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How to Raise Non-Picky Eaters

don't be picky

If your children are “good eaters” you might have heard, “You are SO lucky your kids aren’t picky.” For those of us with non-picky kids, we know this isn’t about luck, it’s about commitment, creativity, and enduring frustration. But in the end, it pays off big, for you and your kids. And believe it or not, you can have fun along the way.

Let me start out by saying, my girls don’t love absolutely everything. My 10 year-old swears she doesn’t like tomatoes, but she eats tomato salad, red sauce, and doesn’t want a burger without tomato. But she won’t eat tomatoes by themselves. I fed her cauliflower soup when she was 4, and she happened to acquire a stomach virus, and got sick. To this day, she won’t eat cauliflower. My 8 year-old doesn’t like her food to touch, and might like squash one day, but might reject it another. However, she always tries what I place in front of her (this wasn’t always the case), and just tonight asked me to please make a kale and bean dish “every night.”  You may not be capable of figuring out the mystery kids’ palates, but you can dig your heels in to set your children up for a lifetime of healthy eating. I’m not a child nutrition expert, I’m just a mom. But, I’m a mom who has two non-picky eaters, and one of them is strong-willed and doesn’t give a lick about liking anything, to please anyone.

If you are a mom of a picky eater, I know cooking dinner must not be fun. And who wants to battle with their child at dinner every night? And if you don’t love cooking, I can see why someone would be tempted to just throw in the kitchen towel, and pop the top on Chef Boyardee. I totally understand. If your child is 9 or older, I’m not sure if the picky eating can be undone. But if you are starting with a younger child, here’s my advice.

Get your children involved in meal planning

Take your children to the produce aisle and ask them what vegetables they want for dinner. Explore the produce aisle with them, and talk about what new things might taste like. Make it seem like an adventure. Then, look up a recipe together, and cook it together. Notice the key word, “together?” If your children are invested in what’s for dinner, they are more likely to be open.

Get feedback from your children

While cooking, call your children into the kitchen and give them a taste. Ask, “What do you think? Should I add something else?” My kids always say, “salt,” so I add that in front of them, have them taste again to get their approval before putting it on the table. Sometimes my kids will say about dinner, “It’s fine, but it’s not my favorite.” I’ll ask them how I could improve it next time, and it gets them thinking. When I make same meal another night, I’ll point out the changes that I made per their request. This makes your children feel like you respect their feelings, and they naturally want to cooperate more.

Be strong

When Katelyn (my 8 year-old) was younger, on occasion she went to bed without dinner because she was so stubborn, she would rather starve than try something new. And, it wasn’t something aesthetically repulsive, it was just simple things. My rule is, you have to try it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. But if you don’t try it, you starve, because I’m not making you something different. If you try it, with a good attitude mind you, you can have something else or extra sides.

I’m not suggesting you make dinner time a battlefield, but you can’t let kids get away with treating you like a short order cook, and refuse to try new things. My cousin Jenny’s trick was to always make sure there was something on the table her child would like, which does take the pressure off everyone.

Katelyn knows the expectation now, and will try new foods. All I want is her openness, but it all can’t be on her. As the person in charge of my children’s nutrition, and setting them up for a lifetime of healthy eating, I have to get creative and be steadfast.

Provide “gateway” recipes for your kids

When I introduced my children to kale, I served it up in a casserole with cheese, bacon and cream. Not the healthiest, but it was love at first bite. Then, I started preparing it in other ways – – braised, as chips, and even as a base for pesto. Since it was in their heads they liked kale, introducing it in healthier forms was successful. My kids haven’t had okra yet, so I’m going to fry some up as our gateway recipe.

Don’t buy prepared meals

If your child is a baby, start now. When they can eat solids, Goldfish and Cherrios, Teddy Grahams, etc .  are fine, but don’t put Spaghettios in their bowl when they are ready for solids. If you don’t want picky kids, do not feed them a steady, easy diet of chicken nuggets, boxed macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza when they are toddlers. You know those Lunchables? I wouldn’t feed my kids those either. Don’t get their taste buds conditioned to like the flat taste of processed foods. And, I would not advise serving up junk cereal. I would buy my kids Fiber One when they were toddlers, and they called them sticks, and gobbled them up. They didn’t know of Count Chocula or Frutie Pebbles – – Fiber One and Cheerios were all they knew.

