Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Cooking For Picky Little Eaters

Q&A Wednesday: Cooking For Picky Little Eaters

by Erika Nicole Kendall

As if loving kids isn’t hard enough… then… you’ve got to feed them!

My daughter’s dinner dish… how’d I convince her to eat cauliflower? I told her “It’s just white broccoli, honey!”

One of my dilemmas is how to eat healthy AND prepare meals for a picky 3 year old son.  I hate preparing two meals however I have not mastered the art of cooking for one, let along cooking for a picky eater as my child.  So I always end up preparing enough food for 4 and to boot it is always something that he will eat since I one have no money to be wasting food and two I really never mastered the art of cooking for one.

My doctor says I have to lose a lot of weught — in one year I have gained 90lbs. I am heavier than when I was pregnant with my child!!  My son is not obese he is a tall string bean, actually a foot taller than the average 3 year old (does not shock me since I am tall and his dad is very tall).  I really need help in this…I have googled almost all the internet searching for recipes for single moms and then I even tried to just get kid friendly meals and cook them for two.  But I am not all about dino mac & cheese and farm shaped chicken nuggets. O_O


I’m always intrigued by the food they market to kids. The portion sizes for your average kids’ meal at your average fast food joint… is actually the appropriate portion size for your average adult. Pace the aisles – yes, leave the perimeter of the store, for once, and pace the aisles – and almost instantaneously, you’ll see the kids food. Know how you’ll spot it? Because it is the brightest crap in the aisle.

Sure, the adults will have the nuanced colors, pretty gradients and ultra-boring names… but the kids? They get the SUPER CRUNCHY EXTRA AWESOME-Os! They get the cool bright neon colors… both on the box, and in their bowls. Good grief.

Kids get the “cool shapes.” They get the “bright colors.” They get the syrupy sweet, the gooey and the downright deplorable. If you want to know what most food manufacturers think of their consumers… take a look at how they market to children. Why? Kids are little more than their very base desires – they want, but they don’t know why. They just know how it makes them feel, and they chase that feeling. We, as adults, know why they get “that feeling” – sugar, fat, salt anyone? – and we know why that feeling can be problematic. So… we’ve got to intervene.
Personally, I don’t make two meals in my household. I cook what I desire to eat (more often than not), and my daughter simply has to get in where she fits in. I mean, I love the little girl, but c’mon. You pay no bills, earn no money, buy no groceries and cook no food – exactly how much of a say in what I cook is she supposed to have? Not much.

I think, sometimes, that we forget a few things about cooking for kids. For one, they’re little future adults. They don’t need their tastes dumbed down for them, and that’s what we do when we buy them little flavorless chicken giblets cut into the shape of hearts, stars and little jungle creatures.

You also have to remember that what you do for your children today, sets the tone for what they will desire tomorrow. What you continue to feed your child today almost certainly solidifies the likelihood that they’ll want that same thing tomorrow.. and makes it even harder to break that chain. So what we feed our toddlers… our teens will have grown to expect… and our college students will pig out on when they’re not under your watchful eye… and our young adult children may be facing problems we didn’t face at that age because of this. That’s not overexaggerating. That’s realistic.

That’s also concerning… because considering the amount of sugar in our processed foods, it only breeds our children to want more and more of the sweet stuff until it gets to a point where they only want the sweet stuff. We can thank the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup for that. Seriously.

The last point – and this is a big one – is to realize that children will not let themselves starve. I can specifically remember a time where I was trying to cook everything under the sun, and as someone who cooks every dinner from scratch… I would have a “fail meal” at least once a week. (Don’t act like you don’t know what a “fail meal” is…) I could tell it was a fail meal because the little one would bite into it once… bite into it twice… then dryly say to me “Mommom, I can’t do it.” I’d laugh, let her get up from the table and – presuming that it was a dish I liked – put her bowl in the fridge. I’d give her a drink of water, let her go on, and make sure I gave her a sizeable breakfast the next morning. If you have a “fail meal” of your own, there is nothing wrong with letting the little one skip a night. As much as that goes against a parent’s nurturing nature… they will not wake up emaciated.

Not knowing how to cook for two, well.. that’s easy enough to fix – whatever you pull out to eat, divide in half before you cook it. That’s another learned technique, too – being able to eyeball values. Remember… if you don’t cook enough, you can always eat something else after dinner. [insert sounds of shock and awe] That’s not as tough as this kids vs veggies issue, though.

My mini-me knows her veggies from artichokes to zucchini, and enjoys them all… except mushrooms. Something about that meaty texture just doesn’t sit well with her. Speaking of which, she doesn’t like meat. And has no love for any milk that isn’t her vanilla almond milk. She just… can’t do it.It wasn’t always this easy, and it’s definitely been a process… but I do have a few tips that I don’t mind sharing:

1) All kids have a favorite spice. Figure out yours. Mini-me loves dill weed, for some reason. There’s a sweet tang to it that, for her, can brighten up almost any dish. She’ll eat up anything just so that she can eat that flavor. Same with ginger, cilantro and now cinnamon. All kids have one.

2) Make sure you have some sweet add-ins that your kid will enjoy. Pineapples, tomatoes (the oven roasted ones work pretty well with Mini-me), apple slices, pear slices, carmelized onions.. anything that you can sneak into the dish to sweeten the flavor. The kid will keep eating just to chase that sweet taste.

