Tips, Tricks, & Recipes for Picky Eaters

winged heart bento box by gameme on flickr

winged heart bento box by gameme on flickr

Jasper will eat almost anything — he’ll at least try it. Magnolia, on the other hand — who has an absolutely iron-clad will — will not. She’s not particularly interested in or motivated by food, and there are very few things (save for the above-reproach PB&J), that she greets with enthusiasm. In fact, mealtime often begins with her coming to the table and practically bursting into tears when she sees what’s being served — “oh, not that again! You know I don’t like it!”

Thus the dinner table becomes a battlefield. Her will against mine. I don’t offer to hop up and make her something else, but I do invest a lot of time and energy in trying to get her to eat what’s on the plate in front of her. I bribe, cajole, encourage, and threaten. I become exasperated. It’s exhausting.

Honestly, it annoys me that her food repertoire is so tiny. Potatoes? Hates them. Avocado? Finds it disgusting. Tomato sauce on anything other than pizza? Not happening. It’s not that I haven’t tried serving these and many other things repeatedly — I have. But we’re not making the progress I’d like. And I’m tired of arguing. So I did a little research on tips, tricks, and recipes that can help a picky eater branch out — and also help a frustrated mom take mealtimes more in stride.

Here’s the best of what I found, and what I’m going to try.

Let it go! has a good article on Raising an Adventurous Eater. The first “rule” is the widely well-known “Don’t be a short-order cook.” I’m totally down with that, and I’m not. But the piece of this I found interesting, and that I’m going to try to take to heart, is that I have to let Magnolia‘s lack of interest in food GO sometimes. I’m not jumping up to make a PB&J at dinnertime, but I do spend way too much time trying to coax her. There’s a quote in the piece from the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Children will not become ill or suffer permanently if they refuse a meal or two, but parents sometimes act at though youngsters might shrivel up and die.”

OK, you don’t want to eat, don’t. And I’ll try to remember not to belabor the point.

The article also had a veggie recipe I’d like to try — a way to get them to eat a vegetable that isn’t just something green steamed on the side. It’s Smashed Peas with Rice and it involves those things plus basil and grated Parmesan cheese — seems like a good new option to work into the weekly menu. Or to put out with pita chips or crackers before a meal begins, instead of the usual boring old sliced raw carrots I put out for them to munch on.

Keep serving up the foods they won’t touch. Again and again. And then again.

CafeMom’s The Stir also has a piece on Raising an Adventurous Eater — in addition to instructing moms not to shy away from spices when cooking for kids (and I am totally guilty of this), it also reminds us to keep trying those foods that kids shun. A child might have to be introduced to a food up to 15 times before she’ll give it a try! (Although I’m guessing with Magnolia that number is probably even higher….) Still, I have to put aside how much it bums me out when the dinner begins in tears and complaints and just KEEP AT IT with the potatoes and avocado.

Work in healthy foods whenever you can — it doesn’t have to be at dinnertime.

An article on gave me this tip: focus on snacks instead of worrying about mealtime. Make the snacks healthy, whole foods, and you’ll know your picky eater is getting good stuff in her diet even if it’s not routinely happening at mealtime.

Give up the idea that they should clean their plates — focus instead on a few bites of this and a few bites of that.

Babble‘s take on the issue involves Picky-Eater Mind Games since, after all, this comes down to control. And I definitely do see that employing a little reverse psych on Magnolia sometimes helps — don’t eat that! No, don’t do it! Nooo! (Willful child inserts food in mouth.) There are a few tactics in the Babble article worth trying — although some of them seem like a LOT of verbal effort, which I’d like to cut back on rather than amp up at the dinner table — but here are the two that spoke to me.

You have to let your food take turns! After a bite of chicken, broccoli gets a turn and then rice, too. It seems like this is a playground and classroom rule the kids might understand and allow to be translated to the foods on their plate. No fair skipping the asparagus! He gets a turn, too. (OK, we’ll see on this one.)

