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Forget Chef Boyardee, these preschoolers want beets

"No-thank-you bite." This little phrase first revolutionized our dinner table and then became the metaphor for a sense of openness and adventure that I strive to share in parenting.

Before my daughter Taylor began preschool last fall, she had about five preferred meals in her culinary repertoire. Chef Boyardee was the only cook in our home whose praise was being sung, and anything breaded that came from the frozen-food section was passable.

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Then came preschool.

The children at Taylor's school are expected to try at least one bite of everything on their plates. When the kids are served, the teacher will ask, "Would you like a little or a lot of this dish?" If the food isn't one of the child's favorites, or it is new-food territory, the child may ask for "a little, please." Then a very small serving is put on the plate, and the child is responsible for finishing it. If, after this effort, they still do not care for the food, a simple "no, thank you" is all that is needed.

These teachers have transformed more than a few finicky eaters into the only group of four-year-olds I know who ask for seconds when beets are served.

After school one day, Taylor climbed into the car and said with great exuberance, "Guess what I had for lunch today, Mom? Lettuce! It's not even a kid's food, and I liked it!"

This exciting news was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I recognized that I was not really doing my job. Serving her the same foods over and over because the meal would go smoothly was not giving her a chance to experience life.

The "no-thank-you bite" rule is something more than developing a taste for adventure in dining. In a simple way, it serves as a small step toward gaining dominion over subtle yet destructive prejudices.

I really understood this when my friend Amy called the other day to tell me about a wonderful conversation she had with someone she perceived as fundamentally opposite from herself. This individual had unexpectedly invited her out for coffee.

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At first, Amy thought of all the politically charged ways she could decline his invitation. Realizing the ironic narrow-mindedness in this response, she gave him a chance, and they spent the next few hours in thoughtful discussion with one another. The two even shared a good laugh about the false impressions each had of the other before that evening.

I grinned and said, "All it took was a 'no-thank-you bite,' " not knowing if she'd have any idea what I was referring to.

Amy laughed and said, "You know, that's exactly what my mom would have said."

Kari Wells Bradley is the mother of two children and lives in Webster Groves, Mo.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society