Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Picky Eater

You know one, you probably love one, maybe you even are one. The dreaded picky eater. I actually have counted myself as one of them in times past, so I can't bash them too hard. Growing up, I remember sitting at the table long after everyone had left because I didn't eat my sausage or my fish stick. (But maybe it was really the wiser part of me who knew those foods weren't really healthy for me anyway!) I vowed that when I had my own kids, I would not force them to eat foods they didn't like. For the most part, I've actually kept my vow, but with a caveat: my son HAS to at least try the food before he decides he doesn't like it, preferably several times. And luckily, he is not a picky eater. Did I just get lucky? Were the culinary stars aligned when he was born? Maybe. But I also think it's the result of some planning and seed-sowing from the very first spoonful of mashed peas that I airplane-ed into his little baby mouth.

I'm no food expert, but I did manage to raise a boy who is willing to try any food, and for the most part is reasonable about what he likes and doesn't like...and he likes quite a bit, including salad! So, I'm going to lay down some of the methods that have worked for me in the hopes that they will help you to also raise a child whose palate is trained beyond Spaghetti-Os and pizza.

1- Start early!! In college, I studied in the south of France for 6 months and lived with a family. I learned a lot about French culinary heritage and was struck by the fact that children were expected to eat the same foods the adults ate. And as you probably know, the adults in France have a pretty sophisticated palate. There was no "kid food" in France, no "lunchables", no boxed Mac n' Cheese, no frozen pizza. When I saw this, I made a mental note to feed my future kids the same way, and 8 years later when I had my son, that's exactly what I did. As soon as his little teeth and tummy were able to handle a new, adult food, I gave it to him. Avocado was an obvious baby food, as were sweet potatoes, but later on I was giving him salmon, vegetables (without dip!) and even salad. I advise starting with the sweeter fruits and vegetables, since babies palates are very tuned in to sweet flavors. Sweet potatoes, cooked carrots, corn (organic only), cooked apples and most fruits are good starters. Then, gradually move on to the more bland veggies.

2- If you have to, dress it up. If a little ranch dressing is what's going to get the carrots and celery down their throats, go for it. Just read the label of the dressing, or better yet, make your own. A lot of dressings out there have a ton of sugar and other unmentionables that don't belong in your child's body. I like Trader Joe's brands, as they are most always free of chemical additives, but you can also go with Annie's or another organic brand.
If your child is not allergic, peanut, sunflower, almond, or other nut butter, even Nutella in small portions, can make eating fruits and some vegetables more enjoyable. Of course the old celery with peanut butter is a classic (for a good reason), but apples or bananas with nut butter or Nutella are delish, too.

3- Don't force it. Forcing kids to eat anything usually backfires big time. Remember my story about sitting at the table because I didn't eat my sausage or fish sticks? Well, I STILL hate sausage and all red meat in general, and it took me into my adult life to try fish again. You don't want the same thing to happen with your kids when it comes to truly healthy food. But again, I add the caveat that they have to at least try it. Just one bite. And then maybe one more, if they can stand it. If they take two bites, congratulate them and move on. Next time, ask them to take two bites again. This time, tell them that it takes at least 10 bites of something for your mouth to truly decide if it likes it or not. Then, try to get them to just take a bite or two whenever that food is being served. If they still don't like it, tell them that's fine. You respect their opinion, but that they shouldn't be surprised the next time you prepare that food if you ask them to "just take a bite". They may never come to like the food. But on the other hand, they might. And they've learned a valuable lesson along the way-- the art of trying new food. This is a skill that will serve them their entire lives.

4-Don't fix it. You'll be tempted to fix them their own separate dinner, when it looks like all your child ate for were those two bites of sweet potato. Don't do it! You'll be going down a long, one-way street that leads to a life as a short-order cook. Your child will not starve; it's against the laws of self-preservation. If they get hungry enough, they will find something on the table to eat. If they are stubborn enough to sit through the entire meal without eating, don't make a big deal about it, don't get mad. Just clear the plate. Later, when they are saying they're hungry for a snack, offer them a few healthy choices, but no junk food. If you stick with this pattern, eventually they will learn that they are expected to eat what is served to the family because they are part of the family.

5- When all else fails, hide it. I'm not a big fan of this one, but when you're desperate you're desperate. The reason I'm not a fan is because hiding healthy foods doesn't accomplish the goal of developing your child's palate and helping them to truly LIKE the foods that are good for them. Remember, when feeding your child it really comes down to 2 goals: first, making sure that they are adequately nourished today; second, making sure they will be adequately nourished when they are on their own as adults. Hiding healthy food doesn't really help with the second goal. But it helps with the first one, and if you can combine hiding with the "take one bite" method, you should be able to cover all your bases. If you have to hide good foods-- and veggies are usually at the top of this list-- start with shredded zucchini. It's so easy to hide in everything from baked goods to dips, there's no reason not to. Another is spinach. This one you can whir into a smoothie and they'll never know it's there. Experiment with your own ideas, or consult the cookbook "Deceptively Delicious" by Jessica Seinfeld. I've not tried it, but I've heard it's full of great recipes designed especially for hiding healthy foods in the kinds of foods that kids love.

Well my dears, that's all the sage advice I have for today...tune in next time when we discuss...well, you'll just have to tune in to find out!

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