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in: Fatherhood, Relationships & Family

• Last updated: September 5, 2020

Our 2 Best Tips for Dealing With Picky Eaters

Vintage small boy eating a sandwich looks angry.

Lots of kids are picky eaters. Maybe you were one growing up, and refused to let anything green touch your lips. Maybe you’ve got a kid now who rarely ventures beyond cheese pizza and apple sauce.

Having an overly “discerning” palate is a phase a lot of children go through. Most grow out of it, eventually. As a parent, though, you’d probably like to mitigate their finickiness in the meantime for a few reasons.

First, you want your kid to eat a wide variety of foods, because that ups the chances they’ll consume healthier and more nutrient-rich fare, rather than just chicken nuggets and fries.

Second, a child with an extremely limited dietary menu creates annoyances both at home and in social situations. Dinnertime can turn into a battle, which is only compounded when you’re eating at someone else’s house. Should you force your kid to eat what you or your host is serving? Should you inconvenience yourself, or your friend, by making something special just for this tiny tyrant?

Third, while children generally expand their palate as they get older, this happens to greater or lesser extents. Kids who are adventurous eaters growing up, tend to be more adventurous eaters as adults. And being an adventurous eater makes life easier, smoother, and more fun, allowing him or her to confidently dine in a variety of homes, in a variety of countries, without being the kind of priggish person who turns their nose up at unfamiliar dishes and orders the most Americanized item on the menu.

So, how can parents nip picky eating in the bud while their kids are still malleable?

You’ll find cursory lists of tips on the internet — “Cut their food into fun shapes!” “Don’t stuff them too full of snacks before dinner!” — that honestly don’t even sound that helpful in the abstract, and probably don’t work all that well in reality.

So today we present two eminently practical tips for dealing with picky eaters that have actually been field-tested and proven effective in the McKay household:

1. Institute the “Try one bite of everything; eat as much as you’d like of what you like” rule.

When a child isn’t crazy about what’s being served for dinner, parents tend to follow one of two courses: either making something special for the finicky eater, or forcing the kid to stay at the table ‘til he finishes his meal.

Neither is a particularly desirable option: the former creates more work for you or mom, and the latter just turns dinnertime into a stressful conflict of wills.

Let us suggest a middle path.

Make it a rule that your kid has to try at least one bite of every dish on the table. Then, they can eat as much as they want (within reason) of the dishes they do like. So, if you’re serving casserole with asparagus, rolls, and fruit salad, they’ve got to try a bite of each of those dishes, and if, say, they don’t like the casserole or asparagus, they can make a meal of rolls and fruit.

Experts say it takes 10-15 encounters with a food for a child to develop a taste for it, so the idea here is that, though the exposure is minimal, they’ll eventually come around to willingly eating a wide variety of foods.

Plus, it keeps parental nagging and cajoling to a minimum. I was surprised at how readily Gus (age 6) and Scout (age 3) acquiesced when we introduced this rule. It seemed reasonable and doable, even to them.

2. Sign up for a service like Blue Apron.

Now full disclosure here: Blue Apron is an advertiser on the AoM podcast. But while I got a free trial of the service initially (as all new customers can), I’m currently a normal, fully paying customer. And Blue Apron neither requested I make this suggestion, nor gave me money to do so. This is a totally unsponsored and authentic recommendation.

Meal kit services like Blue Apron (there are many others) — in which you get a weekly box of ingredients to cook into meals at home — work against picky eating in a couple of ways.

First, there’s something about receiving food in the mail that gets the kids excited. They love to unpack the box, look over the recipe, and help prepare the meal. They just weren’t as interested in dinner preparation previously. I guess it’s the novelty factor. By getting hands-on with the ingredients and more involved with the prep, they’ve become more interested in trying the final result.

Second, meal kit services force you to use ingredients and make recipes you never otherwise would have.

When you have children that are picky eaters, you tend to keep cooking the same meals — the ones you know they like — over and over again. Or, you get take-out, and the kids select their same narrow set of favorites off the menu.

With something like Blue Apron, however, you end up making meals outside of everyone’s culinary comfort zone. You use ingredients and cooking methods you never even thought about before. Even as adults, Blue Apron has led Kate and I to try foods we didn’t think we liked, only to discover we actually do. And it’s not hyperbole to say the difference it’s made in expanding our kids’ palates has been huge. Coupled with the rule above, they’ve tried, and to our surprise, liked, exponentially more foods since we started the service than they had before.

Could we have expanded our dinner menu ourselves without using a meal kit service? Of course. But it’s really easy to stay in your comfort zone without that external push.

So there you go: our 2 best tips for dealing with picky eaters, as field-tested in the McKay household. Your mileage may vary, but they’re worth giving a try.

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