Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Picky Eaters, Family Meals, and Phrases We Use to Encourage Healthy Eating


I was at our local garden supply store the other day and after a bit of small talk with one of the women working there, she asked me how I get my girls to eat real food. After a bit of a conversation, as I turned to chase down a certain little one she smiled and told me that I should be on the radio. While I have no aspirations to be a radio presence, I do have this space to share.

Here's what we've found works:

1.) "You don't have to like it but you do have to TASTE it."

This is from French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. I don't remember if I read the book or just an article or reference to it, but the phrase has stuck.

Taste science (aside from being fascinating!) has learned that it takes a ridiculous number of times of trying a new food before it becomes a familiar flavor. While I don't recall exactly it's somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 15 times. 

Especially for small children, foreign/weird flavors = bad. In general we want them to eat food, not whatever random thing they may pick up off the ground. We do however, want to expand their palates out of soft sweet white foods that are so addicting to our bodies.

They don't have to eat it, they certainly don't have to like it, but they do have to taste it.

Once they've tasted it enough times, it's just food. It might not be their favorite, but it's still food.

That leads us to:

2.) "You don't have to like everything you eat."

We all eat food that's not our favorite.

Of course we want to eat the foods we like, and of course we all have preferences. 

We put a lot of thought and effort into the food we put in front of our children. 

I once read a humorous tutorial for how to make a grilled cheese sandwich for a toddler. After about forty steps trying to satisfy the demands of the child, it ended with the parent eating the sandwich while crying over the trash can.

I am not a short order cook.

I will not make four separate meals so that we each have our favorite things in our favorite ways. 

Some meals are made because Daddy loves them, some meals are made the way one or the other of the girls prefers. We all eat the same food at the same time, together.

At the same time, there are easy ways (like black pepper, nooch, etc.) to make the same meal suit each person's taste. 

It's better to be grateful for what we have and that we are together, than whine and complain that it isn't something else.

3.) "If you are hungry, you may eat."

Food tastes better when you're hungry. Put a plate of fresh cut vegetables in front of hungry kids piling in from outside? You betcha. Serving vegetables first, while people are especially hungry, and they'll taste better, go down easier, and be enjoyed more.

A little cousin once came to visit, took one look at their plate and asked if they could have some crackers. Nope. This is what we are eating. If you are hungry, you may eat. After a surprised moment, they tucked right in. 

If you would rather be hungry (or just even aren't hungry) you don't have to eat. You won't get something different later, and certainly not in about ten minutes, my dears.

 4.) Food tastes better the first time.

Not a phrase, but more a mindset, a resolve.

If you want it warm, eat it now.

I'm not heating it up later, nor will you get something else. If you don't finish your meal, you may have the rest at snack. Girls (we have two) who don't finish their food don't get a different snack at snack time.  

It's better the first time.

This is not to pressure them into eating too much, nor do we have the "clean up your plate" club. We start with tiny portions (see 5.) ) and they may ask for more. Occasionally it's as little as one or two bites of something new (see 1.)

5.) Serve them less than you think they'll eat.

I've found, time and time again, if you put too much food on a kid's plate, they'll get overwhelmed and maybe pick at their food. It's daunting, and sometimes overwhelming. Even if it's something they like.

A few choice bites is something they can do, something they can accomplish. And if it's a food that's new or strange? It's not going to scare them off as they can taste it and move on to everything else.

Then you get the feedback of allowing them to ask for more of what they like while having finished the parts they didn't prefer. (see 2.) ) 

Small portions, small dishes and utensils work wonders.

I have a few condiment/food prep bowls that at most hold a couple tablespoons worth of anything.

Every once and a while, especially in the summer, the girls have ice cream or dessert. With tiny bowls and espresso spoons, they have a FULL bowl - containing one or two large grownup-sized bites of ice cream. 

6.) Have rituals or pretty things that make meals special.

Humans are social beings by nature, especially surrounding food. Every culture and family has different rituals that make certain meals more special than others. It's pretty simple to make even ordinary meals into a sacred space. 

Regardless of your family's belief systems, it's easy to add ritual and reverence to your meal.

Pretty napkins, flowers, lighting a candle, a moment of gratitude or song of thanks are easy ways to tell our children and ourselves that this is a special time to be together.

There's something about lighting candles that brings calm, and a sense of "this is special" to the meal. I don't know about yours, by my girls behave better when we take the time to make even a little snack something valuable.

What phrases do you use in your family? Where are your sticking points? Anyone have any thing that surprised them by being so effective?



  1. Eating is hard! I'm somewhere in my third week of rarely feeling like eating anything. I wish somebody made me tiny beautiful plates of munchies regularly!

    I love that lesson that the first 20-ish "ick" responses usually mean "I haven't yet eaten this enough times for it to seem like food" and not "I hate this flavor".

    I like your "you have to taste it" rule, maybe I'll do that more now.

    Sounds like you've created an atmosphere where eating (much like many things in life) is a mix of practice, experimenting, pleasure, challenge and long-term rewards.

    I hadn't heard "nooch" before, I like that :) sooo much easier to say.

  2. Thank you. This is the best!