From Yuck to Yum

As seen in Charm East Texas

"I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” 

“No, we are having steak and baked potatoes for dinner.” 

“But I want a peanut butter and jelly saaaaandwich!”

Did your blood pressure just go up a little bit? I apologize. Sounds familiar, though, doesn’t it? Everyone has been around finicky eaters. Whether it’s your kids, your friends’ kids, your grandkids, your in-laws and even you, everybody knows somebody who is picky. Children are the usual culprits. Many picky children grow into picky adults, and picky adults tend to bring up picky children, and so the cycle continues. 

In America, it seems to be the norm to run your dinner menu by guests in advance because many people are finicky eaters. Not every place is like this, however. My husband and I lived in a rural area in France for a year, and we had many, shall we say, interesting dinner party experiences. What did they all have in common? Dinner takes a long time — a long, long time. Another common denominator was that no one ever asked us if we liked what they were serving in advance. It was just expected that we ate everything and that everything was delicious. Same goes for the children we would dine with — they ate pretty much everything. Mushrooms? Check. Scallops? Sure. Pâté? Yum! Nothing seemed to be off limits. I always marveled at this, but had only a few clues from observing their food culture as to how it was possible that everyone seemed to enjoy such a wide variety of foods, until recently when the light bulb finally went off. I read a book by Karen Le Billon titled “French Kids Eat Everything” that shed some light on why the French seem to love food so much. Maybe by incorporating one or two of her observations into your own family’s food culture, you can get your kids to eat escargot. Or on second thought, maybe just settle for green beans. 

Parents are in charge of food education. 

It shouldn’t be up to Popeye the Sailor Man to convince your children that all kinds of food are yummy. It is up to you. And the best way to do that is by modeling good eating behavior by eating a wide variety of foods prepared lots of different ways. The best place to start is at the dinner table. You can’t educate your kids about good food if you only sit down and eat together once a month. 

Limit emotional eating. 

This guideline is so tough to follow. It means that ideally, food shouldn’t be used as a reward for good behavior, as a punishment, or as a baby sitter. Food is for enjoyment and nourishment within the context of meals, but when it is used as a means of manipulating your behavior, “treat” foods may become even more desirable and “healthy” foods might seem like a punishment. Eating this way can also teach you to ignore your hunger and fullness signals. 

Parents plan the menu and kids eat what adults eat. 

No short-order cooking for the picky eaters. It’s helpful to lay out what will be served in advance so meal time isn’t always a surprise and complaining might be able to happen prior to the meal rather than at the dinner table. It’s also helpful to serve at least two different foods at each meal so that your children have some control over what they want to eat, but it’s important not to prepare a separate meal if they don’t like what’s being served. When introducing a new food, always make sure there’s at least one familiar food served as well. If kids decide not to eat much at that meal, they can wait to eat at the next scheduled meal. 

Eat family meals together without distractions. 

In the world of cell phones and social media, it’s important to unplug for a few minutes each day and just enjoy each other’s company. Talk about your day. Talk about the yummy food. Talk about those awesome food articles by the dietitian in Charm. Just talk. This does, however, require that you actually eat together, so do your best to make that happen.

Eat your veggies — variety is key. 

Instead of eating the same veggies week after week, try something new, or even try a familiar veggie in a new way. Roasting is my favorite way to make veggies delicious. A sheet pan, some olive oil, salt, pepper and a high oven temperature can make almost any veggie delicious in a matter of 20-30 minutes.

You don’t have to like it but you do have to taste it. 

Repeat those words after me. Say them at every meal. One taste is all that’s required. Studies show that it may take up to 15 tastes of a new food before it is accepted and liked, so encourage them (gently) to taste things even if they don’t dig in. If a food is refused, simply say, “Too bad, it’s so yummy!” but don’t make an issue of it. Keep serving that food regularly, and eventually it will be accepted. Encourage everyone at the table to say “No, thank you,” instead of the words, “I don’t like.” 

Schedule snacks.

Amazingly, children eat their best when they are actually hungry. Who would have thought? Grazing and snacking will spoil anyone’s appetite, so make meals and any appropriate snacks predictable and scheduled as much as possible. My favorite schedule is one afternoon snack at least two hours before dinner time to get everyone through until supper is ready. 

Slow down. 

Eat slowly. Savor. Listen to relaxing music. Don’t rush through cooking and eating but stop to actually think about what you’re doing and experiencing.

Eat mostly “real” food. 

There is a place in the world for hot dogs, chicken strips, cookies and candy, but the majority of food should be simple foods that nature provides. Even so, all food should be savored and enjoyed, no matter what it is. 

Relax. Eating is joyful. 

This principle is my favorite of all. If you could describe good eating in a nutshell, that’s it. So stop stressing about calories, vitamins, fiber and achieving nutritional perfection, and just enjoy. Relax. Savor. Eat. 

Applying a few of these ideas is worth a try for a few weeks if you want to nudge a finicky eater in the right direction, even if it’s your husband. I, for one, would never try to coax my husband into eating things he doesn’t enjoy. Believe me? I didn’t think so. Bon appetit. 


Angela Larson is a registered dietitian (RD) who works with Brookshire Brothers promoting real fresh, real delicious healthy foods and providing nutrition education to the community. She is also a clinical dietitian representing Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin where she does community education on food and nutrition. Food is her passion, so Angela loves trying new recipes and exploring the more holistic side of nutrition. Angela loves to cook, garden, and spend time outdoors. Look for Angela's monthly articles in Charm East Texas.