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Rules for Turning Picky Eaters into Adventurous Eaters

An overwhelmed mom posted the following plea on a mom’s group recently:

My son has a very limited list of foods that he will eat, and all 3 of my kids like very different things. I am *so* tired of making 4 slightly different variations of each meal, every day (1 set for me and my husband, and 3 others for the kids). I know everyone says to make ONE MEAL for everyone, but I’m afraid my kids would starve 🙂

I need some inspiration. Any ideas?

Of course I have ideas for you, my fellow mom! Allow me to offer some suggestions!

But first, and I hate to say this, but you are enabling the picky behavior as long as you continue to make separate meals for each child. You didn’t say how old your kids are, but it’s never too early or too late to create new habits.

11 Trials to Accept a New Food

Remember that it may take 11 or more times of trying a food to develop a liking for it, but if it never gets into your mouth then the taste will never be acquired. It is up to us as parents to insist on introducing foods again and again in many incarnations to foster accepting — and even adventurous — eaters.

In our household, we have certain rules that we stick to when it comes to mealtimes:

Respect the cook. 1. Regardless of if we like the food or not, we must appreciate that someone took the time and effort to make it. I always put this at the top of the list because once this concept is accepted, everything else comes more easily. This is just basic manners, really.

One Meal. 2. Everyone gets more or less the same meal (a.k.a., Mom is not a short-order cook to be taken for granted). We call it “family-style” dining for a reason.

Taste Everything. 3. Every child must try everything on his/her plate and eat and swallow at least 3 bites of each item before rejecting it. Just like you don’t judge a book by its cover, it is not acceptable to reject a food based on a glance.

The 3-bite Rule 4. If, and only if, after eating 3 real bites of everything the child still doesn’t like anything served, then they may have a minimal separate meal that is easy for mom or dad to throw on the table (we used to keep a stash frozen burritos, Annie’s microwave mac and cheese packets, vacuum-sealed packets of lentils and spinach dal and other healthier convenience foods for just this purpose). It should not be the kid’s favorite meal, but it should be something small that you know they will eat so you can put the starving-to-death fears to rest.

This option will fade with time as the kids become better eaters but might be necessary more at the beginning when there is a lot of resistance to change. If they are still hungry at the table they are always welcome to eat the “rejected” family dinner.

#4 gives you as a parent a hard-and-fast “rule” to follow but also an incentive for the child: something else is available for those who follow this rule and at least give the new foods a good shot. Even if they remember trying asparagus before, for example, remind them that it may have been cooked differently that time and they need to try a food every time it appears on the table, weather or not they remember liking or disliking it before.

Even after all of these efforts, we shouldn’t forget that not everyone will like everything and even “good” eaters have specific dislikes (for me, a little cilantro will ruin an entire meal), so it’s good to have some room for flexibility without losing ground.

Make Deals.

If a child will not take the requisite 3 bites, consider offering bargains: 2 bites of green beans for 4 bites of squash, etc. We believe that strong negotiation skills can take you far in life because a good negotiator can find a win-win outcome in any situation so that everyone leaves happy; as such, we welcome any chance to teach and hone the art of bargaining. As parents, we’re willing to give a little to get a little, too, and model the desired behavior.

If a child still refuses to make it far enough to deserve an alternate meal, they are allowed to be finished with dinner but they do not get dessert or snack foods.

Dessert. 5. Those who do eat enough of a healthy dinner are eligible for dessert. A child may be finished with eating, but unless they eat what the parent deems to be enough of healthy foods they will not get dessert.

Which leads to a sub-rule we’ll call 5a. Two Piles. If the parent wants the child to eat more of his plate in order to qualify for dessert, you can employ the Two Piles method: one side (the parent or the child) divides the food into two piles on the plate and the other side gets to choose the one that must be eaten. The child learns to divide the food evenly or the parent might pick the pile containing all of the vegetables rather than the one with only rice. Alternatively, the parent divvies out the piles so that the child is left with two equal choices that both contain a variety of the foods served. Eating the entire chosen pile will qualify the child for dessert.

Desserts in our house might be fruit popcicles, sorbet, dairy ice cream or coconut milk ice cream in cones, small cookies, or other treats that may or may not be as healthy as dinner was. Desserts are never candy, and chocolate is reserved as a reward for other types of behavior modification efforts with our kids, but otherwise eating sweets on top of a stomach full of healthy food is a good way to mitigate or avoid a detrimental spike in blood sugar.

After a big meal is the best time for eating something sweet as the sugar will get diluted and digested along with all of the other foods; eating sweets on an empty stomach, on the other hand, sends a shot of glucose right to the blood stream to wreak pancreatic havoc with shooting glycemic levels.

Letting children select special desserts at the grocery store to earn by eating their dinner can be highly motivating for little ones. In shrink-speak, desserts offer an immediate reward and reinforcement for practicing desired behaviors. Kind of like the dog treat Fido gets if he heels during his puppy-training class. Same concept. Treats, kind words, and affectionate touches have been proven to work with kids as well as puppies.

Late-Night Munchies

While we recognize that a child’s stomach is only as big as his or her fist and she may need to eat again after an active day or during growing periods no matter how much was eaten (or not) at supper, we limit post-prandial options to either a banana or cold cereal; once dinner is done the kitchen is closed for cooking.

If you can weather the inevitable turbulence that will come from taking charge and turning the tide in your household, you will finally reap your rewards with kids who will accept and enjoy a wide range of foods and be able to find something to eat on almost any plate. Most importantly, you’ll end up with kids willing to try new foods (and, as an extension, new activities, experiences, friends, etc.) when they appear in life because they have enough experience to know they just might like something new.

Though you may want to start with mild, inoffensive foods, don’t write off strong flavors and spices, either. My kids love Indian, Mexican, Chinese and other Asian foods as well as roasted green chiles, Siracha sauce, Cajun spice mixes, and Chinese spicy mustard.

It’s hard to offer a go-to meal for your family of picky eaters simply because we don’t know where they are to start, but here is a super quick, easy, healthy, mild, and delicious recipe that you can start with by taking the technique and substituting in vegetables that you already know your kids will eat (carrots? peas? broccoli?) and including some each time that may be new to them (squash? mushrooms?).

This path of reshaping picky eaters takes patience and persistance, but you — and they — will enjoy the payoffs for the rest of their lives. The enjoyment of food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. 🙂

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