Think Your Kid is a Picky Eater? Keep it to Yourself!

At a recent signing for my second cookbook, Vegan Indian Cooking, I was in a Williams-Sonoma whipping up an Indian eggplant dip with pita chips. As I cooked and explained my steps and ingredients, a crowd gathered. Right in front of me was a little girl around the same age as my ten year old. Her big brown eyes watched intently as I chopped veggies, poured oil into my pan, and added cumin seeds, ginger, garlic, eggplant, and other spices.

As I doled out samples, I made sure to offer this little girl the first one. "I made this especially for you, because you were so amazingly patient! Do you want to try just a little bite for me?" I implored, using the 'please, do me a little favor voice' I typically use with my 10- and 7-year-olds. She started to nod yes and reach for the plate.

But, her mother quickly intervened. "She won't eat that. She won't even try vegetables."

My heart fell. Just as you'd guess, the little girl shook her head and politely refused even one bite. You'd think I'd offered her a cigarette rather than eggplant.

"I don't like vegetables," she said, almost resigned after hearing her mother's take on her eating preferences.

In my travels over the years promoting my two cookbooks and offering samples of Indian food across the U.S. and in Canada, the one thing I'm continually struck by is how often - when it comes to food - parents speak for their young children. (I promise I'm not immune - I fall into the same trap as well if I don't catch myself.)

Most parents are so quick NOT to let their kids try new things. They look tired and almost beaten down. The saddest is that they look like their minds are made up. (Remember, I'm talking about the parents here not the kids.) The PARENTS look like they have given up and just embraced the fact that their kids refuse to eat anything BUT frozen pizza, boxed macaroni and cheese, sugar, and junk food. (I want to make clear here that pizza and mac and cheese are great options when made with real ingredients, whole grains, and no additives.)

I find it sad that in this quest to help our children learn how to break away from bad food habits and embrace healthy eating, we are often unintentionally their worst enemies.

Let me break it to you gently folks. Picky is NOT a category bucket that applies to a select few kids. They're all annoyingly picky on any given day or moment. My kids will love a dish I've made one day and vehemently deny that they even ate it the next. I still remember how my little one ate kiwis every day for almost two months before deciding one day that she 'hates' kiwis, and that they 'look funny'.

One day they like something. The next they are rejecting it furiously. It typically takes kids about 10 to 12 tries to even palate a new non-sweet ingredient. Precisely why with kids anything with sugar in it is such an easy sell, but vegetables often take work.

I am not saying that you don't have a difficult eater. But, what I am saying is that you must never give up on your kid. Keep trying. Keep fighting the good fight. Keep putting the good food out there first. Don't give in. It's not easy, but it's so, so worth it.

And, please..never, ever..EVER..let them hear from your mouth that they are 'picky'. Because once you put that out there, it's hard to pull the words back. You've labeled them and so now they will label themselves this way down the road. I can't tell you how many of my kids' friends declare at ages 8, 9, and 10 that they 'hate vegetables,' 'don't eat healthy foods,' or 'won't try new things because their tongues are different than most kids.' Seriously? Where are they getting these things if not from an adult?

Of course - many kids balk at different kinds of foods. It's okay. It's reality. But, put your game face on. Don't be the one dropping words like 'weird' when it comes to sushi or 'boring' when it comes to veggies, or even 'digusting' when it comes to okra. I've heard all of these words and not from the kids I deal with but from the many adults that often pass by my cooking demos. Embrace the concept of all healthy foods and the concept of trying new things, and likely you'll serve as a great example to your kids.

Tip: One tip that's worked well with my kids is to always give them a variety of things to eat - a combination of familiar things with one new thing worked in. I typically fill their plates with 4-5 things that are familiar (strawberries, carrots, maybe a salad, rice, or pasta.) Then, give them about a tablespoon of the new item that you want them to try. I actually have them measure it out themselves with a tablespoon. I always say that it's all they need to have. Sometimes they don't like it, and I say 'fine, at least you tried it - I'm so proud of you'. Or, they surprise themselves and want more. Or, they eat that little bit and that's all they want. It's all good. The next day we go through the same thing and so on and so on and so on.

I never give up on foods. Don't get me wrong. I sincerely want to. I grow weary of clearing unfinished plates or arguing about that one bite. But, I keep at it. On the kiwi example, I let it go for a few weeks and simply reintroduced them - but right after school when I knew they had worked up an appetite. And, I didn't give them other fillers to let them off the hook. All they got that time was kiwi. And, miraculously, they actually ate it - and even liked. it.

It's doesn't always work out. My older daughter does not care for sauces and dips. She won't even try hummus half the time. But, I've tried many times and continue to give her small amounts to help her build her taste buds. We don't ever give up, and I don't ever admonish her for not liking it. I just keep at it. The weariness sometimes shows, but one thing I've never done is say out loud that my kids don't eat a certain category of foods.

I know it's a tough battle. But remember you're in to win the war. Keep at it and know that it's never easy - but nothing worth getting is ever easy.

I think your kids are worth it. Do you?

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