Try to avoid the temptation of boxed and prepared foods as a go-to. Save prepared foods as an emergency plan. If you buy jarred pasta sauce, gussy it up with some sausage or shredded carrots. You can still have kid-favorites, but make your own pizza, and try this butternut squash macaroni and cheese. Introduce your children to ethnic foods. like Indian cuisine, early on.

I was watching Dr. Phil some years ago, and a mom with a picky eater was lamenting her child would only eat junk and processed foods. Dr. Phil asked who paid for, and bought the food. The point is, while some kids are not naturally easy to feed, you are in control of what’s on your child’s plate, and can influence attitudes. What you feed your child is conditioning them for their lifetime of eating and nutrition. I know creating a “good eater” is daunting, but you can do it!

Make dinner a celebration

If you are making Italian food, put some Il Divo on the stereo and light candles. Set the table in a festive manner, and have your kids make place mats and place cards out of paper, to go with Asian dinner. Have your kids pick flowers (even if they are flowery weeds, it doesn’t matter) and make them a centerpiece. Make dinner a celebration, and have fun!

Keep re-introducing foods

Explain to your kids that taste buds change. Do a lesson on taste buds with them. If they swear they don’t like squash, tell them, “let’s try it again in a couple weeks!” Then, in a couple weeks, change the recipe and make it a “test.” It injects some fun into the whole thing. And go easy on your kids, because what is delicious to you, might be yucky to them. Statistically, it might take 10-15 times before they actually take to a certain food. Genuinely thank them for their open mind when trying something. For me, it’s all about their attitude.

Don’t give them snacks before dinner

Hunger is the best spice of all! Make sure your kids haven’t eaten for at least two hours before dinner. If your kids aren’t that hungry, they won’t be inclined to be as agreeable at dinner time.

Eat together

I know it’s more peaceful to eat alone, but family dinners are really important. Even my kids’ pediatrician asks every year if we eat together as a family. While the benefits are many, one in relation to picky eating is the chance to model good eating habits for your children. And to see the rest of the family eat the meal, puts an expectation on the child.

Try making roasted vegetables

Roasting vegetables brings out the sweetness. My kids will fight to the death over the last piece of roasted broccoli, and I have to buy an extra half pound of asparagus because Katelyn will hog it all. Roasted carrots are divine, and my kids even eat roasted onions. Try it and see!

In conclusion . . 

I want to be clear – – I’m not above buying chicken nuggets from Costco, but alongside they will have fresh cut vegetables. One day I was thinking about college, and started craving Top Ramen, so I bought some. My kids love, love, love Top Ramen. Do I feed it to them often? No, but I’m about moderation. Anna discovered she liked Lean Pockets, when she bought one from the pool snack bar this summer. I won’t buy them, but she can have them when hanging out with her friends at the pool. Also, we have potato chips in our house. But that said, they inhale broccoli, turnips, kale, bulgar, bell peppers, butternut squash, quinoa, roasted onions, and many other healthy foods. I make homemade meals every night, so they are conditioned to like fresh food, while still occasionally indulging in some junk. In my family, we aren’t purists, we just practice balance. But, I had to set them up when they were babies and toddlers to like the taste of fresh food, and for trying creative recipes. If your child is older, still try some of these techniques and don’t give up!

I know many of you are thinking, you don’t have time to put in this effort, but this isn’t an overnight endeavor. If you are too busy to cook, think of taking things off your plate, so to speak. Being your family’s nutritionist is one of your biggest responsibilities that will affect them for life. Do you over-volunteer? Do you pack your children’s schedules so tight, family dinners aren’t possible? I had to make some difficult choices last year about my commitments, and cut some things out myself. If you are overloaded, pray for God to show you ways to downsize your responsibilities, and supersize the time you have for your family. Learn to be picky, in a good way, so your kids aren’t.


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