The 52 New Foods Challenge: 2015's Best New Year’s Resolution

Resolve to try one new food each week for a year—or an unfamiliar preparation of an already-known food. (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m often on the receiving end of a lot of well-intended but ultimately dead-end New Year’s resolutions.

Most of my patients resolve to lose weight. Some resolve to eat more vegetables. Many would like to start cooking more at home to save money and eat healthier.

Several mom friends are determined to take back control of their children’s wayward, kid-food diets.

The problem with all of these resolutions, unfortunately, is that not one of them is specific enough to be implemented – nor are any of them measurable such that it’s clear whether you’ve actually fulfilled the resolution. In other words, these “resolutions” really represent desired outcomes beyond one’s immediate control, when a true “resolution” would be a concrete, behavioral action plan intended to facilitate the achievement of a greater intended goal. Ideally, each resolution would also specify a quantifiable outcome, so one could definitively say whether or not they’ve achieved their goal.

How do you plan on losing weight? Will you exercise three times per week? Will you stop keeping cookies in the house? How much weight will you need to lose in order to have achieved your goal? 

How will you go about eating more vegetables? Will you join a CSA? Will you order a salad for lunch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday? What frequency or quantity of vegetable consumption is your end goal?

How will you start cooking more at home? Will you batch cook a stew every Sunday afternoon? Will you join gatheredtable.com to plan weekly menus and have groceries delivered? How many home-cooked meals per week do you aim to be cooking in order to achieve your goal?

How will you help your children improve their limited, kid-food diets? Will you start cooking one single family meal every Sunday night, rather than short-order cooking for each family member? Will you limit the amount of snacking your child is allowed during the day, which may be interfering with mealtime appetites? What is the change in your child’s eating habits you’ll need to see in order to feel things have improved?

You get where I’m going with this.

I recently stumbled across a brilliant idea for a New Year’s resolution that I believe can actually address all these common desired outcomes. It’s elegant in that it’s specific, measurable and, above all, fun. It’s called The 52 New Foods Challenge (#52NewFoods).

52 New Foods is the brainchild of Jennifer Tyler Lee, a mother of two who devised the challenge in response to hitting a wall with her elder daughter’s dietary repertoire – which consisted primarily of macaroni and cheese and peas. Here’s how it works: You resolve to try one new food each week for a year – or commit to trying an unfamiliar preparation of an already-known food. That week, the family jointly chooses one new recipe for the food and commits to preparing it together. That’s it. Once these steps are completed, each family member can choose whether to taste it or not; pressured mealtimes and compulsory tasting is not part of the challenge or fun. To make things easier for the rest of us, Tyler Lee’s book contains a suggested starting list of 52 new foods, as well as several simple, family-friendly recipes for each food on her list. If the list doesn’t resonate with you, consider it a starting point and modify it to your own family’s situation. (My family has pretty much written the book on eating watermelon during the summer, so that’s not a high priority for my list. But beets and spinach during the winter? Sign us up!) 

Tyler Lee describes the transformative effect the 52 New Foods Challenge has had on her family, which she notes was different for each member. For her daughter, the process has resulted in a broader repertoire of vegetables: New faves include roasted Brussels sprouts chips, raw cauliflower and entire cloves of roasted garlic. For her son, a more adventurous eater to start, the change was in his proficiency in cooking skills. (Ever see a 7-year-old whip up a batch of whole-wheat crepes?) For Tyler Lee herself, the tangible benefit was saving time when cooking by choosing simpler recipes that her kids could partake in. She emphasizes the reason that this challenge works so well is that it focuses on the positive aspect of healthy change – gaining something new – rather than feeling punitive, as though you’re “giving something up.” She also describes the reason it’s so likely to succeed where other resolutions fail: Itengages the entire family. “New Year’s resolutions often fail because one person decides to make a healthy change, but not everybody is on board,” she says. “Ultimately, it can feel impossible to sustain on your own, so you give up.” 

If you’re feeding a family with children, Tyler Lee stresses that “letting kids lead” is critical to the mission’s success. Specifically, the value is gained when kids are engaged in choosing the foods and preparing them – not necessarily in whether your family likes it –or even tastes it, for that matter. As she explained to me: “One time in the winter, things were crazy busy, so to save time I just went and did a leeks recipe all by myself, put it on the table and forced the issue. It was a complete fail. I didn’t go back to what was really working for the family, which was experiencing the process together along the way. You’re already successful so long as you’re building that ‘real food’ muscle – taking the kids to a farmer’s market and letting them pick something new, cooking it together. These are all things that move us in the right direction.” Amen, sister. 

Sound interesting, but maybe overwhelming? After all, most of us struggle to even get a home-cooked meal on the table regularly without the chaotic thought of involving our children in the process. Once again, Tyler Lee has a helpful spin on the situation. For starters, the goal is a modest one: simply to attempt one preparation of the new food, one time during the week. (Though clearly, if you enjoy it, ideally it could show up on your dinner table again and again that season!) Secondly, she suggests thinking of cooking as a craft activity and approaching it with your children in that same vain: set up on a low kids’ table to give them better access to the project and instill a feeling of creative freedom. Get focused on exploring the food instead of executing a perfect recipe. Her book also outlines helpful tips to facilitating acceptance of less familiar foods, explaining strategies such as using your kids’ beloved favorites as “gateway foods,” or adopting her competitive, points-based game “Crunch a Color” – both of which could help children overcome resistance to tasting something new.

I think most everyone could benefit in some way from adopting the 52 New Foods challenge – whether you’re starting from a place of relatively healthy eating or not; whether you’re an avid home cook or a take-out queen; whether you have children or not. Part plan-of-action and part game, 52 New Foods gives helpful structure to more amorphous goals such as wanting to “eat healthier,” “cook more,” “lose weight” or “increase variety in my family’s diet.” I’d wager that by taking on this fun, yearlong challenge, one should likely accidentally achieve all of the above in the process.

Personally, I’m both excited and nervous to take on the challenge. While I’m already a regular home cook and my children have come to accept a reasonable variety of healthy foods (considering their age), we’re prone to the same recipe rut as everyone else. Over time, I too have a tendency to gravitate toward already beloved staple meals, and when I do introduce challenging new veggies or entrees, it’s always a mom-led process. New food acceptances have recently become fewer and further between. It’ll be a real challenge for me as a super Type A, control freak dietitian mom to let others in my family participate in the meal planning process – let alone two 4-year-olds. And something tells me they’ll be selecting a lot more purple foods than they wind up eating. But I’ve already dog-eared at least a half dozen recipes in Tyler Lee’s book, and am eager to see how Quinoa Crumble Cakes, Baked Persimmons, Green Onion Pancakes, Japanese Eggplant Stir Fry and Ridiculous Radicchio Chips will go over in my household!

By Tamara Duker Freuman