I was a world-class picky eater as a child. For about a decade, I lived on buttered noodles and cheese. I turned my nose up at most of the meals my mother prepared. I drove the poor woman crazy (sorry, mom!). I call myself a "recovering" picky eater because even as a grown-up, I'm still warming up to foods I refused for years, like eggplant and tomatoes. I'm also embracing foods I only discovered as an adult, like avocados and beets.
Being a finicky eater was hard. I distinctly remember the fear I felt when eating dinner at a friend's house or scanning a restaurant menu (and, shockingly, not finding buttered noodles and cheese anywhere on it). I also remember the fear of staring down a plate of food and being too afraid—of the texture, of the color, of the flavor—to even take one bite.
Now, years later, this picky past shapes the approach I take to feeding my own kids. Here's how:
I'm extra patient. I'm empathetic to my kids' trepidation of new food. Sure, I still feel frustration, especially if I've spent a lot of time and effort making a meal and I'm sure they would love it if they only tasted it. But I know firsthand that it may take time for them to try a new food and like it—way more than the oft-quoted 10-15 exposures. In fact, it may take YEARS. And that's okay.
I don't make them take a bite. I've written before about nixing the "one-bite" rule in our house. I stopped because it was causing battles with my younger, decidedly stubborn son. I know it works well for some kids (like my older son) but I also know that a one-bite rule would've terrified me as a child. And I have no doubt that most dinners would've ended in tears for me (and probably for my mom too).
I make just one meal. My very sweet mom made me separate food at dinner (read: buttered noodles) when I didn't like what she made (read: almost every night). I'm not willing to do that for my kids. This may seem to go against my sympathetic stance, but I always provide something on the table that everyone likes, even if it's just broccoli or bread. I'm also amenable to deconstructing meals, like serving my younger son only the broth of a soup or arranging the taco fixings in a build-your-own bar. While I want to be compassionate, I don't want my kids to rely on or expect separate food at mealtime. (And frankly, I feel enough stress getting one dinner on the table every night without worrying about a second.)
The bottom line is that I don't want either of my children to be the kind of eater I was as a child. I want them to be able to go to a friend's house and not be frightened by the meatloaf or to go to a picnic and eat more than a hamburger bun. I want them to not only be open-minded about eating but also to truly enjoy foods of all kinds. I also want them to feel understood and safe at the table, not worried or anxious.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
Image: Picky eater via Shutterstock