"Why didn't you eat your guacamole? I thought it was your favorite," I comment to my daughter, AJ, as I go through the warm remains of her half-eaten school lunch. "I don't like it any more," she responds with a shrug.
I hold my tongue, knowing from experience that it's best not to make a big deal out of it. It won't do her any good to know that I went out of my way to buy that avocado. That I watched for it to become perfectly ripe before mixing it with her favorite salsa to make what she knows as guacamole dip. She doesn't need to hear about starving children in other countries who eat beans and rice every day. She often changes her mind about what she likes to eat. In fact, if make a big deal out of it this one time, she may decide to never try guacamole again. She's really that stubborn. Instead I just shrug it off and empty the container into our compost bucket.
What do you do when your daughter has multiple food sensitivities and then insists on further limiting her choices by being picky? I don't ever want to dumb down her food choices by serving her separate kid-friendly foods while I enjoy "adult" foods right next to her. How do I get her to eat her vegetables and healthy foods without making her dinner experiences so negative or stressful that she develops an eating disorder or gravitates toward junk food at every available opportunity? I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are some ideas that have worked for me in dealing with my own picky eater.
1. If at first you don't succeed . . .
Some "experts" will tell you that you have to introduce a new food to your kids up to 17 times in order to get them to accept it. Though I haven't kept an exact count, I know that it took more than 17 tries to get AJ to like beans. Still, eventually she started eating beans. Well, she eats a few beans some of the time. Still, eating even a few beans is a huge accomplishment for this kid.
Also, with sensitive kids, preparation matters. They can decide not to like a food for a number of reasons that go beyond taste. Maybe the food hurts her tongue when she chews it. Maybe the texture is too mushy or too crispy. Maybe the color green or orange or blue is not appealing that day. Too cold or too hot is a common complaint for AJ. She doesn't always use the right word either. She will complain that a piping hot plate of spaghetti is too cold. "Do you mean too hot, honey? See, it's steaming." It's important to prepare things in a variety of ways. For example, my girl ate hummus and black bean dip well before she would eat beans prepared in other ways. She will eat raw carrots but not cooked or canned. She will eat carrot pudding but not carrot cake. Kale chips are good. Steamed kale, not so much. I keep offering her whatever I am making and eating.
2. Be honest, most of the time
Sensitive kids can become hyper-vigilant and distrustful if they think you are sneaking secret ingredients into their food. I've had better luck with honesty. In fact, the best results seem to come with letting my daughter join me in the kitchen. She'll eat a wider variety of ingredients when she thinks she has some control over choosing them. This works especially well for smoothies. I like to offer her a variety of frozen fruits, veggies, super foods, spices and nuts. She has a blast adding a spoonful of this and a pinch of that. I want her to grow up choosing to eat healthy foods rather than having them forced on her or secretly hidden in her meals.
Do I still sometimes fudge the ingredients list? Sure I do. I sneaked some grated zucchini into her cookies last week. I let her know only after she had eaten two cookies and commented on how good they were. Fortunately, she still ate the cookies the next day, even after knowing their secret. It doesn't always work out so well. For example, she loved her "Harry Potter Pumpkin Juice" until she found out that it was really just carrot-apple juice with pumpkin pie spice added. She did the detective work on that one herself by figuring out that we only had carrot peels in the compost and no pumpkin peels or seeds. Maybe if I had included her in the juicing process, things would have gone better.
3. Make food more fun
I once gave a talk on "Why kids should play with their food." The purpose of my talk wasn't to encourage kids to dawdle at the dinner table making castles in their mashed potatoes. Instead, I talked about using food freely in the classroom and in everyday life. I wanted to encourage parents and teachers to let kids experience food with all of their senses. There are great books and online resources available for kitchen science experiments. Don't be afraid to let your kids make messes and get their hands sticky. Kids with sensory issues may or may not tolerate sticky fingers. Make it safe to try new things and don't minimize their own various needs or discomforts. Simply allow your sensitive child to wash his hands frequently or even wear gloves if that is an issue. Other kids will seek out sticky messes and strong sensory experiences. Both ways are alright because that is who they are. You can make it safe to experiment and discover new things.
Make ice cream together and feel how it gets harder and harder to crank the machine as the ice cream freezes. If you don't have an ice cream maker, mix milk, sugar and vanilla in a zippered baggie. Close the baggie tightly and put it inside a bigger bag with ice cubes and salt. Seal that bag, put on your mittens or pot holders and toss the bag around until the mixture turns into ice cream. Talk about why salt makes the ice work better. Try adding different flavors or using non-dairy milk.
