Force-Feed Your Children Salads?

Or: make salads WITH children, and just watch what happens!

IF I HAD KIDS, I WOULD STUFF THEM SO FULL OF SALAD. They wouldn’t know what hit them.

But I don’t have kids, and I hear again and again from my friends and family who do that it is not as easy as simply tilting their cute little skulls back, prying their mouths open, and dumping delicious things in there.

Apparently, some of them are picky. So we must be tricky! Like the novelist Emily Adrian.

Being a picky eater is fine. It’s okay to not like certain foods.

On the other hand, when it comes to kids, whose brains are so elastic and fearless, it seems like a good time to get in early and encourage them to eat good food rather than always feeding them easy food, like cracker goldfish or those fruit purees that you squirt directly into your mouth from a foil packet just to get them eat something. (Both of these foods are delicious and I would eat them every day if I could.)

And even if you could do it my way—which, I’ll admit, would probably get me arrested—it might not have the desired effect.

It’s common knowledge in anthropological-sociological circles that traumatizing a kid with food only makes things worse. Just ask Emily Nunn, who was tricked into eating fried chicken livers wrapped in bacon at an early age and has not eaten a single one since.

Plus, there’s evidence that if you do get in early, you might be extremely surprised. According to University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Paul Rozin, who has written extensively about food choice and the concept of learned and evolutionary disgust, kids are much more open to what we think of as “difficult” foods than most of us imagine. They simply haven’t yet acquired the culturally constructed revulsion mechanism (there’s an evolutionary part, too, of course) that adults have. If you offer them a glass of juice from which you have just removed a cockroach, they’ll drink it after you’ve removed the bug. Rozin has other case studies involving children and things they’ll eat that adults will not but I won’t go into them here. I’m sparing you.

Anyway, as much as I have always admired Rozin, it seemed like a good idea to supplement his findings here with more practical advice from an expert whose experience is in the home and kitchen rather than a laboratory.

At the suggestion of the writer Susan Orlean, I contacted Sally Sampson, with whom Orlean coauthored a book for another breed of picky eaters. Sampson, a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author, is also the founder of ChopChopFamily, a Boston nonprofit whose mission is to teach kids and families how to cook, eat, and learn about real, nourishing food. She was also responsible, with Natalie Digate Muth, for The Picky Eater Project in the New York Times, which also became a book.

Sampson told me that she was inspired to focus on helping kids learn to eat well by her own daughter, who was diagnosed with pancreatitis at age one, which required Sampson to do a lot of research on low-fat diets. (Her daughter is now all grown up and doing fine.)

“I began to feel like I didn’t want to write cookbooks anymore,” she said recently, by Zoom. “I wanted to do something more meaningful with my skills and use them in a really positive way. And what I thought I could do was help address poor-eating habits in kids by getting doctors to prescribe cooking during well-child visits.”

That was twelve years ago. Today, ChopChop reaches more than 3 million families, and is given away not just in pediatricians’ offices, but anywhere children are: schools, after-school programs, community health centers, and by the USDA in conjunction with SNAP and WIC.

“A lot of them use ChopChop as an educational tool,” Sampson said.

But unlike Rozin, when it comes to picky eating Sampson’s expertise was learned in the home lab. “I’m a cookbook writer. So when my kids were little (they’re now, 27 and 29), I was always testing recipes. Sometimes they liked it and sometimes they didn’t.

“My own mother was a writer. She worked for House Beautiful. Since she had a job, she was not catering to me. It was like, ‘This is dinner. You don’t want it, okay.’

“So when my own kids were about two, I started to say, ‘Here’s dinner. If you don't want dinner, you can get yourself some plain Cheerios, cottage cheese, or yogurt.’ And they would sort of jump off the high chair and do it sometimes—but not often.”

But the Picky Eater Project didn’t start until long after her kids were grown, when Sampson was talking to a woman who worked in public television. She had twin boys who were almost three, and she was upset that they’d eat only frozen food rather than what she’d make for them.

