As a kid, I was a very picky eater. Here’s how I overcame it–and what I want you to know about picky eating.
When parents tell me they’re practically breaking with frustration over their picky eaters, I can relate. When my kids were younger, I spent some miserable family dinners feeling like a failure.
But I can also relate to your picky eaters. Because I used to be one of them.
My picky eater past
I was the kid with the plate of buttered noodles while the rest of the family had steak and mashed potatoes. I was the one with plain pasta while everyone else had sauce and meatballs. I was the one nervous about eating at a friend’s house because who knew what kind of terrifying food they’d serve?
I know what it’s like to be afraid of new foods and squishy textures. And I know what it’s like to drive your parents crazy over it.
So here’s what I can tell you about being a picky eater:
- The fear is real. It’s not drama. It’s not an excuse.
- It can be embarrassing. I didn’t want to be the one eating a plain hamburger bun at the picnic, and I didn’t like being singled out for it.
- It’s not your fault. Yes, some of what we do as parents can make matters worse (read: 5 Easy Mistakes That Make Picky Eating Worse). But picky eating was, to some extent, just part of who I was. My brother, raised in the same house with the same parents, ate most everything he was served.
- There is hope. While I’ve never outgrown my love for a good bowl of buttered noodles, I did largely phase out of picky eating. In my case, I finally decided I wanted to.
How I overcame picky eating
By the time I reached college, I’d grown weary of my narrow repertoire of accepted foods. Having meals away from home with friends, I felt (healthy) peer pressure to eat what everyone else was eating. I also lived abroad for a month with a French family and was determined to try everything they served.
And I simply got curious: What did my mom’s cucumber salad taste like? (Amazing!) Did meals taste better when I didn’t surgically remove every bit of diced onion? (Yes!) Were mixed dishes more delicious when they were actually mixed together? (Yup.)
It took me until my 20s and even 30s to try some foods, like avocados, Brussels sprouts, beets, and lentils. It didn’t happen overnight, but little by little, I realized what I’d been missing, and a world of food opened up to me.
Truth be told, I’m still warming up to certain foods I never ate as a kid, like raw tomatoes. And I remain sensitive to mushy, squishy, and slippery textures, like cooked eggplant or even creme brûlée. But I’ve come a long way. To this day, when I visit my parents, my mom will sometimes look across the dinner table and ask, “Wait, you EAT that now?”
How I feed my own kids
When I became a mom, I had even more motivation to broaden my horizons. I wanted my kids to be able to eat at a friend’s house and not be scared by the meatloaf. I wanted them to go to a potluck and have more than a roll. I wanted them to be open-minded about eating and to enjoy all kinds of foods. If there was anything I could do to help make that happen, I wanted to do it.
Here’s how my picky eater past shaped how I feed my kids:
I’m patient (most of the time). I understand my kids’ trepidation with new or less-preferred foods. Yes, I still get frustrated when my kids won’t try something I’m sure they’d love. But I know firsthand that it may take time for them to try a new food and like it—way more than the 10-15 exposures that’s often cited. It might take YEARS, and that’s okay.
I ditched the “one bite rule”. I was never required to eat anything I didn’t want or to clean my plate (my mom’s nightly reminder to “only eat as much as you want” still serves me well). Having a one bite rule would’ve terrified me as a child–and I’m guessing most dinners would’ve ended in tears for me and my mom.
Still, we tried the “one bite rule” with my older son with some success. But when it crashed and burned with our second, I scrapped it. For me, it wasn’t worth it. I wanted both of my kids to feel safe at the table, not worried or anxious. Read: Should You Make Your Kids Take Just One Bite?
I offer lots of fruits and vegetables. This is something my parents did that really helped me. We had green salads nearly every night. My dad grew a big vegetable garden, and while I wouldn’t eat everything, I did grow up enjoying just-picked carrots, lettuces, corn, and kohlrabi (and watching everyone else eat cucumbers, beans, radishes, and tomatoes). And there were always loads of seasonal fresh fruit around.
I make one meal. My sweet mother cooked me something different when I didn’t like what she made. But I decided I wasn’t going to do that for my kids. I want to be compassionate, but I don’t want my kids to rely on or expect separate food at mealtime. And frankly, it’s stressful enough getting one dinner on the table every night without prepping a second! That’s why I call making just one meal The Dinnertime Rule That Will Change Your Life.
How to help your child with picky eating
Understand the degree of your child’s picky eating. A good place to start is to make a list of foods your child reliably eats (this post explains how). Some picky eating is a normal part of development, but children can have more extreme forms of picky eating, such as ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder).
You might also like: 5 Common Problems at the Root of Extreme Picky Eating
Diffuse dinnertime tension. The atmosphere at the dinner table can have a big effect on children, positive or negative. You can start using a few key phrases at dinner TONIGHT with your kids to reduce stress at the table.Click here to get the printable.
Take my free e-course. Get my best strategies, mindset-shifts, and recipes in my free six-week email course The Picky Eater Problem Solver.
Work with your partner. Here’s some advice if you and your spouse or partner don’t see eye to eye on your child’s eating: When Parents Don’t Agree On How To Handle Picky Eating