Your kid only eats pizza?
Plain pasta, no sauce?
Is that picky eating or being stubborn?
It seems to me that our nation’s “picky eaters” tend toward the same “standard American fare” foods. These foods are easy to prepare in our convenience food society, and it’s what parents tend to feed their kids if the kids balk at whatever the real dinner is.
There are hundreds of different basic foods to choose from and thousands of food and flavor combinations. It’s hard for me to believe that so many people *only* like the same small handful, and that it’s truly how their palates were formed by God.
I got this request from a reader a few months ago:
“My kids (8 & 9) have become extremely picky eaters over the years. It’s mostly my fault for succumbing to them and just letting them eat their favorite things. I’d like some tips to help them branch out of their ruts. They pretty much only like to eat pizza & chicken nuggets right now. I made homemade nuggets which are at least better than deep fried ones, but they are still just chicken nuggets. Do you have any ideas to get them to try AND like new foods?”
I’m relieved this mama said, “It’s mostly my fault,” because I can start from there without offending everyone in the world.
If a child somehow only likes 3-4 foods out of thousands, who gave them those choices? Were they served various fruits, vegetables, meat cooked in different ways, eggs, grains, soups, and more? Or were they allowed, as the mom in the example shared, to eat their favorites and never branch out?
Are we really talking “how to get a picky eater to eat” or “how do we stop feeding our kids only what they like best?”
I know there are true medical issues – our KS contributor Mary wrote a compelling look into life with a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). She shares how her child needs quite bland foods and can struggle with certain textures – but her family continues to eat very healthy food, day in and day out!
Mary has identified her child’s needs after separating needs from wants, and she offers only nourishing options that fit within those parameters. She adapted without compromising, and I applaud her.
So I realize some children truly are more than just stubborn about food.
If a child eats both pizza and plain noodles, insisting on no sauce, that’s a bunch of malarkey. They’re playing you, parents. Pizza sauce and spaghetti sauce are nearly the same thing.
In fact I myself have a child who claims to only like buttered pasta, no sauce, but she’ll eat pizza and lasagna.
And if we’re reheating pasta with the sauce all mixed in, too darn bad for her. (Usually? She’ll eat it anyway.)
I get it if your tastebuds just don’t like spicy things, or garlicky foods, or if textures that are mushy or slimy get to you.
God made us all different.
But to say that a picky eater doesn’t like anything but a handful of foods – especially if those foods don’t have much in common – that’s choice, my friends.
Can You Cut Out a Whole Food Group and Still Eat a Balanced Diet?
We have a little friend who doesn’t like fruit. But she’ll eat vegetables, grains, dairy, meats – her diet is plenty balanced without fruit. In my mind, that’s a picky eater. But not a big deal at all.
Another child we know is a purported picky eater. The family claims she only likes bland things. Pizza with pepperoni only. Chicken nuggets. A certain kind of yogurt drink.
But she’ll munch on Fire Cheetos and Sour Cream and Onion chips all day long.
If we’re talking only eating junk food and not eating anything healthy, then I don’t care what food group you’re omitting or solely eating from, that’s not just picky – it’s a problem.
And it needs to change.
Our bodies weren’t made to run on pizza, chicken nuggets, and Fire Cheetos.
And if we’re talking children, it’s the parents’ job to get to the bottom of it, to nourish the little bodies entrusted to them, not just fill their bellies with whatever comes with the least resistance.
Here’s How to Fail
If I was trying to get you to quit smoking, I would not smoke in front of you.
If I was trying to help you stop cursing, I surely wouldn’t scream obscenities at you.
If you’ve got a picky eater or problem eater, you will make no difference at all if the adults in the house are unwilling to try new foods and demonstrate a good attitude about it.
It’s a plan for failure, 100%.
I’m not sure how to say this without offending the very people it’s on my heart today to help, but here goes:
If you want your picky eater to change his or her habits (and you’ve determined that there isn’t SPD going on), you need a PLAN.
You need to COMMIT to it.
Both parents/caregivers need to be on the same page.
And you need to resolve your OWN picky eating issues too.
If you can’t do that, you’re condemning yourself to be a short order pizza/chicken nugget cook until your kids leave home, and you’re restricting their tastebuds to “kid foods” until they discover what they’ve been missing when they become adults – if ever.
