What I’ve Learned Trying to Feed My Selective Eater, Including the Pro Tip That Helped So Much

published Mar 28, 2022
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It started out as an ordinary weeknight dinner for my family of five. I’d made lentil meatballs for my vegetarian teen, our favorite sheet pan chicken meatballs, and some pasta and broccoli. My husband and two sons dug in. My 7-year old daughter took a few nibbles. The pasta, too saucy. The broccoli, okay but I like cauliflower better. The meatballs, not like Grandma’s.

I’ve been making family dinners long enough to stop expecting five star reviews. And I know that if Grandma’s meatballs set the bar – with the breadcrumbs first soaked in milk then mixed with beef and simmered for hours in jars and jars of Rao’s – my baked poultry version (though fabulous dipped in buffalo sauce) will always fall short.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed. Pasta night was for HER, after all. The rest of us mostly-vegetarians would prefer a kale quinoa bowl or tofu tacos with cabbage slaw. 

Catering to my daughter’s plain palate was extra work, plus I worried her diet lacked protein and vegetables. Convincing her to eat “like us” hadn’t worked, not even with chocolate-chip cookies or brownies!

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned feeding my selective eater, including the one thing I’ll always do from now on.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

The First Thing We Tried

I asked Hallie what foods she most likes to eat at mealtime. We made a list and began working on building her “recipe repertoire,” foods she can prepare (almost) entirely herself if she doesn’t like what’s for dinner. 

Here’s what we came up with:

  • Ramen on the stovetop
  • Hard-boiled eggs in the dash cooker
  • Single-serve sticky white rice bowls in the microwave
  • Pancakes (frozen minis in the toaster)
  • Pumpkin muffins (spice cake mix plus a can of pumpkin puree) in the oven
  • Nachos in the microwave with smashed avocado
  • Cucumbers and dip

At first, I was a stickler, helping only when safety required it. It seemed like I’d found a solution that made mealtime more peaceful while developing my daughter’s independence. It wasn’t helping her diversify her food choices, but neither had our insistence that she eat her broccoli or chicken before ice cream.

After my daughter got up from the dinner table a few nights in a row to make her rice, I grew less confident of my tactics. She was proud of her new skills, but it was clear she’d rather play than cook. (I could relate!) Though I’d stopped pushing her to eat certain foods, it felt mildly punitive that she had to cook her own food while I prepared meals for the rest of us. 

Worst of all, our new arrangements also seemed to be highlighting her pickiness. I knew I needed professional guidance.

Credit: Shutterstock

Take Two: The Add-In, Pressure-Off Approach

I began by reading about the well-regarded Satter Division of Responsibility developed by feeding expert Ellyn Satter, which boils down to this: parents decide WHAT meals and snacks are offered, as well as WHEN and WHERE they’ll be served. Kids get to decide WHETHER to eat and HOW MUCH. 

Then, I tuned into a fascinating discussion on “extreme picky eating” with parent coach and educator Oona Hanson and dietician Nicole Cruz. I learned that my daughter’s eating habits were quite typical, especially since her growth and development were on target. Oona dislikes the term “picky eater,” pointing out the shame and negativity that often comes with being labeled a “picky eater.” She prefers the more neutral “selective eater” because it describes most of us! 

I also joined Oona Hanson’s discussion of the new book How to Raise an Intuitive Eater by Sumner Brooks and Amee Severson, which breaks down the pressure today’s parents often feel to get kids to eat “perfectly” and guides caretakers to build a flexible but structured eating routine that fosters a natural, positive relationship with body and food. 

The authors encourage taking an “add-in, pressure-off approach” to alleviate stress at the kitchen table. Parents can add foods to a child’s eating routine, instead of focusing on what to eliminate. I found these suggestions particularly helpful:

  • Add more of what they like from a given food group: If you think your child isn’t getting enough of a particular food group, add more of what they like from that food group and pair it with small amounts of similar foods without pressure. For example, I could make Hallie’s favorite cauliflower more often, and then serve it alongside broccoli and carrots.
  • Offer both familiar and new foods, including repeated exposure of “rejected foods” without expectation that the child will taste or like it.
  • Serve meals family style and in new ways.
  • Model eating a variety of foods to show that it is enjoyable and delicious.
  • Show up: The only rule at mealtime is showing up to the table and joining the meal. 
  • No pressure or bribes: No pressuring or using bribes, rewards or punishments to motivate your child to eat or finish their food. 

The #1 Thing I Always Do Now

My daughter’s eating strike led to my cooking strike which led me to do my homework on the best way to manage my daughter’s preferences. My misstep learning experience convinced me that it’s worth spending a few extra minutes making sure there’s something familiar on the table for my selective eater. Menus that feature a variety of choices like salad, burger, taco and ramen bars work best. I’m excited to try these 5 Best Dinners that Let Kids Choose Their Own Adventure, curated by professional chef, writer, and mother Stephanie Ganz.

I continue to encourage each of my kids to add to their recipe repertoires, making the foods they love while learning practical cooking skills. Learning about intuitive eating and the pressures of diet culture helped me relax my expectations for my daughter’s eating. In turn, our mealtimes and relationships with each other feel more positive and joyful.