Can picky eating be transformed into kids who have the skills to try new foods?
Will we ever enjoy family meals together?
You might be surprised, especially at what it takes.
Instead of recipes, raising happy, healthy little foodies calls for curiosity, patience and courage.
Moving beyond picky eating is more about character than kale.
Saying goodbye to stressful meals, finding more peace as a family, and raising kids who have a healthy relationship with food, comes down to six strategies that spell…
Make one meal for everyone.
L-et kids help.
Knee-high cooks are always less critical.
You do your job (provide), the kids do theirs (decide).
Set the scene for success.
Make friends with your own food issues.
E-xpect push back.
Don’t take any of it personally.
After 10 years of writing about family food, interviewing experts, reading books, writing kids’ cookbooks and raising four picky eaters, this is what I’ve learned about picky eating.
And how it started.
Welcome to North Carolina. And picky eating.
We’d just had this amazing experience in Italy, soaking up their gorgeous culture of food and family. But landing in North Carolina was more of a culture shock than I expected.
I’d never lived in a suburban area before. Growing up in rural Washington state, I moved to New York City after college, then Rome, and suddenly here I was in the midst of grocery stores the size of football fields.
So much food and so little cooking.
“Brace yourself,” a friend in Italy had warned me a few months earlier. “It’s overwhelming.” She had just been to Chicago for her first US visit in years. And she was talking about the grocery store. “Everything says ‘Organic’ and all the chocolate has salt sprinkled on top now.”
We’d each been in Rome for about four years, and we’d each become moms while living abroad.
Now, my family of five was pulling up stakes. My husband’s project at the UN was wrapping up and my dream of living on lots of land with our three small kids was about to come true.
Time to get cooking again!
My first visit to Kroger in North Carolina was literally dizzying.
I steadied myself on the cart handle, which I didn’t realize I was supposed to wipe off ahead of time. (When did that start?) Baby George’s plump little face smiled back at me reassuringly as I wheeled down the aisle.
Everyone was exceedingly friendly, but compared to the Italian grocery store I’d pushed my sturdy red stroller through for the last few years, the sheer size of the place was shocking. It was easily eight times as big, more like shuffling through an airport than gathering ingredients for dinner.
How long would this shopping trip take?
I regretted bringing my miniature co-shopper and started doing the math, counting the minutes until his next meal. Now we needed to hurry.
I started in the produce section with confident thoughts like, Oh look, potatoes. I know how to buy those. At least I thought I did.
But I kept finding doubles of everything.
No sooner would I collect a bag full of yams than I’d glance over at the next display to find more, only these were “Organic.” Take 10 more steps and there’s a third pile and these are on “Sale,” but only if you have the special little card at checkout.
This was well before we even hit the processed foods, of which there were hundreds to choose from. While labels shouted out at me from every aisle—“All Natural!” and “No Trans-Fats!”—almost all of them had added sugar or oil.
As I turned up and down each aisle, the products felt more and more like a joke.
I had been so excited about all the conveniences of American life again.
(This was particularly true when it came to buying stuff for babies after living without the conveniences my suburban friends enjoyed back home. Italy has such a low birth rate that baby products aren’t big business. Instead, they were nearly impossible to find—not a single Target in sight.)
Groceries were available, but expensive in Rome. Food prices are always higher in cities but there’s another factor involved: Italians, who have a lower obesity rate than Americans, spend more than twice as much of their income on food.
High quality meals are simply a high priority for them. In fact, it’s a matter of pride and family heritage, too.
At the time, “Organic” wasn’t a thing in Italy the way it was in America, largely because the EU’s agricultural standards are different from ours. People do buy convenience foods, but not nearly at the same rate. Most parents still cook and family meals are an expected, and pretty highly respected, part of daily life.
Percentage of Household Income Spent on Food Around the World
But now my hopes were fading.
Did I overestimate how easy it would be to repatriate from Rome to the U.S.? I’d spent so much time looking forward to speaking the language again that I forgot to think about how the rest of our lives might look.
If the average store was filled with products for people who didn’t want to rinse out a mixing bowl, how would I continue to nourish our family’s newfound culture of cooking?
I wanted to protect the whole concept of family meals in layers of bubble wrap like the ten-foot mirror I insisted on shipping back with us. (Good news: It survives to this day!) My reverse culture shock made me think about our family’s transition: what I desperately wanted to keep from Italy and what just wouldn’t work here.
And don’t worry, because I kept spiraling from there.
Picky Eating Shows Up in (Nearly) Every Family
My kids’ growing bodies made me consider my own childhood: how I felt about food and my body then (and now), the way I saw adults interact with food, and what I wanted to change for my kids as they grow up.
But more than anything, I thought about how to feed these kids. Because as they got bigger, meals got harder.
Enter, picky eating.
People were crying at the table. Other people were fuming at the table.
This was not what I expected, and I needed to figure out how to fix it.
The game-changers I wish I had known since that first day in Kroger, strategies that would’ve saved time and tears.
I also wish I’d known that people in the south call grocery carts “buggies.” Turns out, there might be some language barriers even back in the United States.
In the end my goals were simple: We’ll continue cooking at home, enjoying meals as a family, figuring out picky eating — and the grocery store.
Only this time I would do it in sweet, sweet English.
Step one: get the special little card for checkout.
Step two: buy myself a chocolate bar.
It was organic, with salt on top, and delicious.