Picky eating is a natural defense mechanism that (almost) all kids have. It can quickly become a habit though, unintentionally reinforced by parents and other adults, and most certainly aided by every “kids menu” in America. Run amok, picky eating will make meal-times extremely difficult, limit your child’s ability to thrive, and produce teens who (still) subsist on nuggets and fries.
Most parents want their kids to be well-rounded eaters. They want them to eat real food and be healthy. But we’re not supported in our efforts by our culture. Happy Meals, kids menus, lunch-in-a-box and easy, processed choices lure kids and parents at every turn. It’s simply a reality of modern parenting today: it now takes committed effort to raise kids to eat a well- balanced variety of real foods.
There are many great strategies to turn picky-eating around, and I’m going to share the one that works for us. This is best for the under 10 set. It’s the old-fashioned sticker chart, and I’m telling you, it WORKS! Take last night for example. I grilled flank steak in a grill pan, steamed some cauliflower and made “Crash-hot” potatoes (known as Mack Potatoes in our house due to our son Mack’s adoration of the crispy-lovelies). Easy stuff. I defrosted a little cup of pesto-like salsa verde I had in the freezer to dress up my steak. Add a little pizazz. I love flavor. I had no intention of giving it to the kids, but then it occurred to me that Julia loves herbs, so why not an herby sauce?
“Would you like to try this herb sauce Julia?”
“Hmm, No thanks”
“Are you sure? You would get a sticker for it”
Both kids: “Ok, I’ll try it!”
Now, I don’t want to misrepresent this as the norm, but both kids tried it, loved it, and declared it the “best sauce ever”. I then sold them on lunch the next day in their lunch box thermos as pasta with “herb sauce” and leftover steak. A win-win for me: introduce them to a new(ish) dish, use leftovers, and break from the same old packed lunch.
The biggest and literally life changing mindset shift you can make about how kids eat is this: assume that your kids can and will eat all foods. Of course they will have personal preferences, this is normal. But they are capable of eating and liking all kinds of foods: olives, zesty sauces, blue cheese, you name it. In other words, don’t forget to offer them the “herb sauce”. You will be rewarded with well-rounded eaters.
Our fancy sticker chart:
Here’s what helps with the sticker chart. Don’t make it an all or nothing. The point is to encourage them to try things, not to pressure them to like it. So, the kids get 1 sticker for trying a food, 2 for eating most of it and 4 if they eat most, like it and would eat it again without complaining (this is key so they don’t fake their “liking” to get stickers!). They also get 4 stickers for trying a new dish at a restaurant (there’s another great strategy: abandon kids’ menus. Lie to them if you have to: “oh well, looks like they don’t have a kids menu!)” It sounds like a complicated system but it’s all visually laid out on the chart and the kids get it immediately. Obviously, the stickers need to add up to something unless you have a magic kid who is motivated by sticker collection alone. We have certain milestones, things like “pick a new movie” at 20 stickers, “have a sleepover” at 80 stickers, etc. My kids count their stickers once every week or so, but we don’t “use” the chart every night. You certainly could, especially to start with. It also serves as a reminder to me to try new dishes and pick up new produce at the grocery store.
For more in-depth strategies, including how to move away from hard-core picky eating, my favorite book is “French Kids Eat Everything”. This book is from a North-American mom who got an immersive food education when their family lived in France for a year. She has “been there” with the picky eating, and her honest voice comes through beautifully in her writing. This book is a terrific resource and great support for any parent dedicated to raising kids to eat a variety of real food.