How I Stopped Stressing Out Over Picky Eating
No, my kids aren't perfect eaters. But I'm a whole lot happier now thanks to these four strategies.
When you're a dietitian, everyone automatically assumes two things about you:
- You're judging what's on their plate or in their grocery cart.
- Your kids are perfect eaters who prefer kale over cookies.
And when you write a book called The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids like I just did, they also assume your kids happily eat all 101 of those foods.
Yeah, not so much.
Dietitians struggle just as much with our own kids as you do (and trust me, we really don't care about the donuts in your grocery cart; we might have some in ours too.) And nope, my kids aren't fans of all 101 foods--though I've got one kid who comes a whole lot closer than the other one, which goes to show how different siblings can be.
Truth is, no matter what your degree, your real-life education happens with your own kids, around the table every night. One of the first lessons I learned was that getting my kids to try (and like) new foods was a lot harder than all the books and websites told me it would be.
That's the number-one complaint I hear from parents: that their kids won't try new foods—or they reject a food after one tiny taste and won't take another bite again. Or, the even more maddening twist: They used to love a food and won't even allow it within a foot of their plate now.
Believe me, I've been there with my own kids. I'm still there with my own kids when it comes to certain foods. But I can tell you that I'm a lot more chill about it than I used to be because I've learned (and accepted) a few key things:
1. We're playing the long game here. I'm not in this for the quick win, the three bites of asparagus I really want them to take. I'm in this for the long term. That means I'm willing to wait months—even years—for my kids to willingly try a bite when a food is offered. I want that taste to be on their terms, not mine. Because that's how they'll actually learn to really like something. It took my older son months and months to taste guacamole, and now he likes it. After years of my offering cucumbers to no avail, my younger son suddenly picked one off my salad one night at a restaurant and said, "I want to try a cucumber." Now I pack them in his lunch box. Didn't happen overnight, but that's okay.
2. Honesty is important. I put mashed cauliflower in our mashed potatoes last night. I could've passed it off as regular potatoes and held my breath. But I didn't. Because while sneaking veggies is a short-term gain (yay, extra nutrients!), my kids aren't learning that they actually don't mind the taste of cauliflower—and that's the goal. And let's face it: Sneaking veggies (and lying about it) is stressful. Nobody needs extra anxiety when making dinner every night.
3. Kids can smell desperation. Nonchalance is the ideal dinner-table vibe. Kids shouldn't sense that what they eat will make or break your mood. I don't let food trigger power struggles because I know I'll lose every time. So I put the food on the table, then sit back and enjoy my meal. Makes everyone a lot happier.
4. There's nothing wrong with incentives. Some people may disagree, but I don't see anything wrong with rewarding kids for dinner-table bravery. I always discourage food rewards (like the promise of dessert), but kids can be motivated by other things too, like stickers on a star-chart or an extra book at bedtime. Even teens can be incentivized to try (hello, extra Fortnite minutes!). Establish a standing offer so your kid knows it's there, but don't push it.
For more about the best foods to fuel your child's body and mind—and some easy recipes you can make with your child—I hope you'll check out my new book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.