3) Avoid spicy at first… but dabble in it a bit. If I’m making a dish that I know will be a bit spicy, I take out Mini-me’s portion first, then finish cooking. I’ll let her taste the food with spices, and if she likes it… I’ll give her the whole deal and a glass of water. If it’s a no-go, then I’ll prep her dish with the parts I took out before seasoning, and add some of her favorites to the pot. No biggie.

4) Figure out which veggies your kids love, and make regular use of them. Mini-me loves her broccoli – I mean, loves it… eats it raw as a snack and I don’t even do that – so I try to sneak a little into a dish I think she might dislike, just because it becomes more likely that she’ll enjoy the dish.

5) Let them see you snacking on raw veggies, and let them sit with you and try one or two. If you’re biting something that you’re preparing to put in a dish… bite it, go “Mmmm… this is good. Mini-me, do you want to taste this? It’s really good!” and see how they respond. Even if they say they don’t like it, keep trying the veggie on them. And even if they don’t want to taste it, tell ’em “Aw, open your mouth and taste it.” Short of throwing a temper tantrum, make them taste it and ask them if they like it. Do that often. And I mean often.

6) Lastly, don’t be afraid to involve the little one in the cooking process! Cooking is an enjoyable time for Mini-me and I. She tastes every dough I whip up, every spice I use on our food before I use it (“Mommom, can I smell pleeeeease?”), and asks and identifies every food I use before I use it (in fact, I think this is the reason why she’s not fond of meat.) Getting her involved in the process means she is that much more interested in the finished product.

It gets easier for you and for Mini-you. Just remember – don’t dumb down your dishes, introduce new things to your child safely, involve them in the cooking process… and if all else fails, don’t be afraid to just plan on a bigger breakfast in the morning. It won’t hurt… I promise. Otherwise, there’d be no hope for my Mini-me by now!

Do you have any tips for picky little eaters? Let’s hear it!

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TarheelPhilly October 6, 2010 - 8:16 PM

Thank you for your assistance. I am at my wits end with this strong-willed 3 year old. He would go days if I let him and not eat. So I stareted befriending Chef Boyardee and felt ultra-guilty since everything I cook for me is from scratch. I think we mothers just hate the fight and headache. I am getting him back in line with eating what I cook and nothing more and it is getting a “LITTLE” better. As time goes on, I pray that it gets even better.

Again thank you again for this post!

rissa October 7, 2010 - 11:09 AM

omg excellent post. we set the tone for our children’s tastes. i started out decent but along the way when things got super busy and the fact that my daughter’s grandparents watched her while i went to school/worked things took a wrong turn (they’d let her eat oreos for breakfast). if you have a very little one, stay steadfast because when they get older it is so hard getting them on track. I used to try the making 2 or 3 meals to accomodate everyone. yeah i don’t have the time or money for that. I’m having to resort to ol school “if you don’t eat what i cook, then you don’t eat” with my 10 year old.

Raven October 7, 2010 - 7:55 PM

I don’t have kids, but I’m a very very picky eater and know for a fact that I gave my parents what for when I was smaller. The only thing that really seemed to work on me was the 2 spoon fulls rule (you have to eat at least 2 full spoon fulls of whatever vegetable it was before leaving the table) or sneaking it up on me. Not going to lie, I HATED that crap with all my heart when I was a kid but man did it work. I’m still picky and I still hate peas a lot, but I’m a lot better with food now than I once was.

Shannon February 25, 2011 - 2:02 PM

I have a major problem with my daughter being very picky (she’s 5). I have learned that whatever she likes for the moment I’m sticking with it. She loves broccoli, collard greens, cabbage, sweet peas, and cauliflower. Fruits: apples, cantaloupe, strawberries, banans, pineapples, oranges just to name a few!! I’ve tried salads (used to like them, but no longer does), carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers (again, used to like them but don’t). I at least get her to try a few spoonfuls and if she doesn’t like it hey, at least she tried it. Sometimes I have hard time coming up with ideas (items) to pack for her lunch because what I want to pack she won’t eat. Oh well, baby steps!!

Ebony June 30, 2011 - 9:42 AM

I whole hardheartedly agree with this post. I would at times cook multiple meals or variations to accommodate my parents (picky), my twins (extremely picky) and myself when I would cook which is most of the time. But after my parents saw me starting to lose weight and my father having Gout they have fallen in line lol with what I eat so the kids really have no choice to eat what we eat. I do give them more fruits then what I eat sometimes because they are more willing to eat melons then me (yes they are picky like their mother). When they go to someone else house they tell me the stuff that they ate and their next sentence is but I know we won’t eat that at home with you mommy. LOL Erika I really do appreciate this blog so much that I suggest it to many of my friends when in conversation about what works for me losing weight.

AshBash January 14, 2013 - 7:54 AM

@Erika I love this post! I’m a chef and I love the concept of not dumbing dwn our children’s palets. that’s one thing that all chefs know; don’t dumb dwn ur food for anyone, u bring ppl up. Its like a chef law lol. And that’s especailly true with our children. They need to know and understand what real food is and how good it tastes. And the only way they will experience it is if they re exsposed to it. I have a 7 month old son and he eats what I eat. I have oatmeal for breakfast he has barley oatmeal for breakfast. If I’m using avacado in my lunch, he’s having some slices to. Whatever I’m eating, I put some on the side for him. I especailly love roasting foods for him bc it gives the food flavor without adding seasonings.

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