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Picky Eaters

Nevin Martell | September 6, 2017


Transforming from Demanding Diners to Eager Eaters

“I don’t like that,” my 4-year-old son says, as he scrunches his face in disgust and sets down his fork.

As if I didn’t already get the point, he grabs his blue plastic cup and drinks all his water in a single draught, as if he is trying to get the most disgusting taste out of his mouth.

Just what is causing such drama at dinner?

Chopped cherry tomatoes tossed a little balsamic vinegar and classic Italian spices. This simple salad is sweet, full of flavor and colorful, but it doesn’t pass his test.

“It’s basically like pizza without the crust,” I argue.

He perks up and for a moment I’m hopeful. Then he shoots back, “Why can’t I just have pizza for dinner?”

My shoulders slump. I want to hashtag my life #FatherhoodFail.

The next day, dreading his response, I asked my son, “Do you like it?”

He stared suspiciously at the bowl of penne in front of him. Though he didn’t know I had taken the cherry tomato salad, roasted it in the oven and blended it into the marinara sauce, he seemed to be able to instinctively divine that something was different about this dinner.

Tentatively, he speared a few of the pasta tubes with his fork. After examining them for a moment, he took a bite.

I held my breath, and then he smiled. “It’s good, Poppa.”

I beamed right back at him. I have a new hashtag for my life: #ParenthoodWin.

My son is by no means an outlier. Many kids gladly devour pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, buttered noodles and chicken fingers. It’s what I call the beige diet. On the other hand, meals can turn into a meltdown if a child doesn’t like what they’ve been served. Maybe they refuse to eat vegetables, they’re turned off by a texture, they don’t like the color of the food, the smell is unappealing or maybe it’s simply the fact that they’ve never seen it before. Sometimes the reason is impossible to divine, but the fact of the matter remains that you have to deal with a little person who despises the dinner you’ve served.

For many parents, these oftentimes-emotional confrontations can feel like a referendum on their abilities as a provider. Each bite untaken or spit out can be at turns frustrating, aggravating and demoralizing. Even more importantly, there’s concern for the child’s health. Are they getting enough nutrients? Will not eating enough hinder their physical, mental, psychological or emotional growth?

Picky Eaters What’s the Cause?

Take a deep breath. Take another one, you need it.

Picky eaters are a tough challenge, but a common one. Several studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of children aged 2 to 5 years old fall into this category. There are a number of reasons why junior might be flipping out over food.

  • Sometimes kids simply aren’t hungry, so parents are attempting to force them to eat something their bodies are telling them they don’t need.
  • Flavors that are perfectly acceptable to an adult may be abrasive on a child’s palate. It’s natural for little ones to have a predilection for sweeter foods and distaste for those with bitter notes, such as spinach, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
  • Your child may be seeking to wrestle control of the situation or away from you. Similarly, they could be attempting to determine their boundaries.
  • In limited instances, your child may have a medical condition, such as a food allergy or an irritable bowel syndrome, which makes them avoid eating. If they consistently complain of an upset stomach or itchiness, consult your pediatrician.

Working to transform your tyke from a demanding diner to an eager eater takes work, but it’s worth it.

Transforming Picky Eaters

By enlisting children to help you with age-appropriate kitchen tasks, you are giving them ownership of what they’re creating. As you teach them techniques and give them insights into the ingredients you’re using, they become more invested in the final product and are more likely to try it once it’s on the table.

Blend in

A blender is a key tool for overcoming eating issues. Use it to make smoothies packed with the sweet fruits kids naturally love, which will help disguise the additional nutritional elements, such as yogurt, spinach or kale. Blend a variety of leafy greens to be incorporated into marinara sauce or used as soup thickeners. You can even whip steamed sweet potatoes, which gives them a creamy consistency, so you can mix them into the cheese sauce for your next batch of macaroni and cheese.

