More than you can chew: Practical tips for parents of picky eaters

Illustration: Matt Pamer Illustration: Matt Pamer

I was stewing—not something on the stovetop, but because of the article I was reading. The title, “Getting Your Kids to eat (or at Least Try) Everything,” promised so much. The content provided so little.

The author’s solution to getting kids to try new things was to do what he, a cook-book writer and cooking columnist, did. Yep, feed them the exotic foods you’re making while doing research for your paying job, and you’ll be just fine. Oh, and make sure you start the process the instant the tykes can gum down solids, or you’re out of luck.

A praiseworthy pursuit, but not practical. For most of us, getting kids to eat the food we enjoy is difficult. My 3- and nearly 5-year-old make it their nightly mission to overthrow me as family culinary director. They proclaim their right to “pick the dinner.” They claim they aren’t hungry. They refuse to eat. They even offer helpful prep suggestions—the other night when I told my oldest I was making pot roast, she suggested we turn it into “chicken pot roast pie.”

I admit this is my fault. While these days I feed the girls what my wife and I eat, in their younger years I fell prey to the ease of feeding them first and later making adult dinner.

But I can’t go back in time. I long ago started this pot roast, and now I’ve got to turn it into chicken pot roast pie.

I turned to UVA nutritionist and children’s health specialist Angie Hasemann for suggestions. How do I get my picky eaters to pick up forkfuls? Here are a few of her best tips.

Show, don’t tell. Hasemann said the most powerful thing you can do for your children’s diet is to be a role model. If they see you enjoying a big salad, they’re more likely to down a plate of romaine themselves. “Kids do an awful job of doing what we say, but they do a great job of doing what we do,” Hasemann said.

Avoid the power struggle. The dinner table is the wrong place to take a hard line. Instead of insisting your kids finish what’s on their plate, set baseline rules about trying new things and be consistent in how you enforce them. In the heat of the moment, make it seem like it’s not that big a deal; your kids will be more likely to feed off their meal than feed off your frustration.

Be persistent. There’s no magic number of times children should try a new food, but keep at it even if they don’t take to it like cheese to macaroni on first bite. “I tell kids those little bumps on their tongues are taste buds, and they change regularly,” Hasemann said. The way we experience food is subject to mood, time of day, and hunger level, so give your little guy or gal plenty of chances to decide once and for all parsnips are yucky.

Serve new foods first. “We eat fastest when we start a meal,” Hasemann said. If your kids sit down and quickly fill up on chicken nuggets, they’ll be less interested in their broccolini. Encourage them to start on their veggies, and if that fails, try coursing out your meals.

Involve kids in prep. Haseman said if you want your kids to try something new, have them help make it. They’ll be less likely to throw out the Y-word if they have some pride in the dish on the table.

Ditch the junk. A lot of kids think of “snacks” as being more fun than “meals,” because snack time means junk food time. Hasemann said some nutritionists advocate serving only foods you’d find at meals for snacks so there’s less of a perceived difference. Whatever you serve for snack, keep it small (snacks should be the size of one hand, meals should be equal to both hands together) so your kids come to the table hungry—the best state for trying new grub.

Have fun with it. Hasemann doesn’t talk to kids about calories and nutrition, she tells them what good foods can do for them. The old spinach-makes-Popeye-strong thing might be played out, but what kid wouldn’t want laser vision from carrots? “One parent told me she tells a story about how a green monster is coming to eat all her kids’ peas,” Hasemann said. “Then when she turns away, the kids eat their peas. It makes it fun and not stressful for anyone, and that’s great.”

Reward carefully. Rewards “shouldn’t cost money, and they shouldn’t be food,” Hasemann said. Choose a privilege-based reward for trying new vittles, like getting to sit at the head of the table, and never punish kids for passing.

If the Gibbs household is any indication, none of these tips are a quick fix, but we’ve improved. In the meantime, does anyone have a good recipe for chicken pot roast pie?

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