The Picky Eater Challenge: Helping Kids (and Adults!) Try New Foods Without Tricks

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The author's daughter, Lucia, eyes some new fruits. [Photograph: Sarah Grey]

"Mommy, can you take the leaves off?"

My mother calls this 'Grandma's revenge': I drove her crazy with my picky eating as a child, and now I'm raising a picky eater of my own. Lucia is just shy of five, and we're at our favorite pizzeria, Philadelphia's Pizza Brain, where my daughter loves the plain "Jane" slice—minus the basil leaves. She's not sure about the oregano either. I remember inspecting my food for green specks just the way she does.

It took me until my twenties to recover from picky eating, so I have to wonder: is she doomed to the same fate? What can we as parents do to expand the culinary horizons of a person who only eats about five foods? It's normal for preschoolers to be picky, and our pediatrician's advice is not to push: as long as she's eating, she'll be fine. She'll grow out of it. Medically, experts agree that this sort of picky eating isn't a huge problem; socially, though, it can get awkward as children grow older. I remember dreading meals at friends' houses, where the food might be unfamiliar, and my mother loves to tell the story of me eating a peanut butter sandwich at Thanksgiving dinner. Can we at least spare my daughter that?

A lot of the expert advice on picky eating focuses on the cutesy—using fun and whimsical presentations to charm kids into trying new things—but my experience is that kids see right through those strategies and find them insulting. If the texture and flavor of bananas is so off-putting that you don't even want to touch them, making that banana the mouth of a smiley face isn't going to change that. "Sneaky" strategies like those in Missy Chase Lapine's The Sneaky Chef and Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious call for hiding fruit and vegetable purees in other foods. This works sometimes (Lapine's blueberry-spinach puree works well in brownies), but often it's much too obvious—especially if your kid is naturally suspicious of green flecks. Hiding ingredients can also affect the taste of a dish, which can backfire by making kids suspicious of the few dishes they actually like. Picky eating often arises from sensory processing issues—flavor, texture, and smell can be overwhelming for some kids, for people on the autism spectrum, and for many others as well. (For those with severe sensory problems, the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation offers some great resources.)

Neuroscientist Jay Gottfried points out that strong aversions to certain smells and tastes helped early humans avoid poisons and other dangers. "When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability... When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention. You don't need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth." Training our brains to recognize new flavors and smells requires multiple exposures, and proximity to familiar favorites helps make things safe by association.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Most strategies for dealing with picky children involve making them feel safe: having regular routines, making the table a positive, happy place, and avoiding power struggles over food are all important, as parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley explains in The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution—a book I ordered in desperation after throwing yet another hot dog on the Foreman Grill. These ideas are also important for adults who want to overcome picky eating, as journalist and former chef Arun Gupta, who is writing a book on the social construction of taste, points out, noting that the need to feel motivated to learn to like an unfamiliar taste—for social, cultural, or other reasons—is one reason our palates don't always expand until we grow older. Simply put, adults feel more social pressure to try new foods. As a college student I expanded my own palate to impress a guy I was dating: I tried Indian food for the first time because I didn't want him to think I was a hick. (I was, but I loved the array of new flavors I tried on that date.)

Ten years later, after I married that guy, I decided to give a second chance to a food I'd never liked: watermelon. I challenged Joe to create a dish that would make me like watermelon. Having been in charge of the kitchen for our many years together, he knew my food tastes almost better than I did, so he combined a few of my favorites to create a salty, crunchy, refreshing salad of sliced watermelon tossed with arugula, olive oil, citrus, and toasted nuts. It was delicious. This made me wonder what would happen if we tried something similar with our daughter. We know what she likes and what she won't touch with a ten-foot pole. Could we use that knowledge to steer her toward dishes she'll enjoy--and convince her to trust us enough to try them?

Trying New Foods Without Fear: A Four-Step Approach

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

This new-foods strategy works just as well on picky adults as it does on picky kids, though from different perspectives: adults are more likely to be motivated to overcome their distaste for specific foods on purpose, whereas children are often encountering foods for the first time or learning to master strong flavors. What I love about this strategy is that it respects the eater's boundaries while also empowering him or her to learn more about food and experiment a little.

