Jared Stone shares the strategy you need to get your kid to choose coq au vin over chicken nuggets. Well. Maybe not. But he can help you to get them to eat healthy food. Here’s how.
“No thanks, Daddy. I’m a picky eater.”
I stood there at the table, having just set before my 6-year-old son a plate of roast chicken and root vegetables. I couldn’t believe he’d said it—casually identifying as a “picky eater,” like it was a protected class. Like having a particular race, sex or creed. I am a Picky-American.
I stared like a dummy. For a moment, I said nothing.
If you cook, you’ve been there. You’ve slaved all day to make something beautiful for the family at mealtime. Maybe it’s a gorgeous braise that’s been bubbling away for hours on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps, like me, it’s a roast chicken—skin golden and crisp as I slide it out of the oven. Maybe it’s that Lobster Thermidor you stitched together in the country house to celebrate the visit of the village magistrate. (Or maybe I watch too much “Downton Abbey.”)
Regardless, you’ve made a meal, only to find that the kids only want dry white toast. Or macaroni and cheese. Again. They’d rather go back in for their MMR booster shots than eat what’s in front of them.
First off, rest assured—this is normal. Kids go through periods where they strongly prefer bland foods; it’s a precautionary measure against poisoning, instilled in them by evolution. In nature, while not all bitter-tasting compounds are poisonous, many poisonous compounds taste bitter. To compensate, kids have an abundance of taste receptors primed to detect bitter flavors. For a kid, a delightful cup of coffee—literally—tastes like poison. (Side note: please don’t give your kids coffee.)
Fear not, fellow parents of Picky-Americans—there is hope.
Several years ago, I purchased an entire grass fed steer, and cooked its myriad cuts in countless different ways (detailed in my book, Year of the Cow). In doing so, I also got something of a crash course in how to get kids to eat things that may lie outside their comfort zones. Your mileage may vary, but here are some approaches I’ve had success with.
First and most importantly, be cool. Accept failure as an option. If you bear down on the munchkin and adopt an adversarial stance (“Eat this, or else!”), you’ll just cement their reluctance, because they won’t want to give in, and consequently, “lose.” To try new things, they need to feel safe and comfortable, and that you’re on their side. So keep the stakes low. Think fun and adventure, rather than boot camp.
Second, ditch between-meal snacks. As Cervantes said, “Hunger is the best sauce.” Brussel sprouts look a whole lot better if the kid hasn’t been plowing through Goldfish crackers all afternoon. (Think of mild hunger as the benign, hidden stick to get them to eat their carrots.)
So with that in mind, a scenario: it’s late afternoon, and you’ve burned all the snack crackers in the yard to keep the kids from inhaling them. Now, the wee ones are nosing around the kitchen, hungry. Seize this opportunity by bringing them into the cooking process as you put together dinner. Let them become emotionally invested in the meal by helping to cook it. They’ll be more likely to try a dish if they have skin in the game; it isn’t something Mommy or Daddy made, it’s something I made. By the transitive property, this meal must be awesome.
Cooking together is a part of the endeavor that’s not only strategic from a please-eat-this perspective—it’s fun. And frequently, it’ll actually be helpful in getting the meal on the table. (What’s more, in my house, it’s okay for hungry kids to have a few nibbles of this or that while cooking. One of the many perks of kitchen duty.)
While you’re cooking, be clear that you are cooking a meal, the meal they’re helping with. Don’t be heavy-handed about it, but it should be clear that you are making one dinner—and not a separate dinner for the kids. There is no Adult Food and Kid Food. There is simply good food, and you’re making it together. If they know you aren’t about to cave and heat up some chicken nuggets for dinner, they’ll more strongly consider the food on their plate.
Speaking of cooking—and this, more than anything else on this list, is paramount—have fun. Be creative. This isn’t a race, and it shouldn’t be a chore—enjoy yourself. If your cooking skill can support it, make something cool that you think the wee ones will chow down on. Once, my son and I made a carrot-and-toothpick treasure chest filled with sliced sausage “gold coins.” Generally, he isn’t nuts about carrots, but he ate the whole dish. I’ve made airplanes out of veggies. I’ve sculpted with bacon—and I’ve screwed up sculpting with bacon, and wound up with just, well, bacon. Was still good. Experiment.
Then, when the project is complete and dinner is served—chill. This is the time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labors. No screens, no distractions. Have a conversation and linger over the meal. Just hang out. Talk about your day and theirs and everything that happened in their lives that you might not know about. Meals should be fun and low pressure. Maybe they’ll eat what you—and they—made, and maybe they won’t. But if meals aren’t an unpleasant chore, if they aren’t a place of judgment and obligation and demands to be met – the munchkins might surprise you.
And if they still won’t eat what you’ve made together, that’s okay. It isn’t ideal, but sometimes, it’s all you can do. In our household, we have a policy of, at very least, taking a No Thank You bite. They don’t have to eat anything they don’t want to, so long as they take that one (usually infinitesimally small, purely symbolic) nibble of whatever’s on their plate.
I looked down at my son, turning his nose up at the beautiful roast chicken he’d helped me cook. “Huh. Well, I’m sorry you aren’t quite ready for a beautiful roast chicken yet, but I certainly had fun cooking it with you.” I said, before sitting down beside him and changing the subject. “So, what fun stuff should we do tomorrow?” I asked.
He thought a moment, and then began very earnestly trying to convince me why we should attempt to build a fully-functioning robot out of scrap lumber and spare garage door parts.
Then, idly, he picked up a small morsel of chicken, and put it in his mouth.
Photo: Flickr/ David Goehring