Get Out the Eraser
You need to eradicate some phrases from your home, now:
- He doesn’t like that.
- They won’t eat that.
- She won’t like that.
- They won’t even try it.
- He’s a picky eater.
Those are losing words. Failure words.
You won’t win – or change anything – if you don’t start by trying.
Be the Change You Wish to See
It’s not a cliché.
My husband and I have foods we don’t care for too, but every summer, I try tomatoes, and every few months, my husband tries cucumbers. The kids watch him power through a dinner of baked fish every other week, even though it’s not his favorite.
But he eats it because he knows it’s healthy for him – and I think it’s pretty sexy when he shows such great parenting and is supporting his own health at the same time.
Create a New Normal
A friend of mine decided she was done buying boxed mac and cheese. She started making a homemade recipe (maybe the one in Better Than a Box?) and the first time she served it, there were a lot of complaints from the peanut gallery.
The kids wondered why it was different, and they were very vocal about not loving it.
Some parents would give up there and chalk it up to a failed experiment.
She pressed on, and in time, homemade mac and cheese became the New Normal.
There is now zero balking at the table, and I bet her 4-year-old will completely forget about the blue box once another year passes. The mom has created a new culture in her home, a new expectation – that mac and cheese comes homemade, and that’s just the way it is.
We need to keep that goal in mind, parents, and do remember – the fussing won’t last forever, no parent ever actually died from children’s complaints (although I do agree it feels like we might!), and most importantly – no child ever died from not getting what they wanted for dinner. Kids’ memories aren’t as long as we worry they are, promise!
I’d love to join your “team” on this and help you make real food a New Normal, moms and dads. Teaching my kids to cook is the most powerful thing I’ve ever done for them (after giving birth of course). But it’s not easy to know where to start!
In our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, I’ve done all the thinking for you, and my kids are working with food in all the videos to be a little positive peer pressure for yours. Kids love seeing other kids on the screens! They call them their friends. 🙂
Now for the Practical Stuff – Bridging the Gap
IF you’re willing to commit to actually making the effort to curb the picky eating in your house, I have some ideas for your game plan – because you DO need a plan.
1. Know where your boundaries are.
Do you have to MAKE the kids eat everything on their plate to eradicate picky eating?
Do they even have to take a bite of everything?
Possibly not, not right away.
You might be able to make headway simply by offering a number of choices for a while – one bite of each new thing on their plate – and having no expectations or requirements other than that the bite sits on their plate and they don’t remove it unless they eat it.
For some “picky eaters,” that’s going to be a goal in itself. But food sitting on a plate never hurt anyone (sans allergies).
You need to study your child for a while, take notes if you have to, and make it like a research project. Write out the milestones you want to reach.
Your list may look something like this (or may not):
- Child allows bites of new food on plate.
- Child gets a choice about the new food: Take a bite, take a lick, or smell it. Once they have, they can be served the rest of the meal (which they like).
- The “smell it” choice disappears.
- The “liked” food begins to change (see next tip about bridging).
- Snacks included! If kids know they can just wait for a good snack and eat three helpings, they’ll win the battle every day.
- (There are likely a number of possible baby steps in here, but they will be very individual based on the child’s stubborn spots and the timing you’re trying to work with on your picky eating eradication plan.)
- At some point, parents will need to commit to not having the favored junk food in the house, at all. To only offer healthy options. There can be lots of options, and the child may choose what s/he eats without consequence for skipping things, but nothing else beyond the meal on the table will be served. NOTHING. No short order cooking. Set a deadline for it to be reality!
The bottom line is that like with any parenting intervention – potty training, getting babies to sleep through the night, keeping kids in their rooms at bedtime, or a homework routine – it must be deliberate and intentional. You must be committed and professional about it!
I’m offending people right now, I can just feel it.
Fingers are hovering over keyboards to tell me what I’ve heard before when I talk about picky eaters:
Katie, some kids really won’t eat. They’ll starve themselves, and they won’t eat breakfast either. You are really recommending something dangerous here!
But I’m not saying to only offer them one thing at dinner and make them eat it. I’m not even recommending that the food they don’t eat be saved for the next meal until they eat it.
