The Scoop on Food

In Praise of Ketchup

How a simple squirt of ketchup, ranch, or BBQ sauce can help engage your picky eater.

ketchup smiley face on eggs Getty Images
Do children emerge from the womb with an inborn obsession with ketchup? It can seem that way. My two boys have dipped everything from beef tenderloin to asparagus into it. My younger son has slurped it down plain by the spoonful (my cue to quietly remove the bottle from the table).

Even though I'm a dietitian, their love of ketchup doesn't bother me. Because although ketchup-covered asparagus gives me the willies, it also gives me hope—hope that my kids will learn to like all kinds of different foods by exploring them in different ways. And that includes dipping and dunking those foods in ketchup, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, or other condiments.

Trust me when I say that sauces and dips are your friends. They can make an unfamiliar food seem a little friendlier. They can make bland or even bitter vegetables more flavorful and appealing—which means your kids may eat more of them. In one study, preschoolers ate more broccoli when it was served with dip.

Yes, condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce contain added sugar (which we know is an issue with kids). In fact, sugar is the first ingredient in a leading brand of barbecue sauce! But I'd rather see parents trimming added sugar elsewhere (like cutting back on sugary drinks and sweets) and keeping these condiments on the table. Because frankly, I worry that talk about added sugar, sodium, and even fat may actually cause parents to under-flavor veggies—then wonder why their kids don't like them. After all, roasted cauliflower is so much better with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Sauteed carrots are transformed with a little dab of butter and pinch of brown sugar. And yes, even asparagus might taste better to some little eaters when it's dipped in ketchup.

So here's my advice: Serve a small squirt of condiment on the plate or in a small bowl if you want to control the portion. And seek out condiments with ingredients you feel good about. There are plenty of natural and organic versions that don't contain synthetic colors and preservatives. (Personally, my older son has rejected every version of ranch dressing except the kind with preservatives and added sugar. So for now, I'm okay with it, because it means he's eating salads and taking carrots and ranch in his lunchbox!)

As kids become more familiar and comfortable with new foods, they likely won't need as much added flavoring to enjoy them. But for now, consider it a useful tool—and know that a ketchup obsession will probably be, like so many things, just another phase of childhood.

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 Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. 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.