Growing up, I was an extremely picky eater. Granted, I wasn’t your typical picky kid, I loved broccoli and lima beans and hated cake and pizza. My mom always cooked every meal from scratch, and never offered “kid food” or made a separate meal if one of us didn’t want what she’d made for dinner, but she also didn’t stop me from picking out or eating around the parts I didn’t like, and oh boy were there a lot of things I’d pick out and eat around. The top three things I hated were tomatoes, onions and bell peppers… which of course are the top three things my mom cooks with. I would always get frustrated sifting through to get rid of all of the tiny pieces of onion, and I swore when I grew up I would never put my kids through that.

The problem with pickiness (from the picky person’s perspective)

When I got to middle school, I started to gain a different perspective. I will never forget the day I was eating lunch with my friends and we got on the subject of picky eating. To my surprise, one of my friends told me there was nothing that she didn’t like. I couldn’t believe it, and I could only imagine how much easier that would be. Then she told me the most amazing part—the reason she wasn’t picky is that she wasn’t allowed to be, her mom had simply never given her the option. Suddenly I wished for the exact opposite of what I’d wished up to that point—that my mom would have been more strict. But I still thought it was too late for me. After all, how could I help that so many foods revolted me?

By the time I went off to college, I was fed up with my own fussiness. Day to day it was easy enough to avoid the things I didn’t like since I was making all my own meals now. However, eating at restaurants was still a headache, and even more importantly I hated being rude when others cooked for me. I started trying to branch out and learned to politely eat the things I didn’t like, but I still wasn’t enjoying it.

When I decided to pursue cooking as a career, I decided it was time to fix this once and for all. I knew that there was no way I could objectively know if something I cooked was good or not if I was just picky. So one at a time I started eating the foods I couldn’t stand before, pretending it was a brand new food I’d never tasted before, trying my best to be objective and wipe away any previous experience. And one by one I finally learned to like all kinds of food. Now, if you stop by my house any night for dinner, you can almost guarantee it will have onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers, just like my mom’s.

Now that I myself am a mom, I want to establish healthy habits in my kids so it won’t be such a struggle for them later on. I was convinced that I wouldn’t have picky eaters, but it’s just a part of toddlers learning to be independent and develop preferences. However, I have some tricks that make a huge difference in what and how much they’ll eat.

Picky, particular, or petite?

This topic of “getting kids to eat” is one that comes up a lot in conversation with my friends and family. Often, it’s parents of toddlers who are terrified of their kids being malnourished. I absolutely understand the concern when your child’s plate doesn’t look any different at the end of a meal than it did at the beginning. Now, I know that there are exceptions of children who truly don’t have enough of an appetite to get the sustenance they need, but in general, humans have this great mechanism called “hunger” that will keep them from starving. If you think there may be an actual problem, talk to your doctor to make sure your little one is growing properly from one appointment to the next. You can also try tracking everything that your child eats in a day. You may be surprised at just how much they are snacking, even if they don’t eat much in one sitting like adults tend to do. In reality, that is a better way to eat anyway, designated mealtimes are just more convenient in modern society. This makes it even more important that they have healthy snacks available. I know all too well how easy it is for toddlers to end up on a diet of 99% goldfish crackers and cheerios.

Honestly though, sometimes when other parents desperately ask me “how do you get your kids to eat?” I’m not even quite sure what to say. I think to myself “I just let them eat!” I don’t do anything special to urge them one, I just put food in front of them and I wait for them to eat it, and if they don’t eat it I don’t freak out. I think it’s easy for us to forget how tiny our kiddos are. Their stomachs are itty bitty. It only takes a few bites to fill them up. That’s fine. They’ll be fine. But when we get nervous about them not eating enough so we toss the “real” food that they are picking at and instead present them with “kid food” we are conditioning them to eat based on flavor instead of nutritional need, which sets them up for unhealthy habits throughout their life. Our bodies intuitively know what kinds of food and how much we need, but processed food packed with fat, salt, and sugar override those instincts. I’m sure you can relate – no matter how full you are, there’s always room for ice cream. Putting chicken nuggets and sugary fruit snacks in front of your child just to get them to “eat something” triggers these almost addictive cravings and makes it harder and harder over time for them to be willing to try new flavors and foods.

