Picky Eaters

by Maria DiMaggio, Healthy Waltham Project Coordinator

I was a picky eater as a child.  I remember fighting with my parents at mealtimes and hiding pieces of food in my napkin while they insisted that I clean my plate.  So how, then, did I become interested in food, a fairly adventurous eater, and a pretty good cook?

I pondered this while looking for ways to improve the diet of my own children, who I must confess do not always eat their vegetables.  I can point to four specific things that contributed to my improved eating habits as an adult, and I hope to impart similar experiences to my own children.  So here they are, four tactics to improve the diets of picky eaters (of any age!).

1.  Grow Something

I never liked tomatoes as a young kid.  The tomatoes from the supermarket were pale pink in color, dry and mealy and almost tasteless.  Then my mother started growing them.  What a difference!  Standing in a patch of tomatoes, you could smell that spicy, peppery smell.  The tomatoes were bright red, bursting with juice, and warm from the sun.  I could select my own tomato, pluck it from the vine, and eat it like an apple.  I made myself tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches like Harriet the Spy.  We picked and shelled peas and sprinkled them on our salads.  We dug for potatoes in the hard soil.  We hunted for the first asparagus shoots in the spring.  We picked wild berries.

Children are drawn to growing things, and are often fascinated by vegetable gardens.  When children experience where their food comes from, and even try growing something themselves, they are much more interested in eating fruits and vegetables.  I experienced this myself, and have seen the benefits in my own children.  No room for a garden?  Some things can be grown in small containers, such as herbs and salad greens.  If that is not possible, visit a garden, go to a farmer’s market or produce section of a grocery store, or go to an orchard to pick apples and berries.

2.  Cook Something

My mother gave me a ton of freedom in the kitchen, starting when I was a young child.  At the age of 7 or 8, I was making no-cook items by myself and serving them proudly at dinner time.  My mother loved to make pies, so I was always given a lump of dough to roll out and fill with jam or fruit of my choosing.  By the age of 10 or so I made all the birthday cakes for our various family members.  As a teenager, I took cooking classes and my special dishes were Chinese stir-fry, cream of broccoli soup, spaghetti sauce, and salads.  I regularly prepared dishes for our family dinners.

Any time kids can be involved in cooking, it sparks their interest in different foods.  And even if they are too young to cook, they can be involved in anything requiring stirring or sprinkling.  I loved tacos as a child because I liked all the toppings I could sprinkle on the taco shells.  I make pizza with my kids and they sprinkle on all the toppings.  I taught my daughter to crack eggs when she was 4 and now at 10 she makes blueberry muffins by herself.

3.  Learn Something about other Cultures

One thing my parents did right was imparting to me an attitude of respect, curiosity and interest in other cultures.  When I think back to my childhood, I recall the exchange students from France, Germany and Spain that passed through our home.  One of my friends hosted a Japanese student for a year.  Each visitor brought different experiences, expectations, and food preferences.  The girl from Paris loved everything my mother cooked, although she couldn’t get used to the casual way we kids browsed through the refrigerator and how we put ice cubes in all the drinks.

I think keeping an open mind is key to overcoming picky eating.  I am always curious what other people are having for dinner.  I try to introduce my children to different cultures and ethnic foods, and even try to take them to different kinds of restaurants now that they are a little older.  Luckily, Waltham is a great place to experience foods from various cultures – both through the restaurants and also the diversity of the population.  Find out what your neighbors are eating.  Go to buffets and potlucks.  Try the free samples at places like Costco and Hmart.

4.  Try New Foods When You’re Hungry

Something funny happens to kids when they are around 11-12-13 years old.  They start to grow like crazy and they are starving all the time.  This is a great time to harness that hunger and try new foods.  As a young child, I was never all that hungry.  I can remember that I was never hungry for breakfast, and I frequently felt nauseous at mealtimes.  Certain smells and tastes made me sick.

Then came adolescence and I was rummaging through the kitchen looking for food at all times of day and night.  Chocolate that is a little white around the edges?  Still perfectly good!  Crackers a little stale?  No problem!  Everything started to look good enough to eat.

When kids are truly hungry, they will eat almost anything.  Any time during the teen years is a great time to get involved with food.  I try to get my kids to eat new foods when I know they will be especially hungry:  around 10:30 in the morning, and right after school.  Sometimes in our rushed lives the car becomes a traveling snack bar.  It’s OK to say no to snacks and let the kids get hungry for meals.  Hold the chips!  Pass the carrot sticks!  They might even eat them.

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