Several people have asked me this question over the years. I've hesitated to post about it because I don't have all the answers. I only know what has worked for our family. My kids don't eat everything. They have differing pallets just as we all do - AND 2 of my 4 kids have food allergies that we work around.
Food allergies include: eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood & shellfish. I'm grateful that we don't have any of the more complicated food allergies like dairy, wheat, soy lecithin, etc. All of our food allergies are generally easy to avoid and don't limit our food choices much. We still have lots of different nuts, peanut butter, eggs and seafood in our home - the allergy kids know what to eat and what to avoid.
My personal opinion is that "kid food" in general is gross and lacks in nearly every food category out there. Chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese out of the box, spagettios, chef boyardi ravioli, chicken noodle soup from a can, all fast food, ad nausea. I haven't raised my kids to be food snobs, but I've heard them say a few "food snobby" things - like "they sell frozen chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs? Disgusting!" BUT, thanks to my mom, the kids had Macaroni and cheese out of the blue box for the first time a few months ago and thought it was amazing.
When my oldest child was born - I was trying to adjust from working full time to training my replacement part time and figuring out how to be a stay at home Mom. As all first time Mother's do - I had a difficult time making the transition BUT the hardest part of being a first time Mom was feeding him. Sitting down for 30 minutes to nurse every 3 hours was incredibly hard for me. I'm someone who loves to be on the go - doesn't like to sit down, can't stand to kill time. When I stopped nursing, I tried to feed him baby food ONE TIME. One time - I couldn't stand to spend 45 minutes feeding him baby food. So, basically, I was a lazy Mom who didn't want to sit down to feed her baby baby food. As luck would have it - all my kids all got their teeth early - they all had a full set by their first birthday. SO... we've raised our kids to eat what we eat. No short order cook. No options.
A few things we've intentionally instigated:
The "No Thank You Bite"
When we introduce a new food to our kids and they are hesitant to try it, we remind them of our "no thank you bite" rule. You are required to take ONE bite of everything on your plate. If you don't like something, just say, "no thank you" and we thank the kids for trying something new. At this point, our older kids (10, 9 & 6) are willing to try everything because they know they won't be forced to eat it or finish it. Using this method has allowed my children to fall in love with veggies like asparagus & beets - to actually request certain veggie sides they like for dinner, etc.
Our kids have all gone through a "picky phase" - usually when they are 3 or 4. I have dealt with that by using trickery:) I cut snacks down to a minimum with the particular picky eater. I make dinner with ONE thing I know that picky eater will eat. It is usually a side dish. The picky eater will devour the one thing they like - but they know they are required to take a bite of everything on the plate. This means they don't starve - but they continue to expand their pallets and quickly realize that there are many foods out there that they like.
We emphasize the importance of table manners with all of our kids - to the point that if they practice good table manners - they can earn 5 points on our "points system" HERE. We focus on basic table manners. Saying please and thank you, sticking to appropriate conversations (no potty talk - since my kids think tooting is the most hilarious thing on the planet), having cordial conversations (what did you do today? what did you learn today?) listening intently, not interrupting, no talking with your mouth full, when getting up from the table (to refill a drink or get seconds) ask "Can I get anything for anyone while I'm up?" Asking to be excused from the table when they are finished with dinner, etc.
Because we've introduced and emphasized the two items above, taking 4 kids (10,9,6 & 2) to dinner is easy and enjoyable. As soon as the kids can talk, we have them order their own dinners. They know to speak up and speak clearly so the waiter can hear them. They know to start ordering by saying "I would like..." then order an entree, a side and a drink - finish the order by saying "thank you." They also know to talk or draw quietly while everyone else orders their food.
As soon as my kids show interest or capability, they are involved in making meals for the family. They start about age 2. The easiest things to have them help with are crock pot meals or soups. You open the cans, they get to dump all the ingredients in. They love to stir the ingredients around AND - here's the best reason of all - they are excited to EAT what they have helped prepare. As they get older, they learn to know the ingredients and know what tastes good with what. Each of our kids makes dinner for the family - with supervision but little help - once a month - except for our newly minted 2 year old:) Cooking has also given them confidence in their abilities and in themselves. They also have opinions on what we have for dinner or what they want to make for their dinner night - which leads to a fun shopping trip where they make the list and pick the ingredients.
So that is my answer. I've probably gone into too much detail - and I'll probably think of 100 other things we've done - but that is my answer for now.