I’m just saying:
And don’t let them forage for unhealthy options between meals, or you’ll sabotage your own plan.
You’ve got to know exactly what your goal is, what your steps are, what you’re willing to compromise on (not much), and be CONSISTENT about it! Nothing about parenting is easy, but it’s all worth it.
I shared a talk last week for the Mom Conference on building responsibility by getting kids into the kitchen, and I received a comment that made my whole month:
Thanks for the encouragement on picky eating. I tried the “lick it, touch it, or smell it” with our salmon at dinner this evening. One licked it, one smelled it, and one licked it & decided he wanted to eat it & then asked for more!
I mean hey – with results like that, it’s worth at least TRYING, right???
2. Find ways to bridge from what they like to other things.
If your kids have a few things they love, imagine a brick path from that food to healthier options, more variety. Each brick in the path is another step, connected to the last. If pizza is on the happy list, you might try something like this:
- Try new toppings on pizza – broccoli, spinach, zucchini, fresh basil, tomato slices, blending some squash into the sauce – to get them used to seeing and tasting vegetables
- Make homemade pizza together with a white flour crust.
- Use a whole grain crust (or even a step in between is part whole grain).
- Then make another kind of bread dough, homemade rolls or something…
- Then add something to the homemade rolls like egg salad, or grilled cheese with veggies inside…each step is connected to the last and getting toward expanding their palates.
- Another step along the way is to make pizza veggies – frozen broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, zucchini – whatever medley you want to try – smothered in pasta sauce and mozzarella cheese
Here are some possible bridges for chicken nuggets:
- Homemade chicken nuggets are a good start!
- Add something green in the coating just so they’ve seen it before.
- Add a side veg – something kid-friendly, maybe the pizza veggies above, or this spinach cheesy bake – if you’re far enough through your stepping stones, you could set a pattern where they get one bite of it and one chicken nugget, and seconds are one bite of each, thirds the same – they have to finish their firsts if they want seconds.
- Have them help make the homemade chicken nuggets to purposely lift the veil: “Oh look, there are eggs in here! I guess you actually like eggs too…how should we cook them in a different way tomorrow?” and offer pictures of scrambled eggs, egg salad, egg drop soup, egg fried rice…whatever you’re willing to make.
- Pizza chicken – chicken breasts baked in pizza sauce with cheese on top – then add some veggies in there and move all the way to sausage zucchini bake.
- Grilled chicken strips and grilled potatoes – moving to Chicken, Rice and Green Beans from Better Than a Box, beans cut very small.
- Accidentally “run out of ketchup” on purpose – so they have to try something else. Maybe it’s mustard sauce, which could bridge to cheeseburger soup, egg salad or potato salad. Maybe it’s an avocado based dip with seasonings they’d like, or a sour cream ranch style dip which can bridge to raw veggies.
Once you get going, I guarantee it will actually be fun to build the bridge from one food to the next!
3. Retrain dinnertime.
Dinner is your stomping ground for your picky eating intervention – so you can’t let snacks sabotage your efforts. Dinner should be the pinnacle of a few hours of preparation, and I DON’T mean the work you’ll do in the kitchen:
- Prepare the space: Make sure they’re hungry for dinner. Allow no snacks whatsoever at least 2 hours before dinner.
- Lead with your ace: Serve veggies and dip first at dinner – maybe a pizza flavored dip if pizza is one of your bridges!
- Follow suit: Try a blended starter soup – served first before anything else is available. Say that the chicken nuggets still have 10 minutes to cook, and mean it.
Those strategies will be like the spit on a spitball – they’ll grease the chute for everything else you do to work.
4. Offer healthy options.
At a certain point in the process, you will need to ban junk food altogether. Otherwise you’ll end up with an eternal exercise in futility, making healthy food just to let the kids stare at it and choose the junk food.
Once you’ve gotten to the point where everything on the table passes the “healthy” test for your philosophy, then you’ve won the race.
You’re at the end.
It doesn’t matter what the kids choose to eat or not eat, because every choice makes you happy.
Then they can be picky AND healthy at the same time!
Images from GraphicStock. Used with permission.