Many friends and acquaintances may admire the pretty and healthy spreads and salads I compose for dinner, but after being inspired, it is always the same hesitation holding them back from cooking the same way—they are afraid their kids (and sometimes husbands) will not eat any of it! Here is the hard truth: my son is an extremely picky eater and there are countless foods that he will simply not eat, especially the healthier stuff.
I used to beat myself up over this, stress out, worry about his health and blame myself for doing something wrong in the beginning. I’d also spend a lot of time being envious of friends who had youngsters that happily gulped down all fruits, vegetables, raw sushi and whatever was for dinner that night without a single complaint. But what I’ve learned over the years is that none of these emotions are helpful at all, and no matter how much you may cook well and model healthy eating, some individuals are just not going to join in until they’re ready, even if that may be long after they’ve left the nest!
Rather than continue stressing or giving in to making only kid-approved meals, I try to focus on cooking the way I want to and enjoying food no matter if my child is into what I’ve made or not. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to never take others’ dietary preferences and cravings into account. So how do we strike an even balance while also trying to cook and eat well for ourselves? Here are some dependable strategies that may alleviate picky eating while also making things simple while you try to maintain your culinary sanity.
Try Deconstructed Versions of Meals
I’ve found that food is a lot less intimidating to a picky eater if you “deconstruct” the meal into smaller, more separated items rather than providing one composed recipe. For instance, if your kids are selective about veggies but you want to make chicken gyros with onion, cucumbers, and tomatoes for dinner, it may be more appealing for them if you separate the meat, pita bread, and veggies rather than serve it assembled. This breaks down and simplifies the ingredients and also lets them exert control over how they are eating it.
Rely on “DIY”
Everybody loves a good “make your own” night, whether it’s tacos, burritos, a burger bar or salads. I rely on assemble-it-yourself meals pretty much constantly, and it lets the onus fall onto the eater, not the cook. You may stress out that your family members will avoid the healthy stuff, but your job isn’t to force them to eat certain things, it’s only to provide and offer them. Variety and choice are key. Plus, DIY nights are just plain old for everyone!
Share Your Love with Shareable Plates
Taking DIY meals one step further, an easy way to offer healthy items without pressuring anyone is to make one big, giant shareable platter for dinner rather than plating things out individually. This is how we eat in my house regularly, and I’m obsessed with how fun, versatile, easy and healthful it is. Consider meals like this an “invitation” to try different things, and you may be surprised at what your selective eaters choose to nibble on.
Cook One Meal but Offer Different Proteins
I’m no monster—I love tofu but I’m not going to try to convince my son to enjoy it for dinner! I will often prepare one recipe but provide a choice of protein for everyone in my family. With my husband being a vegetarian, me avoiding red meat, and my son being a picky carnivore, this is what I have to do to make dinner a success most nights. You never want to be a short-order cook, but it’s OK to offer a few different choices based on need and preferences, especially for proteins. As much as I prefer my child tries black beans on top of his Santa Fe salad, the world won’t end if I throw a few chicken nuggets in the oven for him to go with it, too. Flexibility goes both ways.
Don’t Label Food Healthy or Unhealthy
If you want to cook and eat healthily but fear your kids (and maybe spouse) are onto you, don’t waste time verbalizing it, just make it part of your life and hope for the best! I think it’s a big deterrent when we talk about how healthy a certain food or meal is, and it turns picky eaters away. Cook and eat the way you want to feed your family, make sure there are a few “safe” or “fun” items incorporated as well, and normalize eating this way without lots of fanfare or conversation about it.
Finally, it’s important to find balance and make sure that if you are the main shopper and cook for the household, you are also providing lots of opportunities for occasional indulgences, treats and meals that are always diverse. When it’s my son’s turn to cook dinner, I don’t require him to include a vegetable or healthy side dish, because it’s his night to decide! If I am making a healthy, meatless salad for dinner one night, I may make sure the following evening is something a little more fun, like quesadillas and chips. Overall, the more you make healthy cooking a normal part of your everyday life while also providing options, choice, and variety, chances are your family members may come around to enjoying more food items than you ever thought possible. Good luck!