On the other end of the spectrum, when my family has a meal with someone else and it’s one of those nights that my kids don’t eat much, I often get asked “Oh, is he picky?” and my response is always the same “he’s not picky, he’s just particular.” There is no food that my kids consistently refuse to eat, but at every meal they have strong opinions about what they do or don’t want, and at every meal it changes. As a chef, I am happy to encourage my kids to explore different flavors and deciding what they like. I also believe that when I give them more freedom they are more willing to try new things, and even if they don’t eat everything at every meal, I have never given them a new food and had any other response than “it’s delicious!”

Three easy steps to stop picky eating

  1. Make it Available — Your kids won’t eat healthy food if they aren’t offered healthy food, it’s as simple as that. And they probably won’t choose green beans over a cookie either. So the first step is to replace all of the snacks in the house with healthier options. You can decide for your family if you want to do this as a slow transition or all at once, but I’ve always found that for us cold turkey usually works best. This will be hard at first if your kids are older and aren’t used to it, but it’s much easier to say no when you don’t actually have the option to say yes. Having a chocoholic two-year-old was the best thing that ever happened to my diet, because after a week of him screaming for chocolate a dozen times a day, I threw away all of the chocolate in the house so I could honestly tell him “it’s all gone.” To really make this successful, you have to do more than just buy a few healthy things and tuck them away in the veggie drawer in your fridge. They should be easy to see, easy to get, and as close to ready to eat as possible. Peel the hardboiled eggs, cut the veggies, take the stems off strawberries, etc. and put them all in clear containers right at toddler eye level, front and center.
  2. Give them Independence — Any time that you can let your kids make their own choice and do things by themselves, you are already SO much more likely to succeed. Once your fridge and snack drawer are stocked with healthy foods, there is no reason to restrict which ones they eat at which times, let them decide! Since the food is already prepped and ready to eat, you can let them get it themselves too, and that sense of pride will automatically make them more excited about it. These principles extend to dinner as well. Let them choose which veggie to have as a side dish, and when appropriate let them help prepare the meal. Then let them decide which parts of dinner they want to eat. This is key. As long as the main and the sides are all healthy foods, don’t stress too much about your kids eating a “balanced” meal every night. One day they might eat four helpings of chicken and the next night they might not touch the chicken at all but devour the peas. That’s just fine, it will balance out in the end. If there is something they refuse over and over again, don’t force it, but keep offering it each time you make it. They might surprise you. For example, I had offered Arthur salad many times, and he never liked it. He would take a bite and immediately spit it out. Then one day we went to a wedding with a sit-down dinner beginning with a salad course. I gave him a plate, fully expecting him to just eat the strawberries, cheese, and bacon. But he took a bite of the lettuce and he loved it. He devoured that entire plate of salad and asked for more, and has loved it ever since. He eats some with his lunch just about every day and has fun making his own “dressing.”
  1. Set an Example — This is the MOST IMPORTANT part! All kids, especially very young kids, really want is to be like us. If you regularly eat fruits and veggies, they will be much more willing to give them a try. After all, why should they trust you when you say oranges slices are delicious while you are snacking on Oreos and potato chips? An important part of this is making sure what you are offering your kids actually is tasty. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be happy eating only raw celery and blanched chicken breasts, so why should they be? Taste your food as you cook, branch out, and find the wonderful variety of healthy foods this world has to offer, and it will be easy to share that with your family.

Trust me, I don’t have perfect children who devour carrot sticks and turn their noses up at french fries. But they do eat bleu cheese and chickpeas and couscous and garden-fresh cherry tomatoes. They are excited about all different kinds of food and they are never forced to keep eating if they say they aren’t hungry, and I am confident that these tendencies will lead to balanced and healthy attitudes toward food.