By Summer Miller | Photography by Alison Bickel
“Ya, I’m not eating that,” my five-year-old daughter says while boldly proclaiming her disgust for all things broccoli. The problem is she does like broccoli. She just doesn’t like it on this day when she is tired and adjusting to kindergarten, new friends and teachers. She simply isn’t willing to try one more new thing. Frankly, I can’t blame her; I’ve had many days like that myself. We’ll try broccoli again next week or maybe on the weekend after she’s had a little more rest.
Every parent has been confronted with the mealtime battle. While feeding some children is, without question, more challenging than feeding others, there are a few tried and true ways to move the needle toward a healthier, whole food direction while keeping your sanity (mostly) intact.
Begin by having a conversation that includes the whole family. Explain that the kids and the adults are going to start experimenting and trying new foods: “Sometimes it will be fruit, sometimes it will be vegetables and sometimes meat. If you don’t like it, that’s OK, but the rule in our house from this day forward is that you have to try it.”
When trying to introduce new items or a healthier diet for the whole family, establish some ground rules, but keep the pressure off. Consider taking small steps toward big changes over time.
When my children were very young and I was exasperated with food stubbornness, I took a page out of my husband’s aunt’s rulebook. In her family, they had a rule called 1, 2, 3: No, thank you! The children were required to try at least three bites. If after three bites they still didn’t like it, they were allowed to stay, “No, thank you!” It’s a win for parents because the child tried the food, and it reinforced a critical dinnertime lesson: Be polite. It worked for the kids because they could retain some control by being allowed to say no. If they still reject it, accept it but don’t offer something less healthy (a hot dog to replace the chicken you made). Offer the rejected item again in a few weeks.
Try to remember children refuse food for a whole host of reasons, and you do, too. Sometimes they are tired, or their taste buds just aren’t ready for strong flavors; it could be the texture is unusual and will take a few tries to get used to, which explains why many children like pasta sauce but won’t eat raw tomatoes. Frankly, sometimes they just have to poop. No one likes eating when they already feel full. This is life with kids.
We acquire new tastes throughout our lives. Creating healthy eating habits and developing a taste for different foods is a lifelong journey. When I first tried coffee, I didn’t like it at all, but eventually the taste grew on me, and now it’s a daily ritual I look forward to. Our children experience the same things. Some flavors or textures are just too much, that’s OK. Wait a month and offer it again, for years. My kids wouldn’t eat peas. Who doesn’t like peas? But my kids refused to eat them until one day my husband served them frozen peas. They ate half a bag. Now, they eat hot peas, frozen peas and peas in the pod. Experiment with food in different forms––cooked, frozen, raw and pickled. They might surprise you.
Resist the urge to label your child as picky. It is difficult, but it’s the first step in saving yourself from future food frustrations. Picky quickly becomes their identity and can serve as an instant out with older children every time something new is offered. “I’m not going to try that, I’m picky!” It doesn’t leave you with a lot of room to maneuver.
Love by association can work wonders. Add a new item but offer it alongside some favorites.
Involve them in the decision making. My children know that I develop recipes and write about food for a living and they like to be part of any project. When I want them to try something new, I will say something like, “Hey guys, mom’s working on a new recipe and I really need your insight. Can you try this for me and tell me what I should add to the soup? Does it need more salt?” You don’t have to be a recipe developer for that line to work.
Institute vegetable prep day. Designate one day a week where you chop vegetables to have at the ready for cooking larger meals or for simple raw vegetable snacking. Our exhaustion as parents contributes to a lot of mealtime frustration. Spending an hour cooking a meal that no one will eat can drain the patience out of the toughest and most steadfast among us. Make it as easy on yourself as possible for weeknight meals by having fresh vegetables at the ready.
I can’t be certain when my daughter will try broccoli again. If she chooses not to, I won’t protest too much but I won’t make something else. It’s my job to offer my children healthy food. Their job is to decide to eat it.
Summer Miller’s writing has appeared in Eating Well, Grit, Saveur and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, was heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.” She writes about food and life at ScaldedMilk.com.