Pickiness, begone! How to handle a kid who doesn't want to eat

little girl eating
CC BY 2.0 Donnie Ray Jones

Do you have a kid who turns up their nose at anything remotely fresh or healthy? Here are some coping strategies.

Having a small child who doesn't eat can feel like the most frustrating thing in the world. Not only do you worry about whether or not they are gaining weight or taking in the right nutrients, but it's tiring to prepare special, simplified meals on a regular basis.

In the past I've expressed my rather hard-nosed opinion on this issue, explaining the "eat or go hungry" approach I use with my own three kids (all of whom are good eaters now). But when a friend reached out this week, asking if I could share any recipes that might convince her three-year-old to eat a few new foods, I started thinking about the problem in a new light. If I had a kid who didn't want to touch anything except white pasta, chicken nuggets, and French fries, what would I do?

There are two parts to the solution, as I see it. The first is creating a positive food culture, in which a child learns about the source of his or her food, becomes interested in how it's made, and understands that there's more to eating than just nutrients and calories. The second part is the actual eating, and becoming comfortable with new textures and flavors.

I would begin with the same strategies I've used with my own food-loving kids -- by involving a child in shopping and cooking. As inconvenient as it may be, taking kids to the grocery store is a great way of showing them where their food comes from. Go to a farmers' market on a Saturday morning for a family outing. Let your kid choose one fruit or vegetable of his/her choosing. They will be more eager to eat it than if you'd chosen it for them.

Related to this is gardening, which isn't something everyone has time or space for, but if you do, children love watching vegetables grow. Picking fresh cherry tomatoes off a vine, snapping beans off a plant, and digging potatoes shows them where food comes from and adds an aura of mystery to a meal. A kid will regard certain vegetables with respect and wonder, after seeing them in nature.

Next, let them help cook. This can be very slow and frustrating for a parent, but it shows the child how food is made. At age 3, give him a potato or a carrot and a vegetable peeler. Let him play with a bowl full of dried chickpeas while you work. Let him gnaw on apple peels as you make a pie and give him a ball of dough to roll out. An older child can be given a paring knife and told to cut up peppers or cucumbers for a salad. Always speak with enthusiasm about the food you're about to eat: "Look at this amazing cream of broccoli soup that we're going to have! Taste a spoonful of this bean chili and tell me if it needs more spice."

Make dinner a nightly event. Sit down as a family, if you can, as often as you can, which gives a small child something to look forward to. My family likes to put a nice cloth on the table, a small bouquet of flowers, candles on dark winter nights. We've established a ritual of talking about what we're each grateful for, which the kids love. It gets them excited to sit down for the meal. Read: 'What's your favorite mistake?' and other questions to get kids talking at the table

Have high expectations. It is reasonable to expect a child to taste everything on her plate. For a kid who eats almost no variety, start small -- just a single spoonful of each thing. For my kids now, they're expected to eat everything they're served, but I don't give large servings of something I know they don't like. Be cautious with the word 'picky.' I never used it in front of my kids because I didn't want them to latch onto it, internalize it, or use it as a justification. Instead, when they resist a food, I point out that it's because they're not used to it yet, and they'll like it eventually.

Offer a reward at the end. The only time I occasionally use bribery is with food, and it's always in the form of dessert -- when there is dessert, which isn't very often. Kids should not be allowed to eat dessert until they've finished their dinner. It's incredible how quickly they can gobble up a meal knowing that.

Set a good example. Don't be a picky eater yourself, or your child will notice that. Eat the same food that you're serving your kid and express enjoyment; those emotions are contagious.

As for what to cook?

Start with what you know they like, and make it healthier. For example, if a kid loves classic junk food, serve it to them -- but only made from scratch. Do oven-roasted fries dipped in ketchup. Make panko-parmesan crusted chicken fingers or breaded fish filets. Add lentils to spaghetti sauce, sautéed zucchini to fettuccini Alfredo. Blend ground beef with finely chopped mushrooms for homemade burgers. Make grilled cheese with grated Cheddar, a swipe of pesto, and some butter. Make homemade pizzas and salad dressings.

Add vegetables to everything. I'm a big fan of slipping veggies into every imaginable recipe, not least of all because I have a big CSA share that needs to get used up every week. Make a fruit smoothie for breakfast and add a handful of spinach; if it has a dark fruit like blueberry in it, a kid won't notice the green. Sneak chopped cauliflower into macaroni and cheese. Make a creamed vegetable soup that's fully pureed so they can't identify what's in it. Add mushrooms to chili, carrots to pasta sauce.

Give creative names to your foods. Kids love this kind of thing and will latch on to it. My mom used to make this old Moosewood Kitchen spinach soup that we dreaded as kids, but she called it "witches' brew" and for that we downed it with enthusiasm. Her clam chowder was "eraser soup" and broccoli was always referred to as "trees." Sliced steamed carrots can be "coins" or "treasure," and slices of buttered toast to dip in soft-boiled eggs are always "soldiers." Make pinwheel sandwiches using tortillas; kids will love the novelty of the shape.

tacos© K Martinko -- Tacos are a favorite in our household, with everyone putting whatever they want on top.

Make 'build your own' meals. There are a number of great family-friendly meals that start with a common base and can be modified according to individual preferences. Kids love this because it gives them control over their choices. Editor Melissa used to do lots of bean burritos with her kids, starting with homemade corn tortillas and bean mixture and allowing kids to top with whatever they want. Other good build-your-own meals include pizza, baked potatoes, nachos, tacos/tostadas, salad, subs, burgers, chili, and rice paper-wrapped summer rolls.

As a final note, realize that it's normal for kids to resist new foods, even kids like mine who eat almost everything. There's almost always an initial resistance and a short battle, followed by an adjustment period and normalization. Never give up trying the same foods; it might take 40 dinners to convince them to eat asparagus with gusto, but so be it. Don't get discouraged! It's worth it in the end.

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