Monday, June 23, 2014

The Care and Feeding of Picky Eaters

I was a picky eater myself as a child (and, to a lesser degree, still am as an adult), so it was no surprise that I gave birth to a couple of picky eaters. After much trial and error and putting on a few pounds (okay, more than a few) from eating my failures and tearing out my hair, I’ve discovered a few survival tips for moms trying to cook for picky eaters.

1.  Presentation is key
Food that is appealing to a kid’s eye will also be appealing to his or her taste buds. Instead of serving fruit on the side of the plate, use it to make a smiley face right on top of whatever you’re serving – scrambled eggs, pancakes, a sandwich, a slice of meatloaf, a scoop of pasta. Instead of (or as well as) fruit, pick whatever random treats your kids like: a couple of jellybeans, a handful of breakfast cereal, pickles and olives, goldfish crackers, chocolate jimmies. You can even add some "goop" for dipping, like ketchup, ranch dressing, hummus, or jam. Your kids will eat the fun stuff and then forget to stop when they reach the healthy stuff underneath. (Hopefully.) And don’t underestimate the value of cutting things into interesting shapes. Cookie cutters aren’t just for cookies; they work on sandwiches, toast, cheese, cold cuts, pancakes.

And on the flip side of this one, if you make it look – or sound – over-the-top disgusting, kids (especially boys) will eat it out of pure curiosity. Be sure to make lots of repulsed noises while the child is eating. Thanks to Calvin’s mom for this advice.

Admittedly, this approach has a few drawbacks.

2.  Creative use of leftovers
If your kids are anything like mine, there are always leftover bits on their plates. One of my kids eats the hotdog and ignores the bun; the other demolishes the bun but ignores the hotdog. So I offer each of them both bun and dog, then swap their plates. Or I’ll save the uneaten hotdog slices and throw them in with some leftover mac & cheese at the next meal. When I make soup and there’s lots of leftover broth, I throw in that half-serving of rice, handful of cooked carrots, and few bites of grilled chicken left over from last night’s dinner and make myself a bowl of soup. If sandwiches are on the menu, I use their uneaten sandwich crusts to fill out my meal of that same leftover rice, carrots, and chicken. 

But my favorite use for leftovers is to do a "smorgasbord" lunch. Fill a plate with tiny servings of a lot of different things: a few bites of pork, a tiny spoonful of peas, a plop of applesauce, six blueberries, half a graham cracker, two broccoli florets, a few cheese cubes - whatever's on hand. Mix a few treats in with the healthy stuff, like a small handful of sweet cereal or pieces of their favorite fruit, and get creative with dipping sauces - let them try some spicy mustard, salsa, or balsamic vinegar along with more familiar sauces. 

Sometimes I sneak in a few "exotics," like marinated artichokes.

3.  Let them help
My kids love to help in the kitchen, and they will eat (or at least try) almost anything that they helped make. Even the littlest kids can help tear up lettuce, beat an egg, stir together batter, and mix meatballs. Kids who can read can help you follow a recipe or directions. Older kids can break eggs, measure ingredients, chop vegetables, and use the stove. As well as keeping them where you can keep an eye on them while you make dinner, you get the added bonus of an opportunity to teach nutrition, hygiene, chemistry, math, and reading. Not to mention, it’s laying the foundation for having them prepare dinner on their own once in a while so you get a break from kitchen duty!

This approach may take a good bit of practice before it’s successful, however.

4.  Variety really is the spice of life
I’ve read all kind of statistics stating that children need to be offered a food X number of times before they’re willing to try it, or that they need to try a food Y number of times before they decide they like it. I’m not sure if I buy any of those statistics, but I do know that kids are moody and sometimes they’re not willing to try something but other times they are. So I keep offering them different foods, even if they have tried them before. I don’t force them to eat more than a taste, and sometimes not even that, but the foods are there if I happen to catch them in the right mood. Maybe it’s only a 1 in 100 chance that they’ll try it, but if it’s not on their plate, it’s a 0 in 100 chance.

Even when it doesn’t work, the results can be quite entertaining.

 5.  Reverse psychology really works
My husband often puts a forkful of food on the edge of my son’s plate and warns him sternly, “Do NOT eat this. This will make you grow tall and strong, and I want you to stay little. You had BETTER NOT eat this!!!” Naturally, my son immediately grabs it and sucks it down, giggling triumphantly as my husband moans in mock horror. Likewise, my daughter won’t eat a bite of the food that’s on her own plate, but if I leave a forkful of the exact same food on my own plate and tell her, “That’s mine, don’t eat it!”, it will be gone before I can blink.

The grass broccoli is always greener on someone else’s plate.

The bottom line is, you just never know what might make a child try or like something, so just keep experimenting and offering. With apologies to Thomas Edison, you haven’t failed. You’ve just found 1,000 things your kids won’t eat.

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