“And I said, ‘That’s interesting. Do they do the grocery shopping?’ And she said no. And I said, ‘So why are you buying and feeding them food you don’t want them to eat?’

“I said, ‘Give me six weeks and I’ll transform them.’”

Which she promptly did. Sampson pitched the idea of taking the two boys through the process to The New York Times. The mom was happy to let her sons be Sampson’s guinea pigs.


The Department of Salad is a reader-supported exploration and celebration of salad in all its many forms, with recipes. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support me and the boys in the lab is to take out a paid subscription.


When I asked Sampson to capture in a nutshell her method of growing good eaters, it had nothing to do with forcing food on kids, or even asking them to “try one bite” before leaving the table. “If you come to my house for dinner, I wouldn’t do that to you, so I won’t do it to children. You have to treat kids like people and be respectful. So if the kid says, ‘I don’t like it,’ fine, keep serving it, and let them decide.”

And don’t decide what they won’t like for them. She mentioned how during ChopChop classes, parents will say to their children, Oh, you don’t like that—“creating unnecessary dislikes,” as Sampson puts it.

“When we did an Eatable Alphabet class on fish, some of them said, ‘Are you out of your mind? They won’t eat it. It’s so stinky!’”

And then the kids gobbled up sardines, tuna, and anchovies, with no attitude about it. “And they were between two and four years old,” Sampson says.

Incidentally, I just love the Eatable Alphabet educational cards, which are so pretty I’d like frame them and hang them in my kitchen. Here’s the A card, front and back.

But back to Sampson’s method: it has almost everything to do with engaging children.

“That’s the real key,” she said. “Even if it’s a one-year-old. They’re sitting in their little bouncy seat and you can basically monologue about what you’re doing. ‘So now I'm ripping up the romaine and then I’m adding...’ You just talk about it. When they get a little bit older and they’re more curious maybe you hand them cherry tomatoes and say, ‘Throw one in,’ or ‘Put eight in,’ depending on their math level.”

Basically, you want to empower your children to become salad eaters.

I asked Sampson for salads to help do that, and some suggestions on how to encourage young salad eaters as early as possible, which are below. But first she made it clear that all of this is definitely work—when it might be easier to just make everything yourself.

“What I really think: If you want your kids to eat salad you have to let them cook with you,” she said.

Sally Sampson’s 10 Ways to Encourage Kids to Love Salad

  1. Make a vinaigrette together and let them shake shake shake the jar.

  2. Ask them to count out tomatoes/cucumber slices/walnuts/strawberries, and add to a salad.

  3. Show them how to measure ingredients.

  4. Make an all green salad and have little bowls of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese cubes, apple slices, cooked potatoes, raisins, etc. on the table so they can personalize their own salad.

  5. Do a taste test. Offer a piece of iceberg, romaine, radicchio, and spinach and ask them to close their eyes and describe what they’re tasting, and what they like and don’t like about each.

  6. Show them how to chop vegetables. And let them use real knives.

  7. Let them tear lettuce, and use clean scissors to snip fresh herbs.

  8. Serve dips with lesser used vegetables (and let the kids focus on the dip while they are actually trying new vegetables).

  9. Take them to the grocery store and let them choose a fruit and a vegetable to add to their salad.

  10. Grow something, anything! This could be herbs inside or carrots outside.

*RECIPE: ChopChop Salad

This chopped salad is all about the crunch—and it’s a great way to test your knife skills! Feel free to add shredded cheese, fresh herbs, and any other fresh vegetables you like, such as diced avocado, sliced scallions, and shredded carrots. ChopChop Kids Advisory Board member Hannah recommends adding sliced almonds and dried cranberries too.