Trying new foods is more important than clearing your plate. Magnolia is a slooooow eater. Even when it’s a meal she’s interested in, it can take her a while to get going, and even longer to eat it all (meanwhile, Jasper typically hoovers everything placed in front of him in about 3 minutes.) But focusing more on trying a little bit of everything — especially something new or that she’s resistant to — seems like a good strategy. Have at least a bite or two of everything, and then we can be done.

Bribery is a fact of life (at least for this mama.)

The Mayo Clinic has its own list of Tips for Picky Eaters, and confirms the “don’t force a meal or a snack” thing. Let your kid eat when they’re hungry and don’t push the issue if they aren’t. It may only serve to reinforce the power struggle over food.

They also say you shouldn’t bribe your kid with dessert as a reward — this teaches them that dessert is the best part of the meal, and may encourage them to have more of a sweet tooth. But let’s face it — dessert IS the best part of the meal. And this particular bribe will sometimes do the trick — I’m not giving it up entirely. Besides, dessert doesn’t have to mean chocolate cake or ice cream — yogurt or fruit as a bribe will often get the job done, too.

A twist on the buttered-pasta fall-back meal: Brown Butter Cauliflower Pasta

One Hungry Mama (love her) has a delicious-sounding pasta dish that I want to try out on my kids — it sounds like an easy way to work in a (non-green!) veggie. Pasta gets a break from the usual peas or broccoli by being tossed with buttery cauliflower, breadcrumbs, and Parmesan. Yum.

The baby bird trick.

This one is my own and, while it may sound a little wacky, it often works with Magnolia. It changes the power struggle into a game and usually results in getting a few bites of something into her mouth. “Hey, baby bird, are you hungry?,” I ask. She pretends to be a baby bird with its mouth hanging open — mama bird drops a bite of food in. We’re all one step closer to being done with dinner. Hallelujah.

Any tips or tricks that work for your picky eater? I’m listening!

(winged heart bento box by gameme on flickr)


6 Responses to “Tips, Tricks, & Recipes for Picky Eaters”

  1. 1 One Hungry Mama January 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

    This is a great round up! Super tips. And, of course, thank you also for including OHM! (The Hungry Baby is SUPER into cauliflower now–that pasta dish is saving us.)

  2. 2 Steph January 6, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Can she help in the kitchen? Sometimes when kids are involved in the process of making their own food, they’re more into eating it. I know I used to love making my own little version of things–like getting to bake mac n’ cheese or a pot pie in my own small pyrex dish, so I could “own” it as mine–rather than getting a serving out of the big family dish. Of course, this worked more with desserts (I was super into making my own mini apple pies, as you can imagine)…but I like your idea that wholesome desserts–like a yogurt parfait with fruit, or a whole-grain apple crisp–can “count” as real food, too.

  3. 3 Cay January 7, 2011 at 7:10 am

    We sometime play “the food game.” I call out an item of food (or drink), like “rice”, and the kids race to pop it into their mouths. They get caught up in the game and forget they’re eating something they don’t like.

    One of the all time best authors on food and eating is Ellyn Satter. She’s amazing, and so practical and no nonsense. Basically she says that it’s the parent’s responsibility to get healthy appetizing foods on the table at regular intervals. That’s it. After that it’s up to the kid. It’s their responsibility to decide what they will eat and how much. When you let go of trying to make them eat, and trusting that they know what their bodies eat, it’s SO much easier. Really, get one of her books out out of the library, it’ll change your life and your dinner table experience.

  4. 4 Melisa January 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    thanks, guys, for the comments and tips! Steph and Cay, definitely some good ideas for me to try out w/ M. — and One Hungry Mama, love your site and look forward to reading and seeing more recipes and tips as your baby grows!

  5. 5 NYC SingleMom March 6, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    i must admit, my daughter is either adventurous (e.g she likes brie and hummus) but wont eat sushi. When it comes to veggies, she will eat literally 1/2 green bean or whatever is put in front of her. I will admit my threat is that she will not get her monthly dessert of cupcakes.

    I really think kids have some aversion to the color green. My daughter has no issues with fruit but a green anything forget it.

    like the smashed peas and rice recipe.

  1. 1 iPad Reads of the Week - February 19 | NYC Single Mom Trackback on March 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm

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