Picky Eating: A Fun Solution

Writer Helen Chibnik finds that a weekly dose of fun (and a predictable routine) helps her kids expand their culinary horizons.

olive jar and melon skewer Illustration by Katherine Streeter

I envy parents whose preschoolers eat olives and sushi. My kids were never that adventurous at that age. When my daughter Heather was 7 years old, she declared war on any food that wasn't orange. Her menu included cheese puffs, cantaloupe, macaroni-and-cheese, and the middles of candy corn.

When her twin sister, Emily, was about the same age, she spent the night with a friend, and for dinner, the family served dim sum. I'd eaten their dim sum -- food so good it made my knees weak. But instead of embracing the love and labor her hosts had put into the feast, Emily rejected it simply because she'd never heard of dim sum. She called me late that night to report that she was starving.

Desperate for a way to combat my kids' disdain for any food not advertised on television, I came up with a simple idea: New Food Fridays. At the end of each school week, I'd serve something the girls hadn't tried before, as part of our evening meal.

I revealed my New Food Fridays plan more than a week ahead of time, giving the twins and their older sister, Melody, then age 9, time to build up their courage. My husband, Ron, was on board, too. We assured the girls that if they didn't like their first bite, they didn't have to eat any more.

We started with fruit kebabs. Since the girls loved to eat with a toothpick and already liked watermelon and cantaloupe, I made a melon trio, adding honeydew to the mix, something they'd refused in the past. They weren't entirely thrilled with the look of the green melon, but they ate it, and we even got one thumbs-up! Ron and I were pleased.

As time went by and we racked up a few more successes, the girls gained trust in the process. I admit I stacked the decks a bit, making sure the first weeks included some can't-miss foods. I also involved the girls in the planning: "Should we try noodles shaped like bow ties for a change?" Over time, I found other helpful strategies.

1. Let them play critic. Being asked their opinion gives kids a sense of buy-in. I'd have mine try a few different varieties of grapes or cheese, then give them a scorecard to fill out and let them tally up points to find the winner.

2. Combine new foods with old faves. One week, for example, I put sliced cucumbers, which the girls would ordinarily reject, with cream cheese in a flour tortilla (two standbys).

3. Read magazines together and cut out recipes. Showing them pretty pictures of food was a great way to get the kids excited about new dishes. We'd post the cutouts on the refrigerator, and then I'd work the recipes into the meal plan. I also approved the occasional sweet treat, such as cupcakes with a flavorful filling and homemade whipped cream to top our hot chocolate.

A year after our experiment began, the girls were regularly helping to choose, shop for, and cook meals. When Heather (the one with the color challenge) and I watched a cooking show together, she asked if we could make the dish being prepared -- a lamb ragout with rigatoni and crostini. "Of course," I said, mentally jumping for joy.

We wrote down the recipe, and she helped turn out a beautiful dish that everyone enjoyed. This lovely meal just underscored the main lesson of New Food Fridays: keep it fun and engaging, and they'll keep coming back for more.

    Family of mom, dad, and three girls

    The Chibnik family of Middletown, NJ, about the time New Food Fridays began

    Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.