Feeding picky eaters

Eating well - January 2006


Virginia Van Vynckt

Now that the New Year is here, it’s time to put the holidays behind us and start worrying about more important stuff—such as how to feed a picky eater, or simply accommodate the varying food preferences that make up one family’s set of tastebuds.

It’s a challenge for many people just to make dinner, let alone make dinner for a spouse who’s a vegetarian or diabetic, a kid who loathes cooked carrots and another kid who loathes anything with pepper or onions in it.

Picky eating habits can drive parents crazy. One friend’s 4-year-old son would eat only "white" foods: rice, chicken breast, noodles. Another friend’s 5-year-old would eat foods separately and throw a fit if the mashed potatoes touched the chicken or the corn. My own kids went through a period where they seemed to literally love a food one week and loathe it the next. It made grocery shopping quite a challenge.

They all grew out of it ... eventually.

Dietitians I’ve talked to—and I’ve talked to plenty—are unanimous on one point: Forcing a child to eat something she doesn’t like is a losing battle. I also think it’s completely unfair. I know how I would feel if my husband stood over me and insisted I eat lima beans because they’re "good" for me.

In her classic books, Child of Mine and How to Get Your Child to Eat ... But Not Too Much, Wisconsin dietitian Ellyn Satter points out that parents must respect the division of labor in feeding responsibilities. Parents are responsible for structuring meal and snack times, making mealtime a pleasant experience and encouraging their children to try new foods.

Children are responsible for what they actually eat or don’t eat, even when they don’t seem to be eating anything but air. If your child is growing well, she is eating, even if you swear she isn’t.

If you have a truly finicky kid (the kind who was born to eat with tweezers)—or a toddler who seemingly won’t eat anything—you may have no choice but to keep offering a variety of foods while you hope he grows out of it.

One important thing to note is that children often have to be exposed to new foods up to 15 to 20 times before they’ll actually eat them and, with any luck, like them.

Most kids, though, like a variety of foods. They may not like a given food in certain forms, however. My children like carrots raw, but not cooked—unless they’re in soup or stew. Some children might like ground beef as patties but not in a casserole, or tuna in salad but not in tuna noodle casserole, or broccoli with cheese sauce but not plain.

For children who won’t eat well, the "appease them or fool them" parental rule can work well. Appeasing them means serving at least one thing they like at every meal, even if it’s only bread or orange juice, and making it easy to pick out the things they don’t like. For example, rather than chopping onions finely for the spaghetti sauce, dice them into pieces a bit bigger so the onion-hater can more easily segregate them from the rest of the sauce ingredients.

The "fool them" technique consists of either disguising the food (for example, finely chopping or pureeing vegetables in a soup) or trying to convince the child that, say, spinach is Dora the Explorer’s favorite food.

Stir-fries are an ideal way to accommodate a household of varying preferences. Everyone can eat whichever veggies they like and leave the rest.

Makes 4 servings 1 pound boneless chicken breasts 1 stick cinnamon, broken into 2 pieces (optional) 2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 cup fresh or frozen snow peas, trimmed 2 cups drained baby corn 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch slices ½ cup chicken broth, mixed with 1 tablespoon cornstarch Salt and pepper to taste Cut the chicken breasts diagonally into long strips. Set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or deep, heavy skillet. Add the chicken and cinnamon stick and cook over high heat, stirring and tossing, until the chicken is no longer pink. Remove the chicken to a plate and set aside. Leave the cinnamon in the pan.

Add the garlic to the pan and stir-fry for a few seconds, until fragrant. Add the snow peas, baby corn and scallions and cook, stirring and tossing, until the peas turn bright green.

Add the chicken back to the pan and stir in the chicken broth mixture. Cook over high heat, stirring and tossing, for a minute or two or until the sauce turns translucent.

Season with salt and pepper. Remove the cinnamon before serving. Serve with rice or noodles.


Virginia Van Vynckt, mother of two, has written extensively about food and nutrition, and is the author of Feed Your Kids Right the Lazy Way.


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