Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 2

Picky Eaters, Part 2

Welcome back to the kitchen. Last month, we enjoyed a lengthy discussion about picky eaters, and the roots of restrictive eating. This month, we’ll start learning how to handle picky eaters. We’ll begin with one of the most brutal picky eaters out there: 

The Nightly Battle (Young Child Version)

Let’s review a few things we know about young children and food:

  • They have more taste buds, and therefore taste things more acutely than we do.
  • They don’t have the “catalog” of food experiences to draw from, making new foods a risky bet.
  • They often love and crave routine, in part because their limited experiences don’t give them much reassurance that Everything Will Be Okay Even If It’s Not The Usual Routine.

Tip 1: Figure Out The Patterns

Flavor-sensitive kids tend to have one flavor that they prefer above all else; for some, it’s sweetness, some like it salty, and my mother will tell you that as a child I would drink pickle juice out of the jar for a love of all things sour. Bitter, earthy flavors are less popular when kids are young because they’re more intense and multilayered.

Pay close attention to the things your child loves, and slowly spread those flavors to less familiar foods. Does your child have a sweet tooth? Try a fruit-based or jam-based salad dressing. For meats, head BBQ – whether St. Louis, Kansas or Korean style, BBQ has cornered the market on sweet meats. For salt lovers, try pickled salads; for kids who hate anything sour, temper sour dishes with dairy products.

The idea here is slow, consistent growth that uses your child’s preferred flavor as a “scaffolding” to new experiences.

Tip 2: Don’t Give Up!

The highly scientific study of Dane’s Observations Over The Years has proved that kids often need to be presented with a food several times before tasting it. Remember that our experiences and “context catalogs” are both visual and taste-based. Unless a food makes a kid visibly ill (and I count gagging as visible illness, since the experience of gagging or choking on something is often enough to create a lifelong aversion), I keep going until the kid is old enough to tell me why they don’t like it. Not every day, or even every week. A few times per year is enough.

Have you ever heard of the “ice cube tray” method? It’s a really fun way to introduce young kids to new foods. Simply chop and serve a variety of foods, each in its own little compartment (an ice cube tray works perfectly for this). You can go with a theme, like “deconstructed salad” with lots of greens and veggies to try, or foods with all the same color. You can mix in some familiar treats with the new foods – but if this means your kid will just eat the treats and leave the rest, you might want to consider going all the way and just keeping it to new foods.

Don’t feel like you have to put 12 different foods into the tray – 3-4 new foods, mixed among each other will work just fine (and will cover your “introduce multiple times” bases!).

Tip 3: Give Up (sometimes)

Like you, your kids deserve a night off once in awhile. The trick? Make it a night where everybody gets what he or she wants. So your child wants the most nuclear-orange, preservative-enhanced boxed macaroni & cheese in the store? Then you get to have buttered bread with cinnamon sugar, or an entire bowl of cherries, or whatever your whims dictate. Make it clear that this is a special night for everyone. Do it as often as you’re comfortable doing it – for the most patient among us, it’ll be once a year, but for the rest of us – we’ll be doing it every Friday, right along with you. Because picky kids are tough, and we’ve got your back.

Next month, we’ll be back to talk about teenagers and older kids, and how vocabulary exercises can increase the dinner table peace. (No, seriously!)

[Photo credit: (cc) Michael Stern]


Dane Kuttler

Dane writes poems and cooks food in Northampton, MA. When she isn’t engaged in one of her semiannual 30-poems-in-30-days sprints, she teaches people how to feed themselves tasty things at the Julia Poppins School of Cooking. Julia Poppins School of Cooking promotes food literacy through fun, confidence-building, hands-on cooking lessons in the Northampton area.



One Comment on “Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 2

  1. There is a lot of benefit in substituting ” More for me!” for “You have to eat that!”. Letting them see you enjoying the food in question goes a lot farther than trying to make them eat it.

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