Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 3

Picky Eaters, Part 3

Welcome back to the kitchen. In June, we enjoyed a lengthy discussion about picky eaters, and the roots of restrictive eating. July saw us tackle the task of getting young picky eaters to broaden their horizons. This month, we’re going to talk about older youth and young adults, and how NOT to turn dinnertime into a battlefield of exasperation.

But first, a review of things we know about older youth and food:

  1. By the time people reach the age of 9 or 10, they’ve begun to develop the “catalog” of experiences and tastes that we talked about in the earlier articles. They may be able to identify preferences for sweet foods over salty ones, or have a list of favorite foods.
  2. Their taste buds are still changing, as they will continue to do into adulthood. They may not taste things as strongly as they did when they were younger. It can help kids to know this, especially if they’re being asked to try something they remember disliking as a youngster.
  3. They are old enough to prepare simple meals for themselves, or even the family. That’s helpful, as we’ll see later on.

Strategy 1: Vocabulary Lessons Help Identify Patterns

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. Crunchy. Slimy. Poky. Umami. Earthy. Nutty. Rich. These words are so incredibly crucial to developing a sense of what you like and dislike about food. If your kids aren’t familiar with these concepts, it can help to make a game or lesson out of it.

Set out five foods that your kids will eat – single ingredient foods, like slices of fruit, a piece of cheese, some nuts, or a piece of lunch meat – and have everyone build a common list of words to describe these different tastes. Be sure to include words that define both taste and texture, as it’s common for picky eaters to object to one or the other with any particular food.

You may find that your family creates its own words to describe how things tastes, and this is great! I’ve had families use words like “spiky-neutral” “chalky in a good way” or “coaty,” which meant nothing to me, but were helpful for them when it came time to describe foods.

And once you’ve settled on the words you use…

Strategy 2: Tell Me Why

Lots of people suggest making youth take a “no-thank-you” bite, or “three bites” or “finish your plate,” as a way to get them to try new foods. Personally, I think there’s a better way. When I work with families, I say this:

“Here’s the deal: you don’t have to eat anything you don’t like – but! – you have to be able to tell me what’s wrong with it. Use your texture and flavor words. If you can’t explain why you don’t like it, you need to keep tasting it until you figure it out.”

I love this because it gets a conversation going, instead of shutting one down. “Ewww, that is so bitter and salty,” goes a lot farther than “gross.” It can also ease the hurt feelings of a parent who’s worked hard to put dinner on the table!

Once youth find it easier to talk about food, they may begin to identify – or you may begin to point out to them – the patterns in how they eat. Does your picky eater love sweet things, but finds that sour foods, like vinaigrettes and lemons, hurt their sensitive cheeks and tongue? Do you have a kid who absolutely loves fat and hates lean meat? (As a child, I’d have rather chewed on a piece of fat or gristle for hours than eat a single piece of chicken breast.)

Noticing these patterns can help you prepare foods that are more appetizing to your whole family – without feeling like a short-order cook.

Strategy 3: Make It Your Own

I was once in a class for parent educators where the trainer suggested that kids who are “disrespectful” at dinnertime should be asked to make dinner for the family, and have the parents reject the kids’ food with exaggerated complaints and sound effects.

Do not do this.

In fact, do the opposite of this. If your kids are keen on it, have them make dinner and then praise the everliving stuffing out of it. Talk specifically about the food – use every vocab word you can think of. It’s okay to admit that something is “a little salty for me,” or to ask a child to “tell me about your choice to not use any salad dressing?” But overall, they should be thrilled with making dinner for the family.

In an alternate variation, have them make the yuckiest foods they can imagine – eggplant, zucchini and cabbage would’ve been my childhood picks – and challenge them to come up with a sauce that makes anything delicious (something peanut butter or sour cream based has real potential here).

As far as alternative dinners go, I think it’s okay to have a backup option handy, especially if you’re serving something you know your kids don’t like. The trick is to not make it a treat. The kid who’s tried baked fish several times – really given it a go – and still hates it shouldn’t be offered chicken nuggets, but there’s nothing wrong with a simple, boring option like a sandwich or bowl of plain noodles.

The key here is that you shouldn’t make it. You, dear parents, are not short-order cooks at home, and an alternative meal should either be prepared by the youth, or take you no more than a few minutes and one extra dish to prepare.

Have questions for Dane about a picky eater in your life? Post in the comment field below!

[Photo credit: (cc) USDA]



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.



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