I have a picky eater. Correction- I have a child who once successfully carried out an 18-hour hunger strike.
After years of cooking three separate meals at dinnertime, I had the unreasonable idea that I should just cook one meal and that we could all eat like normal families. After all, I had never aspired to being a short-order cook, and preparing multiple meals meant I relied way too much on microwaving processed foods shaped like animals.
I was going to make a change.
My kids would learn to appreciate variety. My kids would eat something besides finger food. My kids would smile and applaud as I lovingly served a non-microwave meal.
I made chicken casserole because it was just about the only thing I actually looked forward to eating when I was a young picky-eater myself. This wasn’t zucchini-noodle casserole, or jalapeño casserole, or any sort of fancy grown-up casserole.
This was plain-old generic casserole with chicken, noodles, and peas cooked in cream of chicken soup.
There might have been some cheese but there was certainly not an abundance of black pepper, because children can be suspicious of little black dots in their food. The point is, I was trying. I remembered pushing food around my own plate and hiding it in my napkin or smuggling it to the dog under the table. Unfortunately for my kids, our dog wasn’t allowed in the kitchen at mealtime.
My 6-year-old placed a bite of casserole on his fork. He decided to do a lick-test but I think his tongue got scared and ran away before it even touched the casserole. That was it. He was not, under any circumstances, going to eat that forkful of casserole.
I asked him to take one bite—not a cup or a plateful, mind you, but an amount equal to one square inch. He thought it didn’t smell right. Channeling my parents, I stated he’d get nothing else to eat that night.
He shrugged. I upped the ante—he’d have nothing to eat until he went to his father’s the next day. My kid didn’t cry, kick, or scream, but neither did he eat that bite of casserole.
I was the one who cried. In the end, it was one of my biggest failures as a parent. I entered a battle of wills with a 6-year-old and I lost, and I resolved never to do that again.
I have to admit that I do admire his tenacity. If that kid can channel his willpower for good instead of evil, he could rule the world someday. But I do not want to spend every evening battling it out at the table.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Ask yourself what your goals are for family dinner
I’m guessing it’s not to assert your will and force your child to comply. If it is, this might not be the right blog for you.
My goals are:
- Reducing food waste
2. Make a list
- Foods they love.
- Foods they hate.
- Foods they don’t particularly care for but will not stage a hunger strike over.
Out of a four meal rotation, two will be family favorites, one will be tolerable, and one generally falls into the no-go camp for my picky-eater.
3. Talk about it with your kids.
I sat down with my tiny human and explained that while I admired his strength of will and I appreciated that the execution of his hunger strike was done without kicking and screaming, it still broke my heart.
OK, I was not so dramatic as broke my heart because I wanted to seem at least somewhat tough and strong, but I did explain that it made me sad and that we had to find another way around it. We talked about what foods he hated—mostly meat that wasn’t in the shape of a dinosaur—and I applauded what he ate well—in his case, raw vegetables.
4. Make your child part of the planning process
When the tolerable but not preferred meal comes up in the rotation, I remind him that we just ate two of his favorite meals this week. I allow compromises, such as he eats his vegetables raw while everyone eats them cooked. Raw vegetables are healthier, anyway.
When it’s the no-go night, I ask him to pick a protein source, and make him responsible for preparing it. Yes, this does mean that often the rest of the family is eating pork chops and he has a block of cheese or bowl of soybeans. But it goes back to #1: what are my goals for dinner?
I know what some of you are thinking, children need to learn to eat a variety of foods, and common wisdom is that they have to try something 20 million times before they accept it. Yes, this is true. But they don’t have to try it 20 million times at dinner.
My eldest was also a picky eater, but something magical happened as he got older. He started trying new things, just not at the dinner table. He tried things on school trips, visits to relatives, and in cooking class in high school. Now he has made his own resolution to try something new every time we go to a restaurant. The child willingly ordered sushi last month and ate it.
I was once a picky eater, too.
I didn’t try cucumber until I was 26 years old. The only reason I did? Because my brand-new boyfriend at the time (whom I later married) offered me a slice and I was embarrassed to say I’d never tried it. It turned out that cucumber was actually pretty good. In other words, social pressure will get them eventually.
Or not. And if not, at least they will have learned what healthy eating choices are.
Someday, he’ll be out of my house, and I’ll have no control over what he eats. Arming him with knowledge on what makes a balanced meal will serve him far better than forcing him to eat (or pretend to eat) one bite of chicken casserole.
More from MPMK
Need help feeding your toddler?
Sign up for our newsletter to get a handy stick-it-your-fridge list of our favorite meals for toddlers and a link to all of the recipes!