Clearing Your Hurdles Part 3: Picky Eaters Edition

I’ll bet you thought I wandered off from this series. Well, I didn’t! Today I’m talking about how to handle those pint-size picky eaters. I’ve got some serious first hand experience with this subject. So let’s go—

Growing up I heard a few repeated phrases from my Mother. Most of these centered on the theme of explaining what she was NOT—i.e. A Maid, A Chauffeur/Taxi Driver, a Referee, and most importantly she was NOT a Short Order Cook. See, my Mom made dinner every night when I was a kid. She didn’t make fancy food—she made hearty, stick to your ribs dishes like lasagna, roast beef, fried chicken, pork chops, and occasionally, delicious Polish/Lithuanian treats like Pierogi and Blini. There was always an abundance of whatever she had cooked; enough for everyone to have second helpings, and to pack in our lunches the next day. There was just one problem—I was an amazingly picky eater. I didn’t really like meat (except for hot dogs), and would instantly spit out any speck of fat or gristle. I despised cooked vegetables. I hated salad. I could stomach small amounts of tomato sauce, but otherwise I only consumed tomatoes in the form of catsup. So how did my Mom deal with my pickiness? She didn’t. That is to say, she didn’t turn herself inside out over my choice to pick at my plate, and turn my nose up at most of what she had cooked. Her theory was she made her meals to include something each of us liked. even if that one thing was only mashed potatoes or bread and butter, there would be something on the table we’d be willing to eat. And if there by chance was absolutely nothing? Well, we knew where the peanut butter was and we could make our own PBJ. And of course when I say ‘we’ I mean ME. My sister was a happy go lucky kid who generally liked whatever was on the table. It was me who was a total pain-in-the-a$$ about food. 

I went through a short period of dramatically constructing my own dinner. I would survey the table, announcing in a loud, disappointed tone that sadly there was NOTHING there for ME! And then I’d flounce around the kitchen assembling my Peanut Butter, Jelly, and Bread; bring them to the table and theatrically ‘Make My Own Dinner’! God love my parents’ abilities to keep a straight face and not kill me. Their decision to forgo fighting with me about my pickiness gave me the autonomy to own my choices. I spent about two solid weeks eating those PBJ sandwiches for dinner. And then magically, they lost their luster. Mom’s roast beef started to look really good. Lasagna didn’t seem like such a horrible thing. Fried Chicken smelled down right yummy! And just like that, I was eating (mostly) what the family ate. 

So why don’t we do that today? Why are we afraid to relinquish that little bit of control over our picky kids? 

I see so many parents getting frustrated, angry, and exhausted making 2,3, or more individual meals for the various tastes and preferences of their kids. Why? I mean, I get it…I’m a parent too. We love our kids and we want them to be happy and healthy. But when we take the steps to clean up our diets, and improve our health, often our kids resist those changes. They want the same stuff they’ve been eating; they don’t want to give up the sugary, processed pseudo-foods they are accustomed to. So you end up making your delicious real food, and then cooking something else for the kids—just so they’ll stop complaining and eat something. And eventually you get frustrated with making separate meals for everyone, and you go back to your old less healthy habits.  I think you deserve better than that. I think your kids deserve better than that. I’m going to give you permission to stop driving yourself nuts over this. And I’m going to give you some help on how to handle this obstacle, in a positive way. 

You can use my Mom’s approach—I guarantee it will work. But if you aren’t comfortable with that here are some of my tried and true methods of working with super picky kids. 

1. Get them involved in the planning.  When my own daughter was going through her “I hate everything” phase of eating, I sat down with her and we listed out everything she was willing to eat. We wrote them all down in a list and then she got to pick what we would eat for dinner three nights every week. The other four nights I chose, and if she didn’t want what I picked she could have leftovers from one of ‘her’ nights. Of course I made sure to lay down some basic rules (vegetables or fruit had to be a component of the meal, only one form of starch per meal, protein had to be on the plate). If kids get a say in what the family is eating, they are more likely to actually eat it. 

2. Let them Cook. Kids love to help, even if they try to act like they don’t. Get them in the kitchen with you. Let them help measure, Teach them how to use a knife and get them prepping veggies for dinner. Of course you’re there keeping an eye on the process, so don’t be afraid to let them start learning these important skills. If kids help cook the meal, they will be excited to share it with the family. 

3. Take them shopping. I know, grocery shopping with the kids isn’t exactly the highlight of most parents’ days. But, if you take them along to shop for the ingredients of the dishes they’ve chosen that becomes another level of involvement and investment in that meal. Teaching them how to choose the ripest produce, and best meats is important for their future lives, and gets them even more excited about that dinner. 

4. Introduce new foods often. On average it takes fifteen to twenty exposures to a new food before a child will accept it. Now that’s an average. Sometimes they will like something new immediately, but often they will reject it solely based on unfamiliarity. Keep offering it. Use the one bite rule. They don’t have to eat it all, but they have to eat one bite. Eventually they will warm up to most of the new things. 

5. Relax. If all else fails, just take a deep breath and enjoy your dinner. If you are non stressed about eating new, healthy, whole foods your kids will get there too. Don’t make the table a battleground. Try taking a page from my Mom’s playbook, and have something (even if it’s just one thing) on the table that your kids will eat. Then let them eat that. No big deal, no fights. They won’t starve, and once the novelty wears off, once they realize they aren’t getting a special meal, they will start eating what you have cooked. 

My daughter and I are both living proof that these methods work. 

Try them out, and let me know how it goes! 


Read other installments in this series:  Part 1Part 2