I always swore there would be no picky eaters in THIS family!
Growing up, that was as close to a mortal sin as it gets (OK, not really, but really), so when I started dating a guy who was a picky eater and took him home to meet my parents, I was a little concerned. Fortunately, the meal was a meat and potatoes kind of meal, which was right down his alley! Things were going smoothly, and I was sitting there groaning in pleasure and savoring every bite of my mom’s homemade banana pudding, when I remembered that my boyfriend couldn’t STAND bananas–it’s a texture thing. I whipped my head around to see him slowly and methodically putting small bites of the pudding into his mouth while smirking at me. I quickly shoveled the rest of my own banana pudding into my mouth and then got up and started “clearing the table,” removing his bowl first, underneath my own bowl, and furtively scraping the rest of his pudding into the trashcan, reserving my grief over the waste for later.
Today I have 5 boys: Two I would classify as foodies–they will try ANYTHING and like most of it. One I would say is fairly “normal,” whatever that means, and two, it pains me to admit are picky eaters.
So how do kids that are raised in the same family, eating the same food, turn out so differently from each other? If I was a child psychologist I could probably/maybe answer that question, but since I’m not, I won’t even attempt it. The purpose of this post is to discuss WHAT to do about it.
I recognize now what I didn’t recognize in my pre-child days, that not every picky eater is a product of his parents’ “bad” parenting. I understand that there are more factors that go into the shaping of a person’s likes and dislikes. And if you have a child that you are taking to therapy to help him/her swallow more than 3 foods, please understand that I AM NOT directing this at you.
However, I think we can all admit that the vast majority of parents who have picky eaters, have simply given up because they don’t see it as a battle worth fighting.
You are depriving your child of much-needed nutrients
Even with the unusual child who might only like 3 things that are actually good for him, nobody gets all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals their body needs from 3 foods, no matter how healthful those 3 foods are
You are discouraging the spirit of adventure in your child
We should be encouraging our children to be willing to try many things (within moral, legal and safe boundaries), and that includes the food they eat. When we had a group of students from our church school go over to China a few years ago, one of the things they talked about excitedly when they came back was visiting the open-air market and trying literally anything they wanted on a stick–snake being the most popular choice. Everybody around them shuddered, but you could feel the admiration and even the envy of those listening to the adventures, and there were a few that regretted not being adventuresome while they had the chance.
The art of enjoying life is embracing differences, trying new things, and spending time with people from other cultures.
On a practical note, you don’t know where your child will live as an adult–their job might send them overseas to another country that doesn’t have chicken nuggets readily available. They might even turn down an incredible job opportunity, because they can’t face the diet changes they know would come with it.
You are depriving your child of a world of cultural exposure
This is somewhat related to the last point, but do you know that one of the few things that pretty much every culture has in common is that relationships and society revolve around food? Every culture has its “typical” dishes. When I was growing up in Spain, you could literally sit at a dinner table for 3 hours–appetizers, main course, fruit, and finally coffee with maybe a dessert, all the while talking non-stop.
When you come back from a foreign country, one of the most common questions you get from friends is “what kinds of foods did you eat?”
Over the years, we had many people come visit us in Spain. The people who enjoyed their visit the most and tended to make more friends, language barrier or not, were the people who didn’t turn up their noses at the food placed before them by the very hospitable Spanish hosts.
You are limiting the hospitality that will be offered to your child
I’m just being transparent here: When I know that you or your child is a super-picky eater, I am less inclined to invite you over. Having company is stressful enough without adding the stress of wondering if you are going to like what I make.
Before I go on, I would like to clarify that I am mainly speaking of children who are a little bit older–potty trained, 3-4 years old and above. Definitely expose your younger children to a wide variety of foods, but don’t expect the same level of obedience in eating it when they are younger.
So what do we do?
Here are a few tips you might try out with your picky eater.
- Be excited yourself about good-for-you food–talk about how extra yummy and crispy that yellow bell pepper strip is on this hot day (yes, this is one that worked on one of my boys, and yellow peppers are now one of his favorite vegetables)
- DO NOT talk about foods you don’t like. Just being honest here, I’ve never (despite still trying them periodically) been able to like raw carrots, but my 12-year old just found that out this year, and my other boys are quite oblivious as they daily consume large amounts of raw carrots.
- Do not deprive your child of a food just because you don’t like it. Back to the carrot illustration, for the first few years of parenthood, I hardly bought carrots, because I felt bad about making my children eat food I didn’t like. Then one day I realized I was actually making an assumption that they couldn’t possibly like carrots either. Most of my boys LOVE carrots, and I almost deprived them of a good nutritional source!
- Make them eat at least one bite of EVERYTHING you’ve prepared. Over the course of YEARS, some of my boys have come to at least tolerate if not like several foods that were a battle when they were younger, including salad, asparagus, and many other foods.
- Don’t ever allow them to say, “I don’t like . . .” but ESPECIALLY don’t allow them to turn up their nose at a food they haven’t even tried. (Oh, and don’t say “eewww” yourself about something that’s never crossed your lips!)
- Once you’ve convinced them to try something new and they have decided they like it after all, remind them about that the next time they are reluctant to try something, (“Remember when you thought you didn’t like yellow bell peppers, but then you tried it and now you love them? You should try this squash and see if that happens again!”).
- Get used to saying, “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to eat it.”
- APPLY steps 1-7 to YOURSELF and be a good example!
Does this guarantee that you will “cure” your child of being a picky eater? No. Teaching your child to be honest, does not guarantee that he won’t be a liar. But we still teach it, because a parent does what is best for their child, not just what works. However, what I can guarantee is that you will increase the chances that your child will be willing to try new things and eat things he doesn’t prefer in the name of adventure and even courtesy.
Fast forward 20 years (give or take) and that same boyfriend, now my husband, has eaten everything from pickled eel to goat head to snake, and yes, even banana pudding. Did he like it all? Absolutely not! Does he regret trying something even when he hated it? No! Does he like to tell people about it? You’d better believe it! And in the process, he discovered that he wasn’t as picky of an eater as he’d thought he was.
What are tips you have that have helped your children overcome their picky eating habits?