Here's how to go about it:

First, figure out what your eater enjoys. What kinds of flavors and textures appeal to her? What's his comfort zone? Does she go for big hits of umami? Gravitate toward crunchy things? Make a list of favorites—positive attributes only!

Second, list the dealbreakers. Nothing green? Nothing with a bitter flavor? No chunky textures? Don't just list foods the eater doesn't like or doesn't want to try: think in terms of components that can ruin any dish. For me, a strong vinegar component is a dealbreaker: whether it's ketchup, sauerkraut, or collard greens, vinegar is a turnoff. If your eater has any allergies or food intolerances, put those on the dealbreaker list, too.

Third, do your research. Now that you have your "yes" and "no" lists, the key is to find dishes that incorporate similar flavors to the ones they're already familiar with and present them with something that's just a little bit new. For example, my child's "yes" list includes breaded things (like chicken nuggets) and lemon flavor. Although she'll rarely consent to touch seafood, it's not a dealbreaker for her (unlike, say, green foods or bitter flavors). Coming up with possibilities can be fun: an outing to someplace with lots of different dishes on offer, like Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market or Seattle's Pike Place Market, is a great way to check out new foods and see what might fit both lists. If that's too overwhelming for your eater, though, try one dish at a time.

Focusing on the list of positives can give picky eaters a way to explore unfamiliar cuisines without forging into completely alien territory. Select a cuisine that incorporates what your picky eater loves and choose a restaurant or some recipes to try at home. Break things down by component: If your picky eater gravitates toward starchy, sweet things, try plantains instead of mashed potatoes. Since we knew that Lucia likes lemon and anything in nugget form, we ordered a soup served at a local sushi restaurant that pairs tempura scallops with a lemon-dashi broth. She loves it! It's just new enough. Loading up hummus with lots of extra lemon juice also turned a no into a yes. This involves some creativity, a little trust, and a lot of trial and error.

Finally, involving the picky eater in preparing the dish can also be helpful. This isn't just about feeling ownership. Enlisting your picky eater in the cooking process empowers her to understand what goes into a dish. Even a simple understanding of the roles of fats, acids, and other components allows you to brainstorm together to find an acceptable alternative to dealbreaker ingredients by asking questions like What could we use instead of sour cream to make this dish more creamy? or What else besides cabbage could make this crunchy?

My aversion to vinegar makes me avoid mayonnaise and any recipes made with it: just about all commercially prepared mayo is flavored with vinegar. Experimenting in the kitchen, however, revealed that substituting another acid makes all the difference for me. Whip up some homemade mayonnaise with lemon instead of vinegar as the acid component, and not only will you get a better, fresher mayo, you'll also bypass the aversion and introduce the picky eater to a range of foods that were previously out of bounds. (Egg salad sandwiches: They're delicious! Who knew?)

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

This approach gives picky eaters the tools to start exploring food on their own, as well as making sense of new dishes they encounter. If the picky eater understands how to look for foods that fit their tastes, he or she can begin trying new things in a way that feels controlled and safe. Knowing what's in a dish can empower them to tweak it to fit their tastes: "There's nothing I like at this restaurant" becomes "Can you leave the olives off?" This process takes time, but a few successes can quickly lead to more interest in discovering new dishes and cuisines—and in time, once the not-quite-so-picky eater begins to see trying new foods as a worthwhile adventure, perhaps even challenging a few of those dealbreakers.

When I began to write this article, I asked my daughter Lucia to let me take her picture while she tried some new foods. First we took her to brunch, where she bravely tried something breaded: a fried green tomato. ("I like the bread part, but the tomato is OK too.") She loves fruit, so we took her to a local Asian market to select some kiwi and dragonfruit, talk to the live fish in the seafood section, and poke around the colorful displays.

She was skeptical of the kiwi—"Is that a potato?"—but the bright pink exterior of the dragonfruit lured her in. Despite some trepidation ("I don't like green things, and these have seeds!") she tried and enjoyed both, and we sent her to preschool the next morning with kiwi slices in her lunch box. Is she cured of picky eating? Not by a long shot. But she is feeling braver about trying the foods her parents think she'll like and proud of herself for having conquered something new. It's a small victory: the first, I hope, of many.