A few years ago my book club read a wonderful book by Elizabeth Ehrlich called Miriam’s Kitchen. It’s a collection of essays, many connected with her mother-in-law Miriam, the foods she cooked and the lessons the author learned from her. Each chapter ends with recipes.
But the story I most remember from the book was a short anecdote about Ehrlich trying to feed her young children. Once Ehrlich labored to cook a veal stew and brought it to the table with a flourish. “Voila!” she said, as she presented it to her hungry family. Whereupon her 3-year-old said, “I hate voila!”
I’ve been thinking about that story now that my 3-year-old granddaughter has been visiting for Passover. She has a similar response to most new foods: “I don’t like it!” she’ll say, wrinkling her cute little nose, even though she’s never eaten it.
How do children learn to be picky?
Most children eat almost everything when they start on solid food. But as soon as they learn to say “no,” it seems they use the word very liberally when it comes to food.
When my kids were little, I thought there must be some kind of pre-school underground where they learned this stuff. “Don’t eat the crusts, crusts are bad,” I imagined one toddler saying to another. “Don’t eat raisins, raisins are yuck.”
How else to explain why kids who cheerfully ate an entire sandwich and gobbled “raisin boxes” by the dozen would suddenly refuse to eat bread unless the crust was removed and would no longer touch a dried grape?
Being stuck with a truly picky eater can be very frustrating. Parenting magazines, books and website are full of advice, most of which doesn’t work, as Debbie Koenig can attest.
You can lead a kid to food but you can’t make him eat
Koenig, a food writer and cooking teacher, wrote about her son Harry’s picky eating on Parents magazine’s website. Here are some of the strategies she tried:
- Sam-I-Am-ing: We tried to encourage Harry to just take a single bite—hey, he might be surprised by how good it tastes. He stalled, he sobbed, he finally succumbed … and I felt like the worst mother in the world. Who wants her child to succumb to food?
- Bartering: We promised dessert in exchange for a mouthful of a new food. That iron-willed whippersnapper would just forgo the treat—something I’d never be able to do.
- Going dessert-neutral, serving it together with the rest of the meal, so as not to turn it into a reward. (That’s right, we flip-flopped.) I was pleasantly surprised that Harry didn’t gorge on sweets, but he also rarely tasted a new food.
- Reverse psychology: We told Harry that the delicious gnocchi, over which his dad and I were loudly oooing and aaaahing, was off limits to kids. Nope, no siree, he couldn’t have any. This was generally met with a shrug and a request for more yogurt.
- Homemade versions of processed foods: He turned up his nose at my meatballs, preferring one particular brand of frozen minis. Hand-cut-and-breaded fish sticks went untouched. Macaroni and cheese, my mom’s recipe instead of the powdered packet? “That’s not macaroni and cheese,” he said, fighting tears.
- Cooking with Harry: Experts insist that kids are more likely to eat food they helped to make. For a while, Harry was happy to be my sous chef, although he never tasted the results. And then one day I suggested that since he’d enjoyed spinning the salad so much, he might like to try some. He packed up his specially purchased, kid-friendly knives that very day.
A healthy appetite
We may roll our eyes when we get the “I don’t like it!” response. But we can hardly complain, because our granddaughter is still a good eater. She does have her favorites: watermelon, pizza, pasta (with and without sauce), scrambled eggs and “chicken on the bone” (a drumstick—with no skin!). She won’t touch a green bean, but she adores artichokes, black olives and Chinese food.
She also adores this recipe for sweet-and-sour meatballs. Last January she was sick and in the hospital for several days, with little appetite. When she felt better, the only food she requested was meatballs. One of my daughter’s friends brought her a containerful, and she downed about three servings before coming up for air.
Come to think of it, I haven’t met a kid who doesn’t like these meatballs, and they’re extremely easy to make.