Feeding Picky People

The List
My kids rush to add more ‘Do Not Like’ foods to The List — my latest failed attempt to quell the whining at dinner.

 

I’ve been cooking dinner for picky people for a long time, now. Thankfully, my husband is not one of them. He’s a pretty low-key kind of guy who has followed along on all manner of food adventures (Let’s try kombucha! Fermented carrots! Maitake mushrooms!) And has often come away embracing the once exotic.

But my kids are a different story. From the get-go, even though I made my own baby food, even though we’ve grown a garden their whole lives, even though I’ve repeated the you-have-to-try-something-ten-times mantra as if it were our family’s central dogma, I have managed to raise three finicky eaters. As luck would have it, they’re not even partial to the same foods. My son is a meat and starch kinda guy but nearly every vegetable is a struggle. One daughter is, in general, a decent eater, but passionately dislikes foods that are mainstays at our table — onions, green peas, broccoli. The youngest would exist on pasta and cheese alone if left to her own devices.

So our family dinners — that hour every night that I strive so hard to make happen — are filled with complaining, with teens drinking glass after glass of milk to choke down a half-serving of salad. There are no more tears or real tantrums, no plates are flung across the room like in the good old toddler days. But it’s not pretty either. I’m always left feeling like we should be farther along than this by now.

So today I’m reaching out to ask for your fail-safe ways of feeding a family. And I’m sharing our more successful strategies, the ones that have gotten us as far as we’ve come. Whether you’re working to expand your own palate or gently nudge a grownup sitting at your table or hoping to instill good eating habits for your kids, perhaps these tips can help. But know that I am far from having all the answers….

 

  1. Require that everyone try at least one bite of everything. This teaches that tasting something unappealing doesn’t kill you, which may be the most important lesson of all. There’s always the possibility that an unsavory looking dish might surprise. Especially my youngest will often say: You know, that’s better than I thought it would be. I consider those words a major victory!
  2. Serve a food over and over. This is a variation on the Try a New Food 10 Times rule of thumb. Sometimes I think my kids’ resistance wears down, especially when we are in a growing season and dozens of cucumbers are coming in from the garden or stacks of tomatoes are piling up on the counter. These foods wind up on our table again and again and eventually the kids find some way they can stand to eat them.
  3. Invoke the magic of the sauce. For my oldest it was ketchup, for my youngest it’s sour cream, as a family, I can encourage more vegetable eating if I also stir up a pot of Makes Everything Better Cheese Sauce. I have no problem with a spoonful of sauce helping the offending food go down.
  4. Find new places for veggies. Kale or spinach in smoothies. Carrots, pumpkin and zucchini in muffins and breads. Homemade marinara sauce with extra carrots or greens blended in. Whenever I can add an unsuspected vegetable, I go for it!
  5. Give them choices. This is really my secret weapon. My kids know they will be required to eat at least one vegetable at every dinner. Sometimes I can score a big win by letting them choose which veggie it will be. You don’t like broccoli? No problem, how about this spinach? As they munch away on their spinach, I’ve got the bigger picture in mind.
  6. Engage them in a conversation. After an exasperating week of someone being unhappy with dinner every single night, I invoked a new tool. Each family member was to write down five foods they would be excused from eating. They would have to choose ONLY five. In exchange, they would happily eat the rest of the foods served to them forever and always. This tool became known as The List. Honestly, it was a complete failure. Five turned out to be too small of a number. (Do I write down sardines? Liver? Even if mom never makes those foods? What happens if she does?) Pretty much every night, my nine-year-old wanted to change what was on her list so she could be excused from eating ingredients that didn’t please her. Five also turned out to be too high of a number. With five of us eating, that meant that I could be trying to cook while banned from using 25 foods. The upside of The List has turned out to be its role as a conversation starter. In the months that it has hung on our fridge, we’ve had many, many discussions about what it means to eat dinner as a family, why I ask them to eat foods they don’t like and to how to eat meals (more than just a bite) that might include offensive ingredients.
  7. Give them (some) control. My kids watch me meal plan every week. I look at our calendar to see what days I need to make easy meals and which nights we’ll all have time to sit down together. I take into consideration anything that might be coming from the garden or food in the pantry or the freezer that needs eating and I craft a week’s worth of meals around these parameters. One evening my youngest announced she would like to plan the next week’s menu. Her choices were predictable: pasta and cheese, pasta and cheese, pasta and cheese. But with my guidance, we were able to find seven dinners that met my requirements and that she looked forward to every day. Sharing my meal planning has turned out to be a much better tool than The List.
  8. Give them (some) control, part 2. You’ve likely heard that having your children help you grocery shop, garden and cook will make them more invested and interested in what eventually ends up on their plates. I have found this to be totally true. Just like the meal planning, the more involved my kids are in creating their dinners, the less likely they are to complain. They aren’t available to take part in all dinner planning and preparation every day, but when they show an interest, I try to accommodate it.
  9. Don’t give up. Yes, there’s whining at my table. But when I take a deep breath and remember my larger goals, I can see that my kids have tried many, many foods. A few they’ve actually come to like (salsa, avocados, tofu, spinach, quiche, mushrooms). I still believe that one day they’ll grow up to be adventuresome eaters in part because of all my years of exposing them to different tastes and textures. Maybe I need to find a way to not hear the complaints, to just soldier on. Maybe this is how it is at everyone’s table. Or maybe you’ve got the secret to the whine-free dinner. If so, I really do want to hear it.