Have a taste test of different kinds of cherry tomatoes or different kinds of apples. Go to the farmers' market and compare fresh carrots (or any vegetable) to store bought. Compare the fresh veggies to frozen or canned veggies. Let your child decide which he likes the best. My girl likes canned green beans better than fresh. I think she's crazy, but I don't say so. I just buy the best organic canned beans I can find and patiently wait for her tastes to broaden as I encourage her to try new things.
We've had good luck with book and movie - themed food experiences. Aside from the pumpkin juice incident, reading about different foods or watching movies that include food have been excellent gateways to trying new things and eating a wider variety of healthy foods. We started at a young age, of course, with porridge from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. As your kids get older, notice the foods that come up in their movies and books. After watching Disney's The Frog Princess, AJ wanted to make a big pot of gumbo. Fortunately I had a recipe and some ingredients that we could throw together to make something very similar to a real gumbo, though definitely less spicy. She liked it because she had helped make it. She even tried okra!
4. Avoid guilt trips and nagging, but do be firm about reasonable food rules
We have a rule in our house that you have to taste everything on your plate before you ask for more or leave the table. Some households have a three bite policy. A friend of mine has a policy that you take as many bites as your age. (I guess I would get a pretty full tummy with 39 bites of food.) Whatever your rule is, make sure it is reasonable and consistent. Too much forcing or bad feelings around food can turn your kids against veggies forever. My grandparents would make my mom and her siblings eat everything on their plates. They would even keep serving the same cold food over and over or make them stay at the table. My aunt spent many hours at the dinner table gagging and crying over being forced to eat cold veggies. She grew up into an adult who still dislikes veggies.
My favorite rule is "Take a bite to be polite." It works in our household, though we do have to insist on a big enough bite to actually get some flavor in your mouth. AJ is pretty good at the almost microscopic mouse nibble. Other than that, we try to stay quiet about food choices. We serve small amounts and let her ask for seconds. Sometimes I work really hard in the kitchen and do get my feelings hurt when AJ doesn't like something I've made for her. I admit that I've even caught myself saying things about starving kids in other parts of the world. These things will come out from time to time, especially if you heard them from your parents. I think the important thing is to make sure these comments are not the norm. Let encouragement and your own enthusiasm about food be the predominant feelings at meal times. Make meal times a chance to talk to each other about your days and share gratitude. If you are relaxed and happy, your kids will have better eating habits.
5. Ethnic food for kids: beyond pizza
My very favorite way to get my daughter to try new foods is to study different cultures and have ethnic food nights. Pick a country that has a rich food tradition. You can check out books and videos from the library and do research on the internet. Bring your child to the grocery store to browse different foods that are popular in that country. Pick out some things to try at home or go out to an ethnic restaurant if you have one nearby. At our house we have enjoyed Greek night (hummus, tabouli and olives), Japanese night (sushi), Indian night (chicken curry), Thai night (green curry) and, of course, Italian night (lasagna, healthy pizza). Much to our surprise, AJ will eat some things that are covered curry that she won't eat on their own. This is partly because we eat curry dishes often in our house. It's also because she likes the extra sensory stimulation that she gets from spicy foods.
I know that my kid is not really that picky compared to some children who will only eat crackers and buttered noodles. If your child only eats "white" foods, try not to be discouraged. Start where you are by offering a wider variety of foods in addition to the usual favorites. Try some kitchen science experiments. Include your kids in trips to farms and farmers' markets. Eat a variety of foods in front of your kids and rave about the wonderful flavors. Seek support from teachers, counselors, doctors, dentist, family members, online groups and books.
Many kids who seem like picky eaters have sensory issues. Textures and temperatures can become even more important than tastes. It's different for every child and even different for the same child depending on the day or her mood. Still, if you provide a rich sensory diet that includes a variety of foods, you may be surprised by your own kids. Don't worry if they don't like everything that you serve. Keep offering small amounts of new foods and try not to get discouraged or take it personally. Most of all, try to keep food fun and interesting for kids. Keep yourself relaxed and happy around the dinner table. Let your kids experiment, make messes and simply enjoy a variety of real foods. You may even find that you start liking and eating more foods yourself.
Is your child a picky eater? What have you found that works or doesn't work to get him or her to eat a variety of healthy foods?
Stephanie Aegerter, a.k.a. Stephafriendly, is a wife, mother, farmers' market manager and health coach in Janesville, Wisconsin. She has a six-year-old daughter here on Earth and a baby boy in Heaven. She blogs about a variety of topics at Stephafriendly Foods, where food is just part of the journey. She enjoys natural food cooking, environmental education, activism, gardening, crafting and, of course, writing. She is a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition