Foodgate: The Picky Eater Conspiracy (Part 1 of 3)


Love it, or hate it. There is no in-between.

I personally refer to it as “Satan’s Parsley,” whereas one of my coworkers would be content to add it to any dish and weave any leftovers into a scarf.

Cilantro is at the top of my list of foods that I cannot stand to consume. Other items are:

  • most anything fishy
  • duck (I had them as pets, so it’s a moral issue—for me, it would be like eating a kitten)
  • lamb (not because of “Mary,” but because it tastes nasty to me)
  • anything that is the consistency of cow snot (oysters, mussels, cough syrup, etc.).

My husband, on the other hand, cannot stand two things, and two things only—cilantro and dry smoked herring. Other than those two items, he’ll eat the siding off a barn without blinking an eye. He’d be the ultimate contestant on Fear Factor.

My palette has come a long way since I was a kid though. Growing up, I lived off:

  • peanut butter and pickle sandwiches
  • peanut butter and honey sandwiches
  • melted cheese sandwiches (no, not “grilled cheese,” I didn’t know how to make that)
  • sunny side up eggs
  • canned asparagus
  • canned beets
  • puffed wheat cereal.

I was the epitome of a picky eater, but as I aged, my tastes changed. It happens to all of us.

My daughter is the opposite. She ate anything and everything when she was growing up, but now would be content to live off fast food chicken burgers or Pho soup. My hope is that, like me, her taste buds will mature as she gets older.

So, do you struggle with feeding your kids? If you have more than one child, you probably have one who loves almost everything, but the other eats like a bird.

What I’m about to tell you will surely have therapists on me like white on rice. Are you ready?

The secret to getting my daughter to eat anything

When my daughter was about two, she loved, loved, loved ham. If I let her, she would have eaten it every day. My niece (two years older than my daughter) was über picky, and all she wanted was hot chocolate and hot dogs. Seeing this unhealthy pattern unfolding with my niece, I wanted to find a way to get my daughter to have an open mind in order to establish a vast palette. I had a plan.

My sweet little girl was old enough to understand words, but still young enough not to know too many names of things. I used this to my advantage.

As I served her something new, she would look at it and say, “Mommy, what’s this?”

“It’s ham sweetheart.”

After she finished her meal completely (and only after), I would ask, “How did you like it?”

“It was yummy!”

“That ham is called broccoli.” (Or “That ham is called chicken.”)

No matter what the item was, it was part of the ham family as far as she was concerned.

From my understanding, the “Hamgate” conspiracy never came up at any of her therapy sessions and, to this day, it is a running joke in our house whenever someone asks what something is.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Take “it” away so that they’ll want to try it

Another situation I had to deal with was with one of my stepsons. By the age of seven (when I first met him), he refused to eat much of anything. Like my niece, all he wanted for breakfast (ever) was hot chocolate; and everyone always catered to his request. After getting to know him and his brother over a few months, I realized that his behavior was a cookie-cutter reaction to the emotional toll his parents’ divorce took on him—it was simply a control issue. The more people tried to push him to eat, the more he resisted. He just needed to be in control of at least one thing in his life.

Enter Veronica.

The first weekend after moving in with my husband, I approached the little sprout and said, “I’m making scrambled eggs for breakfast tomorrow. Do you like scrambled eggs?”

“I hate scrambled eggs!”

“Oh, really? Okay, but you’ve never had mine before, so how do you know that you’ll hate them too?” He looked up at me with his big eyes and could only shrug his shoulders.

“How about this. I’m making scrambled eggs for everyone tomorrow so, if you want, I can make a little extra for you. You can taste it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll make you your hot chocolate. Does that sound like a plan?” He smiled and nodded. I was feeling optimistic.

At breakfast the next morning, as I placed the plate of eggs down in front of Captain Hot Chocolate, his big brother shouted, “He hates scrambled eggs!”

As soon as he blurted that out, in my mind, I shouted, “Nooooooo!” I was certain that the boisterous reminder to our picky eater had officially ruined my clever plan.

Calmly, I said, “Actually, because your brother has never had my scrambled eggs before, he said he’d like to try them.” And with that, the little one inhaled every last scrap on his plate as my husband and his other son stared at him in awe. I, on the other hand, didn’t make a single fuss, and barely glanced over at him as he ate his meal.

I continued with that approach for a long time until he realized he could trust that he’d always like the things I cooked and, more importantly, that he was always still in control. Whenever we were with my husband’s family, and they tried to force food on him, he would shut right down and refuse to eat. Never once has he ever refused to eat something I’ve cooked, as I’ve always approached it with a nonchalant/no-skin-off-my-back attitude.

So if you have little ones who are just on the cusp of trying new foods, try my “ham” method with something they really like. Make sure you don’t mock them about it afterwards though—this must be a stealth operation, otherwise they will never trust you in other areas. As humorous as it might be to those witnessing it, it’s serious business. You don’t necessarily have to give it a fake name like I did, but you can say “It’s called turkey, it kinda tastes like chicken.” They will then approach it more open-mindedly, no matter what it looks like. But don’t tell them that a sardine tastes like a cupcake. Be realistic.

As for the older ones using food as a control issue, take “it” away from them. Take away the pressure. As long as you keep nagging or pressuring them to do what you want them to do, they will go out of their way to resist.

Bottom line is, as long as you are feeding them a balanced diet, there’s no need to sweat the small stuff. Pick your battles. Their tastes will change over time, so you just need to do the best you can.

Check in with me again next week when I go deeper into how to get a more diverse selection of foods into a picky eater’s belly.

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