The List

 

This post was shared on the Virginia Bloggers Friday Favorites linkup.

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12 thoughts on “Feeding Picky People

  • The ‘natural flavors’ made me smile – that would be a challenge to eliminate. I’m sure the picky eaters will grow out of their pickiness before long. Hang in there.

    • Natural flavors is on my list! 🙂 I’ve been trying to eradicate them from our house for years. Sigh. We can do it, it just means a battle over store-bought granola bars and yogurt (the kids don’t like the few ‘flavors-free’ varieties that are out there) and after a few weeks, I always slide back…. Thanks for reading!

  • Love your ideas. I was not very successful with my children when they were young, but all are pretty good at trying new things now.

  • I LOVE this post on your blog! I have always been very big on eating what is in front of you whether you like it or not, without whining. I have found that it has to become a habit very early. I don’t let the kids tell me “yuck” or they don’t like what is served if they have never tried it before. If it is a new food, try it, chances are you will like it. There is really only one food that I do not make the kids try to like anymore, and that is sauteed squash and zucchini. I get it, they have tried it, and when I watch my daughter try to choke it down, then dry heave for many minutes later, I am convinced, I will not die if they never gain my love for this dish. They may not like squash and zucchini, but they will eat spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, sweet potatoes [without added sugar or marshmallows], mushrooms, and just about any fruit there ever was. We try really hard to focus on the good and politely decline what we view as the bad. All of your tips are spot on! Thanks for sharing!

  • Sounds like you have a good handle on the situation. There IS NO MAGIC SOLUTION! The kids will grow up and be more tolerant and open to more things– the problem is that you have independent people with opinions and preferences all living in the same place! One of my children would eat NO vegetables (except nori– seaweed) and now is the most diverse eater of the family!
    The only strategy that worked in our family was that each week in the summer, one child would accompany me to the grocery, where I would purchase whatever HE would prepare for dinner that evening. It was not successful in terms of diversity (we had a lot of hamburgers!), but they all learned to cook– and are the primary cooks in their families!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Jane. I will definitely have to employ this summer strategy. Not only are the kids learning important life skills but it also means someone else is cooking dinner! 🙂 So great to hear that all turned out well in the end….

  • I came from a family with nine kids. My parents thought it essential for us to have milk on our cold cereal (even insisting we drink the dregs in the bowl), poorly cooked eggs (too runny or burnt), and liver-in-disguise every so often. It did not occur to then that we were lactose-intolerant and milk gave us gas and stomach distress. There were regular power struggles, including being asked to face the same cold plate of disgusting scrambled eggs three or four meals in a row. Eventually Mom gave up on liver when one of my sisters regurgitated it on her plate!

    SO a few things for parents to consider:

    1) Could your child be allergic to a food they shun? Does it give them indigestion, constipation, burping, bad breath, etc.?

    2) Could your cooking method OR seasoning be unpalatable? Years later, I discovered split pea soup, properly prepared, was delicious! As a young adult I found I LOVED braunschweiger sandwiches on rye with mustard. My mom NEVER thought to offer liver to me this way….

    3) Could you hide those eggs and milk inside french toast or pancakes? I hated the texture of eggs and custards, anything wiggly really (even jelly). Maybe the food in a different form will work better for the child…

    So rather than attempting to control children’s food choices, and create unpleasantness for everyone, take a lighter approach, simply letting the child skip over the items that are tried and found unpalatable. Let them fill up on your other more agreeable offerings (NOT including dessert!). They won’t starve. The more fuss you make, the more entrenched the child may become.

    AND find new and different ways to offer the foods you want to continue offering at family meals. As others have mentioned, having them grow and/or pick out ingredients and take part in the preparation is also good motivation.

    I’m not sure what a child psychologist would think of rewarding children for eating a minimum amount of some nutritious-but-disliked food. As long as you’re not bribing with sugary junk, what harm could an “Adventurous Eaters Club” do? All kids in the family participate, and those being the most adventurous each week get a non-food treat or privilege.

  • I have struggled with this for years! I really like your tips . Now that my kids are teens they are a little more open but believe it or not it’s my husband that is stubborn. Go figure!!

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