You know what else can be tricky? Getting your kids to eat. I'd say getting your kids to eat healthy food, but sometimes it's just getting them to eat ANYTHING. Human nature tells us that everyone is unique,and therefore, I can't give you a straightforward answer on how to get picky eaters to eat better. So what I'm going to do instead is suggest a few strategies that I've found helpful, and hopefully one or more of them can work for you and your picky eater.
My friends find it hard to believe, but I do have immense experience with picky eaters. My youngest, my only son, who has had me wrapped around his perfect little fingers since he was born, is one of the pickiest kids I know. He wasn't as a baby. He would eat anything I could puree and give him, including things like black beans, spinach, lentils, papaya, quinoa, turkey, leeks, salmon...I mean everything. But as a tot, he put his foot down. He became a vegetarian of his own design. No meat. No eggs. Very few vegetables would pass the test. And a few select fruits. Basically, he was a carbivore. Or a starchavore. He would eat rice, yogurt, some cheeses, blueberries, apples, bananas, edamame, corn, broccoli, cereal, oatmeal, and breads. Oh, and french fries and sweets of (almost) all kinds. It killed me. I brought up my concerns with my pediatrician, and she reassured me that he was perfectly healthy, would not die of malnutrition, and still was eating a better diet than most 2-year-olds she knew. As she put it, "Would you rather he pick at a few stalks of broccoli and some yogurt or have him slam back fake chicken nuggets?" Honestly, sometimes, I wished it was the nuggets. At least then, when we went out to eat with friends or family, I wouldn't have to pull a menu contortion that left both our servers and our tablemates dizzy. The easiest place for me to eat with him was at Japanese restaurants, where he would happily feast on edamame, steamed rice, and red bean ice cream, sometimes gnawing on a piece of sweet potato tempura. Oh, and did I mention that he's a gagger? So if I persuaded (forced) him to take a bite of something not his norm, we would be subjected to glassy eyed choking and gonna-puke-type noises. I felt frustrated with having a kid that didn't like mac and cheese or pizza or corndogs or nuggets...and those weren't even things I usually served, or wanted to serve, but I was mad because I felt like those should be "given"s, and even they didn't work.
Trust me, I've been there. It's been a long few years. Is he a great eater now? Far from it. But we've come a long way. His list of approved (and even loved) vegetables now includes things like Swiss chard, snap peas, carrots, jicama, and zucchini. He's eating strawberries and melons, but still not raspberries or any kind of citrus. Pasta in a few different forms is acceptable, although he's not okay with sauces. He will eat chicken readily, and will willingly take a few bites of pork, fish, and beef. Without the gagging! I never thought I'd be so proud of something so menial. But I totally am.
So, here are a few ideas to try with your picky eaters. They're by no means the be-all-end-all of how to get kids to eat whatever you want them to, and if you find something like that, LET ME KNOW!!!!! They're just some helpful strategies, tips, and reminder that might help you along the long road of feeding a picky eater. I could practically go on forever on kids and food, because it's a passion of mine, but I'm going to limit myself to a dozen quick tips.
1. Walk the Walk
Let's face it, our kids learn to eat from us. This shows up in so many facets and microparts of the picky eating conversation, but when it comes right down to it, if you avoid something, your kid probably won't eat it. Don't ask your kids to do something you wouldn't do (with the exception of something you avoid due to an allergy or religious belief). For example, I am not a fan of eggs, and I know that's crazy, but I can't get past them. They just don't taste good to me. But I cook eggs for my family, and find ways to get them excited about them, and occasionally suck it up and eat them myself without gagging and causing a scene. Because eggs are good for us, and there are about a million different ways to use them. Be an example of how you want your kids to address food. Are you constantly on "diets" or "watching what you eat" and not eating regular meals, or a slave to the drive-through line and delivery vans? What makes you think that your kids will be any different? As a very famous person once said, be the change you wish to see in the world. Which brings me to the next point...
2. Put a Ban on Hate
I don't let my kids say they "hate" a food. And I try not to say it myself. I tell them that they just haven't found the right way for them to like it yet. Like I said, I can't get myself to eat eggs scrambled or hardboiled or sunny-side-up...but I love them in baked goods or in French toast, and a friend of mine makes a broccoli quiche that is to die for. So I know that I don't hate eggs. You can serve the same food in an infinite number of ways, and while it might feel like a lot of work at the time, once you find that way that they tolerate it, it will get easier and easier to incorporate it into your regular food routine.
3. Stress Less
You might have come across this before in parenting, but the more stressed out you become about something, the less likely the kids are to comply with what you want to happen. Same goes regarding food. If you make it a big deal, and a nightly struggle, it's probably not going to happen. Lay your ground rules, stick to them, and let it be. For my family, I made a chart. If Mr. Picky ate a "new food" (it didn't have to be really new, just something he wouldn't normally eat), he'd get a stamp on his chart. 5 stamps got him a Hot Wheels car. No eating the foods, no stamp, no stamps, no reward. End of story. A kid who doesn't eat at dinner will be hungry at breakfast...they're not going to starve overnight. Don't get stuck in a power struggle over food, or other stuff, for that matter. Once you're engaged in the battle, you've lost the power.
4. Let Them Eat Cake
Did you read my post about beets? I'm not a huge fan of beets, but boy, throw them in brownies or muffins and I will beet it until my heart's content. With veggies in particular, this is a tactic that I've found very successful. Muffins are my gateway drug, so to speak. Zucchini, beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes...all great for sweet baked goods. And once your kids are used to the flavor in those muffins, they will transition to being more accepting to those veggies in other forms. Cutting stuff into fries or battering it are alternative kid-friendly ways to introduce things. Just do me a favor...don't "sneak" the foods in. That crap drives me up a wall. It's okay to let them taste it before you tell them what's in it, but don't hide the fact that something is in there. Be open with them, and let them know that it's okay to eat parsnips or whatever you put in.
