A few summers ago, I attended a friend’s wedding, which included a full meal at the reception. While we were all enjoying the fabulous food (chicken breast or roasted beef, green beans amandine, mashed potatoes and peas), one of the people at my table pointed out a young man sitting with some of the bride's relatives.
"That’s her cousin," he said, "and they had to bring in a special meal for him."
I asked why, thinking he was vegan, gluten-free or something along those lines.
"He’s an insanely picky eater," the guest told me. "He literally only eats iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing and cheese pizza."
Everyone at the table dropped their mouths in total astonishment.
For the parents of children who are picky eaters, this is the ultimate nightmare. Luckily, very few children will grow up to be this selective with their eating as adults. Most kids grow out of this stage around age 5, but some continue to be selective eaters into adulthood because of a variety of factors, including genetic ones (around 25 percent of people are super-tasters who have an extraordinary number of taste buds and often avoid strong foods).
But kids at any point of the picky eating stage do run the risk of not getting the correct vitamins and minerals in their diet. Here are some lightning-fast tips to increase your finicky child’s healthy food intake.
Change the Delivery System
Trying to get your child to eat the same carrot sticks night after night is just insane. Consider switching up how the food is prepared and served. If your kiddo turns up their nose at anything green, consider blending it up in a smoothie with bananas and fruit, and plopping some whipped cream on top. If they like milkshakes, chances are they’ll guzzle it down without tasting the spinach or kale you blended up in it. You can also add cauliflower to smoothies for a huge boost of vitamin C without changing the taste much. If they don’t like a veggie raw, try it cooked and vice versa.
If you're suffering through dinner with a picky eater, you're definitely not alone. Hang in there—the stage will likely be over soon.
Sneak Good Stuff in
Along those same lines, there are many tricky ways to sneak vitamin-rich foods into what your child is already eating without them noticing. For example, finely shredded zucchini can be added to almost anything, especially pasta sauce and soups, without a taste or texture difference. Pureed pumpkin and butternut squash are amazing additions to the old favorite of mac 'n' cheese. For protein, there are protein powders that are tasteless, or you could try mashed beans or tofu.
Jazz Up the Presentation
One of the easiest things to change for your picky eater is your own attitude about it as a parent. Instead of being punitive or upset with your child when they won’t eat, try to frame the whole conflict in a positive light. Presentation can be important to kids when it comes to food, so have some fun making the food on your child’s plate into a smiling face or another shape of their choosing. (Or, if you've got the skills, you can make incredibly cute bento boxes.)
Turn Spinach Into a Hulk Snack
One thing my mom did for me, when I was little and refused to eat my broccoli, was offer me some creative rebranding. She held up a broccoli floret and said, “Look, Amelia, it’s the Sky Tree from He-Man!” I was a rabid "Masters of the Universe" fan, so it was a blast to munch on the famous Sky Tree from the series. Food companies have latched onto this by making macaroni or other foods in the shapes of characters from popular films. I know my daughter is way more likely to eat her noodles when they’re Troll-shaped. If your little one is into superheroes, something green could be a "Hulk snack" and some red and yellow bell peppers could be "Iron Man Peppers."
Make Celebrations Outlandish and Delightful
If your child is brave enough to try a new food, or finishes something they normally wouldn’t have touched, get excited: clap, cheer, dance, whatever it takes to let them know that you are proud of them for making good choices with food.
If you’re suffering through dinner with a picky eater, you’re definitely not alone. Hang in there—the stage will likely be over soon and, if not, there are still plenty of ways to make sure your little one is getting the nutrients he or she needs. The cousin at the wedding was an extreme case—as scary as it sounds as a parent, picky eaters in childhood usually expand their menus eventually. Stay positive, celebrate the little things and don’t forget to eat your Sky Trees!