Try and try again

Studies have shown that children need to taste a food up to 15 times before they can definitively determine if they like it or not. It’s good to try foods in different forms. For example, your child might not like soft roasted carrots, but they may enjoy crispy raw carrots. Though you need to be persistent, wait a few days before you reintroduce a previously rejected ingredient to give their taste buds a break.

Play with your food

Incorporating an element of whimsy into mealtimes can distract children, deter meltdowns and make it an event they happily anticipate. Use cookie cutters to make otherwise quotidian components into fanciful ones that draw the eye and inspire the imagination. Change the names of foods to reflect your child’s passions, which will both engage them and demonstrate how much attention you pay to their interests. And, do some play-acting when you feed them by verbally transforming the fork into a rocket ship that’s flying into their mouth with a load of space peas and supernova carrots.

Keep calm and carry on

Your kids watch what you do very closely, so make sure you practice what you preach at the table. If you don’t particularly like a dish that’s being served, make a point of trying several bites. Talk about what makes food appealing to you. Most of all, don’t get frustrated if your child refuses to eat, throws food on the floor or has a tantrum. You aren’t failing as a parent; your child is likely just going through a phase.

A few of our employees shared their particularly picky eater stories for us to enjoy.

Picky Eaters Anna Good

My son has been a picky eater almost since he started eating solid foods. He is 5 years old now and has come a long way. However, when he was about two years old, I was trying inventive ways to get him to eat different foods. I had discovered that he loved sandwiches, so as long as it was between two pieces of bread or tortillas there was a chance he would eat it.

One day, I took it a little too far. It was spaghetti night, which was a meal that he usually loved, but that night not so much. I got a brilliant idea to make a spaghetti quesadilla. This (not so) brilliant idea went down in the books as an epic failure. He not only hated the spaghetti quesadilla, but he still won’t eat spaghetti to this day and has only started to enjoy quesadillas again. Oops!

Anna Good
quality and process control supervisor at the Austin (Minn.) Plant

Picky Eaters Karen Kraft

When I was about 4 or 5 years old, my dad’s cousins from Ohio came out to visit us in Southern California for a vacation. My cousin’s 10-year-old son, Darryl, was an extremely picky eater. For almost every dinner, my mom would cook for everyone but Darryl. His mom would make him chicken noodle soup, which was about the only thing he would eat. My mom is the type of mom who had an eat it or starve mentality, so she couldn’t understand why Darryl’s mom bent over backwards to make him something special almost every night. She was convinced that Darryl would be a picky eater for life.

Fast forward to the late ‘80s when Darryl joined the U.S. Navy and became, of all things, a cook on a nuclear submarine. His cooking skills were actually very good and he became known as quite the chef. At one point, he even got promoted to work in the White House while George H.W. Bush was president (a famous picky eater in his own right; his loathing of broccoli is famous). This proves that a kid who is a picky eater can end up as an adult who loves food all on his own, or, he may never completely grow out of his pickiness and become president of the United States!

Karen Kraft
supervisor of consumer insights

Picky Eaters Nicole Behne

My kids are somewhat picky eaters, especially my 11-year-old daughter. I am always trying to sneak good things into their regular foods in hopes to make them just a little bit healthier.

One of the easiest ones is pancakes. My husband whips up a batch of pancakes each week so in the mornings the girls can grab a few out of the freezer, pop them in the toaster and then top them as they desire. One usually does butter and brown sugar, the other does syrup. When we make these pancakes, we use a regular pancake mix where you just have to add water, then add in ground flax meal and oatmeal to the batter, along with a little extra water. Both flax and oats are high in fiber, which makes me not feel as bad when they top the pancakes with sugar and butter!

Confession: We do add chocolate chips too, so the flax and oatmeal are mostly just to help me feel like it is more balanced! But, the beauty of it is that the girls have no idea that we are altering the recipe and making them a little bit better for you! I also sneak spinach, chia seeds and flax meal into fruit smoothies, which they don’t have any idea about either! #MomAndDadWin

Nicole Behne
marketing director for Grocery Products