5. Get All DIY Up in Here
If you can, grow something with your kids. Or, at the very least, let them cook with you. It's amazing how much more willing they are to try something once they've had a hand in it. My garden is what got Mr. Picky to eat carrots. For a while, we joked that he was an extreme localvore, because he would only eat carrots pulled freshly from our garden. Now he's expanded to carrots from many sources, but he'll still admit that the ones from our garden are his favorites. My kids will munch straight from the plants around here...tomatoes, chives, mint, peas, beans...because they feel connected to it. My middle child helped me cook trout last night, and she had 2 huge helpings. She also takes great pride in being the pickled dilly bean maker around here. When they're involved, kids feel pride and they have a vested interest in how the food is received.
6. Do Your Homework
My kids would make awesome Jepoardy contestants. They know more random facts than most adults I know. Nothing makes them happier than finding out an interesting tidbit or hearing about a food's "backstory". Find something interesting to tell them about a food, and they will instantly have a new way to connect to it. For example, pomegranates have an interesting lore in Greek mythology, where they became known as the "fruit of the dead" after Hades used pomegranate seeds to trick Persephone. It doesn't have to be that complicated of a tale. Something like, "Mommy didn't like artichokes until she met Daddy", or "I remember eating raspberries off of the bushes in my grandma's yard" can fit the bill just as well. But a few "fun facts" about what they're eating may just open the closed door a few more cracks.
7. Use Your Resources Wisely
The power of the internet is amazing. One of my greatest resources is a good search engine. Go ahead, Google "beet brownie recipe" or "chicken with chocolate sauce" or "eggplant recipes", whatever you are interested in serving. Odds are, you'll find a recipe, and it's pretty likely that that recipe will be rated and/or have comments about it from people that have tried it, and you'll know if it's a good one or a bomb-in-waiting. There are some fantastic kid-related recipe sites out there. Weelicious is one of my favorites, and the girls love watching videos of recipes from Spatulatta. Allrecipes is simple to use, has an easy-to understand format, and great feedback on each recipe. The other thing I like to do is check cookbooks out from the library. I can test the recipes without spending any money on the books, and we can try all different kinds of cuisines.
8. All Hands On Deck
I know that it's not always possible, but when you can, eat as a family. Take the time and enjoy the experience of sharing a meal. Nourishment isn't just about the food that you put into your body, it's about the bigger picture. There's a book that I just read that I would highly, highly recommend to parents called French Kids Eat Everything (again, try the library!), and the author talks a lot about how the French regard meals as an experience rather than something to check off your list. Enjoy each others' company in the company of food. Make it something special brought to every day. Work together to make it, enjoy it, and clean it up. You'd be surprised what a difference it can make.
9. Quality Check
It's a basic food philosophy that I try to follow: eat good food. Real food. Processed food uses chemicals and such to trick your body into reacting as if it tastes a flavor that isn't naturally there. Enough of that, and your taste buds get used to being tricked instead of really tasting. If you switch to more real, unprocessed foods, you'll find that after a while, you actually get to taste more. Kids have more taste buds than adults, so for them, the difference is even more so. Buy fresh and local when you can. Food straight from the farm just tastes better, because it hasn't been shuffled around or picked early. Change your mindset to "quality over quantity".
10. Take the Show on the Road
Explore the world through the scope of food. My kids love searching through our local Asian marketplace for new things to try, even if we don't know exactly what we're getting because we can't read the package. The other week, we almost got fooled by what looked like the most delicious glazed pastry that actually contained crab. Go to local farmers markets and sample the goods. When you're actually travelling, do a little pre-trip research and indulge in some local specialties. We're heading to St. Louis in a few weeks, and you can bet that gooey butter cake, Gus's pretzels, fried ravioli, and Ted Drewes frozen custard is on our radar. This is another way the internet makes life awesome. Search "local food hotspots ______" for the place you're heading. You can find some real gems. This also ties in with giving food a backstory. Everyone everywhere has to eat, but there are so many different way that they do it!
11. Make the Connection
Besides growing your own food, searching out local farms and food businesses can be a great resource to have in your arsenal. Let kids see where food comes from, how it's made. Connect with the people who are passionate about food, like the farmers or chefs or people who make goods for the markets. Take them shopping with you and let them pick the food, hold it, sniff it, feel it. Sample it, if you can. The more kids feel connected to the food you give them, the more they'll have an open mind towards it. Offer them as many connecting points as you can.
12. Get Excited
I have to admit that I lucked out with having only 1 in 3 kids deal with picky eating habits. But I think that part of why that is is because I get so excited about food, and my kids pick up on that. Cooking's not a burden for me, it's a pleasure. I love trying new foods and restaurants. I can walk through a produce section like other people walk through an art museum filled with Van Goghs and Renoirs and Picassos. Food is an amazing thing. It can bring people together. It can change the way your body looks and feels. Wars have been fought over matters of food and land on which to grow it. It's in our everyday lives, and that, to me, means that everyday we have changes for something special. Let yourself get a little carried away with it...it's okay. If your kids see you enjoying something, they'll want to be a part of that.
Okay, so hopefully you found something in there that you can relate to or that works in your world. No two families are exactly the same, and no two kids either. Try one of these, or a few, or something else that makes sense to you, and I can almost guarantee that your kid won't go to college eating only french fries. (And if they do, I'm pretty sure you could find a TLC reality show to feature them.)
Oh, and one last thing: don't let them hear you call them picky. Ever hear of self-fulfilling prophecies? 'Nuff said.
Good luck, and feel free to share your triumphs and failures here at From Scratch!