4 Servings

KITCHEN GEAR

  • Cutting board

  • Sharp knife (adult needed)

  • Medium-sized bowl

  • Measuring cup

  • Measuring spoons

  • Tongs or salad servers

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 small English cucumber, diced, or 1 regular cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cubed

  • 1 cup green beans, stem ends snapped off, cut in half

  • 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • Black pepper to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Put all the ingredients in the bowl and toss well. Taste the salad. Does it need more vinegar, salt, or black pepper? If so, add it and taste again.

  2. Serve right away or cover and refrigerate up to 2 hours.

NOTES: DID YOU KNOW?

Unseasoned rice vinegar is a seasoning made from— you guessed it!—rice. We love it because it’s actually mild enough to use as a dressing on its own, without any oil added. And if you don’t have any rice vinegar, you can use lime juice instead.

*RECIPE: Creamy Crunchy Caesar Salad (no raw egg)

Don’t let the name fool you! This is an American salad, not an Italian one. Our recipe has three parts, but they each contribute to making an incredible salad. Plus, making the dressing can be done ahead of time, as can toasting the bread crumbs. And you’ll likely love the bread crumbs so much, you’ll want to double the recipe and use them in other salads instead of croutons! (This recipe makes more dressing than you’ll need, so refrigerate the rest. If it solidifies, let it stand at room temperature until it warms up a bit before adding it to the greens.)

4 Servings

KITCHEN GEAR

  • Cutting board

  • Sharp knife (adult needed)

  • Measuring spoons

  • Measuring cup

  • Blender (adult needed) or lidded jar

  • Small skillet

  • Heatproof spatula

  • Grater

  • Large bowl

  • Salad tongs or spoons for tossing

INGREDIENTS

For the Creamy Caesar Dressing

  • 2 anchovy filets (finely chopped, if not using a blender) or 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (or 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder)

  • 1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice

  • 1⁄2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt

  • 3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

For the Toasted Panko Bread Crumbs

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil

  • 1⁄2 cup whole-wheat panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

  • 1⁄4 teaspoon salt

For the Salad

  • 1 large (or 2 small) head romaine lettuce, core and outer leaves removed, remaining leaves torn, chopped, or shredded

  • 1⁄4 cup Creamy Caesar Dressing

  • 1⁄2 cup Toasted Panko Bread Crumbs, cooled

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Put all the dressing ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth or put all the dressing ingredients in the jar, screw the lid on tightly, and shake until blended. Use right away or cover and refrigerate up to 1 week.

  2. Put the skillet on the stove, add the oil, panko, and salt and mix well. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring from time to time, until golden, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

  3. Put the lettuce in the bowl and add 3-4 tablespoons dressing and toss until the leaves are evenly covered. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs. Serve right away.

NOTES: Panko is a type of flaky bread crumb that can be used as a crunchy topping or coating. If you don’t have panko, grind one slice of whole-wheat bread into crumbs in the blender, and toast the crumbs in a skillet with 2 teaspoons of oil until crisp.

TRY THIS: Instead of, or in addition to, romaine lettuce, add spinach, kale, or any other leafy green you like.

THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. But before we go, I have to say three things.

1.) Both of these salads, while very child friendly, are absolutely delicious, and I would serve them to adults. Simple, with beautiful flavors.

2.) The dressing for the Caesar may be my new favorite. Just delicious, with the perfect amount of garlic and tart creaminess—plus no raw egg, in case you’re one of those people.

3.) Coming up soon (meaning before the end of the year; I’m not a robot!), we’re going to have some guest posts from people I admire. One is going to be from my friend (and one of my favorite writers and editors) Kevin Conley, he of the wonderful salad bowl story in Issue #6 (which, incidentally, has a boffo Caesar salad with egg if you haven’t seen it.) The other is going to be from the cookbook author Anne Byrn, who has a fantastic newsletter, Between the Layers, you definitely need to sign up for.

If you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, you may do so with these buttons. See you soon.

Give a gift subscription

Share The Department of Salad: Official Bulletin