pizzazz to something as staid as tomato soup: the mushrooms are Goombas, the artichokes are Fire Flowers, and the stelline pasta are Mario’s Stars. Sometimes just putting your kids’ favorite character in the name is going to make it work.
If you can tie the food more directly to the narrative of these favorite characters’ adventures, so much the better. Sven the reindeer’s beloved carrots, for example, or the Ninja Turtles’ pizza toppings. Some parents told me they didn’t even need to provide any logical connection at all to the food—they just had to say the meal was [Insert Character Here]–themed, and voila! Their kids ate it. Pikachu Oatmeal. Elmo Pasta. Whatever.
Now, putting characters and food too close together can get a little dicey, of course. I became a vegetarian for four years after watching Chicken Run. Plus, some people think we shouldn’t lie to our kids. But fruit snack companies have been manipulating our children for decades by selling what might as well be technicolor glue pressed into the shapes of all their favorite characters. So if I want to call cubed tofu and vegetable stir fry “Minecraft Meal” and they eat it, hooray for me.
Both Brené Brown and my therapist always say that telling yourself a story will help you get through hard times and reframe things. Here’s a story I told my children, and now you:
My children will only eat chicken in dinosaur nugget form. One day, I accidentally bought “regular” chicken nuggets. Not only did I commit this faux pas on a night I was in charge of feeding my own children, but I was hosting a playdate that night, too. I made fearful eye contact with the other mom as I plated the round nuggets.
“Oh my goodness!” I said. “These dino nuggets haven’t hatched yet! They’re still eggs!”
The kids looked down at their plates skeptically. I expected mutiny. I expected hangry meltdowns. My daughter, usually a pretty hard sell, picked up a nugget and dipped it in her ketchup. She took a bite. She swallowed. She nodded. The others followed. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, but I let out a long, relieved sigh.
“My kids loved miso soup from a favorite local restaurant when they were younger, and they’re the ones who assumed the tofu was, in fact, marshmallows,” said parent Mikalee Byerman. “Of course, I failed to correct them. Thus, ‘marshmallow soup’ was born.” If kids think your secret ingredient is more of a treat than it actually is, let the mystery be.
This also applies to adults, by the way. Meg St-Esprit explained that her husband claimed he “doesn’t like bok choy,” so when she used it in a recipe, she got a little clever.
“I called it Asian lettuce and he’s eaten it every time I make it,” she said. “My best friend keeps threatening to tell him.” Friends don’t tell friends’ husbands their wives’ secret ingredients. It’s up to each of us to know our leafy greens.
When in doubt, turbo-charge it. Make the meal somehow more intense, or make your kid part of the fun.
“My six-year-old rebranded lettuce as Crunch 5000 and has eaten it happily ever since, to test the crunch level,” explained one parent. This one is my personal favorite, and I really hope my six-year-old takes the bait.
Maggie Downs incorporates the foods’ nutritional components into the game as well. “I make smoothies packed with spinach or kale, and those are Hulk smoothies,” she said. “Brussels sprouts are ‘muscle sprouts.’ And most every type of bean is a ‘power bean.’”
Bonus points for the rhyme on “muscle sprouts.”
“Turn left to go right,” says Lightning McQueen. When faced with kids’ disgust, why not make a gross food even grosser?
Angie Ebba explained how she “convinced a kiddo that cooked onions were worms, and he’d gross out all his older siblings if he was brave enough to eat them.”
“My kids called garbanzo beans ‘chicken butts,’ which was just humorous,” she added.
Parents, it’s almost Halloween, so it’s time to break out the old spaghetti-as-intestines bit and any other spooky tie-ins you can think of.
Katia Grubisic says she simply hides the true names of each food in plain sight. Pollo del mar? That’s just an elegant name for scallops—“They cannot fathom scallops,” Grubisic says. Until her kids learn the translation, she’s safe.
Lots of parents rely on this tactic to make mealtimes smoother, including Camille-Yvette Welsch: “We had to call tacos Mexican hamburgers because my son would only eat hamburgers. Lasagna was pizza pasta.”
If any of our stubborn, uncooperative eaters ever discover the depths of our deception, I’ll have no choice but to ask: Where’s the lie?