Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dealing with Picky Eaters: Some Strategies for Success

There at the left?  That’s Mr. Picky, a.k.a. The Boy.  (We were celebrating his induction into National Junior Honor Society the night this photo was taken, lest you should think he hangs out in a shirt and tie on a daily basis.  On the contrary, getting this boy to wear anything other than a t-shirt requires some serious coercion.)

Mr. Picky was a very good eater as a baby.  He loved food–and by that I mean not just that he would eat a wide variety of things, but that he’d eat large quantities as well.  People commented, more than once, on his size.

Now he’s taller than I am, and gangly in the way of so many 14-year-old boys.  He still likes to eat.  But what he will eat–without protest or bargaining, I mean–is pretty limited.  Somewhere around his second birthday is when Mr. Picky began to earn his name.  Left to his own devices, as he is in the school cafeteria each day, he rotates between cheese pizza, hamburgers, and the occasional chicken sandwich or corn dog.

I know, I know.  The horror, the horror.

Over the 14 years of Mr. Picky’s life, I’ve tried various strategies for getting him to expand the menu of things he’ll eat.  One thing I learned very quickly is that the advice you’ll receive from other parents or find  in parenting magazines and online articles (including this one) will work for some kids and not for others. I have a friend, for instance, who insists that her adult children are adventurous eaters simply because she wouldn’t let them be anything else:  she ordered their hamburgers with everything, made what she wanted for dinner, and refused to let her kids opt out of meals they didn’t like.  Had I tried that with Mr. Picky, every meal would have ended with him throwing up on the kitchen floor. One or two meals of that nature were quite enough for me to determine that this strategy just wasn’t going to work for us.

The bottom line is that taste is irrational:  you can’t coerce someone into thinking that something does or doesn’t taste good.  Only you yourself can know what is or isn’t pleasing to your palate.  And because I didn’t want the Foodie children to approach mealtime with dread in their hearts (or stomachs), I kept trying various strategies until I found a few that worked.  These may or may not work for you, but they’re worth a try.

Use their favorites as a base for exploration.  If there’s a dish your picky eater likes a lot, this is a good place to try out some variations.  Mr. Picky love spaghetti, for example, so I sometimes toss extra veggies in the sauce (chopped small or grated, so they aren’t terribly noticeable–and if he doesn’t notice them, I don’t point them out.)  He already knows he likes spaghetti, so small changes in the recipe don’t bother him terribly.  In a similar vein, grated or pureed veggies are easy to add to ground beef or chicken when I’m making burgers, meatballs, or meat loaf.  I tend to lean toward veggies that don’t have a strong flavor, like carrots or zucchini, but still add a new taste or texture.  Mr. Picky has happily eaten chicken burgers made with squash puree, though he would never eat squash on its own.  

Deconstruct their dinner.  Mr. Picky doesn’t enjoy casseroles, but he’ll almost always eat the ingredients if they’re separated on a plate.  If you’re making a casserole for the family, just set aside a portion of rice, chicken, broccoli, etc., as you’re assembling it.  This doesn’t take much time, and it makes the dinner hour much more pleasant for everyone.  (And really, does it matter whether they’re eating things all smooshed together or separated, as long as they’re eating?) 

Go raw.  Mr. Picky actually prefers raw vegetables to their cooked counterparts.  Since they’re more nutritious in their natural state, I have no problem letting him eat a handful of baby carrots in place of whatever prepared side dish I’ve made for the rest of the family.  If your picky eater doesn’t like something you’ve prepared, let him or her try that same item in its uncooked form.  I’ve never been more surprised than I was the day Mr. Picky polished off a plate of raw cauliflower.  Roasted cauliflower tossed with olive oil and topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan?  Not so much.  But, in the final analysis, he’s probably better off.

Implement the Three Bite Rule.  The general rule in the Foodie household is that you have to take three bites of whatever is on the dinner table; after that, if you don’t like it, you can either decline to continue eating or make yourself something else.   The logic behind the three bites is as follows:  the first bite is a surprise, so of course you might not like it.  With the second bite, you know what to expect, so you can start actually tasting the dish.  The third bite lets you confirm your initial assessment.  On more than one occasion–and with growing frequency, as he’s getting older–Mr. Picky has gone from a nose wrinkled in disgust to “I guess this isn’t so bad” in the space of those three bites. Perhaps more importantly, the Three Bite Rule creates a safe space where kids can try something without being committed to finishing it off, if they determine it’s something they don’t like.  (This rule applies even to foods Mr. Picky has tried previously, since taste buds change as you get older.)

Know what’s out of bounds and respect it.  Mr. Picky does not like anything spicy.  That means chili, sausage, Mexican food in general, and other foods that are spicy by definition are not subject to the Three Bite Rule; he can try them if he wants, be he doesn’t have to.  This doesn’t mean the rest of us have to forgo them, though.  When I’m grating cheese for topping chili, I’ll use some of it to make him a cheese quesadilla.  On the side, he gets to choose a fruit or vegetable that he can prepare or retrieve for himself.  Alternatively, if I’m making something that includes a particular flavor he doesn’t like–sage, for instance–I’ll reserve a portion for him before I add the offending spice.

Teach your picky eater that when you’re not at home, different rules apply.  At a restaurant, it’s almost always possible for Mr. Picky to find a hamburger on the menu.  At a church potluck, or at a friend’s house, it might be more difficult to find something he likes.  If there is one thing I cannot abide, it’s a grown person who either won’t eat what’s served or who picks it apart, seeking out the offending peppers and onions.   The rule of thumb I’ve required Mr. Picky to follow is this:  take a small portion of a few things and eat what’s on your plate.  If you like it, chances are there will be more.  If you don’t, you may make a polite excuse–you’re full, you had a big lunch, whatever.  You may not say “I don’t like this,” or “There’s nothing here I like,” or anything in that vein.  Picky eaters need to learn that being picky is their problem to deal with, not an excuse for being rude–and refusing to eat is just as rude as picking apart your food.  (One caveat:  an eater who is picky due to religious or dietary restrictions is, of course, excused for declining to eat something a host has served.)

I’ve encountered more than my share of parents who argue that catering to picky eaters only encourages them to be picky.  I disagree: catering to my picky eater–just slightly, in the ways I outlined above–encourages him to understand that it’s possible to try new things without making yourself too uncomfortable.  It allows him to be adventurous when he’s ready to do that.  While I could, of course, pull rank and insist that he eat whatever I put on the table every night, that would only turn the dinner table into a battleground.  In the end, it would do nothing to help him learn to enjoy food the way I hope he will someday.

And that’s the goal, after all:  to raise a Foodie.


2 Responses to “Dealing with Picky Eaters: Some Strategies for Success”

  1. 1

    Angelina — October 14, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    I am so happy to have read this post. I have become so upset with all the parents on food blogs proclaiming to the world “Your kid won’t be a picky eater if you don’t let him” because this is untrue. If a parent puts down the iron law and their child abides, it means their kid was NOT a picky eater and was not ever going to develop into one. It isn’t by the grace of their parenting but by the grace of their child’s physical body and temperament.

    My child is a more extreme picky eater than yours but what I appreciate the most about this post is your awareness that all picky eaters are highly individual and will not respond universally the same to strategies. I have been writing a series about this on my own blog because I needed to hear this years ago when my excellent eater turned two and stopped eating most of what he’d previously thought was great. I think you list some really great strategies here and your attitude about your own picky eater and about others is really wonderful.

    So, thank you. Any parent just starting to go through this would benefit by your approach and your attitude even if not all of your strategies work for them. At least here no parent of a picky eater will feel either shamed or hopeless.

  2. 2

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