Endless battles over broccoli with your picky eater only lead to one place, and it’s not pretty—dreary dinners, white plates, and stressed out parents (and kids). What you need is a foolproof plan to get the processed foods out, and the good stuff in—without the hassle!
Whether your picky-eater problem is due to nature (rare, but true) or nurture (not rare, but true), it is immensely frustrating trying to feed your family when your kids refuse to eat the healthy foods you make. I know, because I’ve walked more than a mile in those shoes.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a simple solution to your picky-eater problem. And it’s counter-intuitive. To get your kids to eat what’s good for them, you need to take a page from the junk food marketing playbook. Stop talking about “healthy.” Take the focus off the food, and make it fun.
After years of testing, experimenting, tweaking, researching, gathering feedback from, and cooking with thousands of parents of picky eaters across the country, I’ve distilled it down to a few simple principles you need to follow to take the stress out of mealtime and get your kids to actually eat the wholesome foods you make.
Focus on Fun, Not the Food
The more you focus on exploring food together, as opposed to pushing for taste testers, the faster you’ll see the changes you’d like to make. Think of it like dating. You wouldn’t get married on your first date. Why would you expect your kids to love Brussels sprouts the first time they meet? They need to get to know each other!
Fall brings a bounty of foods to explore with your kids, including Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, butternut squash, pomegranate, and persimmons. Focus on fun adventures the food inspires (not the eating), like figuring out how to get the seeds out of a pomegranate, peeling Brussels sprouts and finding the Fibonacci sequence inside (a fantastic math adventure I feature in my new book), and scouting out a bunch of different varieties of pumpkins at a local farm. Let your kids lead your new food exploration. Prompt them with open-ended questions like, “I wonder if the color on the inside of a pumpkin changes depending on the color on the outside?” Follow their questions with more questions, like, “I’m not sure why Brussels sprouts grow on a stalk. Let’s explore together to find out.” Remember, it’s about the journey, not the food.
When you’re ready to take your new food adventures to the next level, it’s time to start cooking together. I know that can feel onerous to a busy parent. But what if I told you that all it takes is 30 minutes each week? The key is to cook with your kids, not for your kids. And to get past the mental barrier of cooking with kids, you need to reframe it.
Instead of thinking of cooking as a chore, think of cooking like a craft activity. Once each week, set up your cooking project on a low kids’ table—with all of your supplies within easy reach. Focus on exploring together, rather than creating the perfect dish. Let your kids do as much of the measuring, stirring, chopping, and sautéing as they can handle. Muster the patience you need to let go and let them do it, for 30 minutes. (Tip: Have them work over a baking sheet to help contain the mess.) The more freedom you afford them, the greater the payoff.
Let your kids pick the recipes they’d like to try. Make Brussels Sprouts Chips together—the peeling is so much fun, and the taste is off-the-charts delicious, like potato chips, only 500X better (a sneak peek of this tasty treat is featured in the free eBook bonus when you pre-order The 52 New Foods Challenge). Then sauté Brussels sprouts with bacon. Compare. Let your kids go crazy with the melon baller to get the seeds out of a butternut squash, then drizzle that gourd with maple syrup, roast it up, and blend it into a silky soup. Set up a blind taste test, and challenge each player to guess which batch of soup is homemade versus from the box with the easy-pour spout. Most important, try your new foods lots of different ways to find what will work for your kids, and celebrate the differences! Every person will have a preference, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to uncover.
Don’t Say the H Word
There is one word that you should never utter. No matter how many battles there are over broccoli, if you want your kids to eat wholesome food and build a lifetime of good eating habits, don’t dare say it’s “healthy.” Instead, talk about the deeply delicious flavor of the Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon, or the sinfully savory flavor of the homemade butternut squash soup. When your kids see you thoroughly enjoying the flavors of the food you’ve made together, they’ll be many times more inclined to give something new a try.
One Last Note
Keep trying. Remember: It’s a series of small, positive experiences that will move you and your kids in the right direction, not one great leap forward. You’ll get there in time if you stick with it and focus on the fun along the way—and the ride will be so much less stressful for you and your kids.
You can also listen to Jennifer in a recent podcast on MOMables Radio. To hear Jennifer chat with us on how we can introduce new foods to our kids, click here.
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A mom of two, Jennifer Tyler Lee is the author of The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year (Penguin Random House/Avery 2014) and the creator of the award-winning series of healthy eating games, Crunch a Color®. Her family cooking adventures have been featured by Jamie Oliver, Rachael Ray, Laurie David, Pottery Barn Kids, and Whole Foods. She is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a regular contributor to the James Beard Award-Winning magazine, Edible. Tune into her delicious recipes and weekly tips at 52 New Foods.