What New Research Can Mean for the Picky Eaters

From the moment we enter this world, our internal cues signal us when we are hungry and when we are satisfied. We are born with a sucking reflex so we can obtain nourishment. Once solid food is introduced, it’s a learning process. Up until now, we have largely considered this learning something that happens in infancy into early toddlerhood and as very intentional by the parent.

New research is demonstrating a more complex picture (Kinzler 2016).  This study identified something that FamilyCook Productions has observed for two decades: food preferences are heavily influenced socially. These research findings explain the phenomena that so many parents lament over, where the so-called ‘good eaters’ at 2, 3, and 4 years seem to become picky eaters at 5 or 6.  Not surprisingly, this can be traced to when a child enters elementary school where the meal is noisy and full of unmonitored child disdain. Socially, our children observe  and then ‘learn’ what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by watching other children (Young 2004). These new pronouncements about foods they have previously accepted, are the result, researchers conclude, of a hard-wired human need to avoid foods that are socially rejected.

TSC pics 053The researchers hypothesize that such strong avoidance of foods that are observed as rejected by nothers is a protective attribute to ensure harmful substances are not ingested. So where does this new research leave a society that wants a cure for picky eaters? In our two decades of experience, we have found this answer leads right back to the family table. More than ever, with social cues being such a key factor in young children’s food preferences, the environment around feeding matters.

We have seen the importance of the social and emotional component of food acceptance born out in each session of our Willow program for preschoolers that operates in WIC centers across the US. Over and over again, parents who swear their child dislikes trying new foods watch in amazement as their child gobbles down kale salad, asparagus spears with hummus, rhubarb with plain yogurt, and even raw grated beets. Why? Because the session sets up for a communal and socially accepting group experience with prompters along the way to gradually and even ceremoniously ‘warm up’ the children to new foods.

Parents are then encouraged to use the exact same techniques at home, and are given take-home support to do so. Hence the well-intentioned parents who has spent time and energy into preparing a meal, places it on the table, and is crushed when their child refuses to eat it has new insight into the social and emotional component of food acceptance. Lacking this understanding, the child seeing a pile of new vegetables on their plate cries out for the ubiquitous french fries, ravioli, or chicken nuggets that generally live in the freezer. Mom, concerned her child will go hungry, gives in. With this action, a vicious cycle is triggered. The child has learned that when food he/she does not want is placed on the table, all they need to do is make a fuss and the offending food is replaced by their ‘kid food’ favorite. 

One of Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” in feeding key responsibilities for parents is structured meal times in a social setting with other family members (Satter 1995). This is key for both regular meals and snacks. Making mealtime a family time sets a pleasant environment around food and eating. In this way, food is showcased as the medium that brings the family together, to connect, bond, and celebrate happy times. Mealtime is a time to disconnect from technology and media and to become aware of what is in front of you: good company and good food. It sounds so simple; yet, it’s what happened for most of human existence – until the last couple of generations. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can soul search about our own family meal habits with this key new understanding. 

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Holiday RX: Collaborative Holiday Meals

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This is the time of year when food is front and center in our lives. For some, it's a license to indulge. For others, the focus is about their culinary traditions that reflect their heritage through time worn recipes. We connect with our family and friends through gatherings with celebratory food. Then, when the holiday season is over, we make New Year resolutions to become more fit and lose a few pounds. But, could we use this time to be more intentional around the role that food plays in our holiday celebrations, and in our lives? Can this festive season be approached as a tool to bring our family -  or our educational program participants, together to celebrate with local, seasonal, and healthful food?

What does it mean to be intentional around food? Let's explore some ways to approach meals more meaningfully this holiday season.

1. Consider the menu items critically.
You don’t have to serve dishes just because you have ‘always had them at the holidays.’ Take a moment to pause and consider whether you honestly love every dish. Do your holiday recipes represent what your region has to offer in terms of seasonal, fresh food? Do they reflect the health profile of how you like or would like to eat at this point in your life?  Asparagus on the menu?  It’s really a spring vegetable, so why not swap with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach. Do those sweet potatoes really need marshmallows? What is a way to enjoy these sweet and lusciously textured vegetables?  The youth from our Teen Battle Chef program are often asked to help prepare Thanksgiving feasts for the elderly or other group settings. Our policy is to ensure that they are also helping to re-interpret ‘typical’ dishes enjoyed over the holidays by providing one or more recipes that has a ‘twist’ on tradition, such as a delectable butternut squash and apple cider soup with feta and dill. 

2. Who will prepare what?  
Do you take on too much when the holidays come along? Are you tempted to just ‘order out’ because it’s so much work?  Or from a program perspective, does making a group feast before the holiday vacation seem too daunting?  This only has to be the case if you are taking on too much yourself and not involving other family members or young cooks in your program. When our founder, Lynn Fredericks’s children were young, she re-evaluated the holiday menus and offered each of her two sons an opportunity to create their signature dish. She helped them select and cook it. This became their new tradition that continues to this day. It was their special ritual and having her boys’ participation took the pressure off of Lynn to do all the cooking by herself.better and in season during the months of April and May, so why not swap traditional vegetables with winter greens or root vegetables that will offer a more seasonal approach.  

3. Establish new traditions.
In addition to new recipes, what new traditions  could you create around cooking or eating together?  Does one child or age group in a program take on table decorations? Can someone take the lead in planning music and songs to be apart of your celebration? What about shopping? Can your students (or children) help you make the shopping list and then go with you to the farmers market and/or the grocery store? Offering ways to enhance your meal with creative additions that make it festive and special can also add to your enjoyment.  Whether it’s Kwanza, Christmas or Hanukkah, you can find special paper decorations to make from snowflakes to dreidels to paper mkekas.

Use the time of the holidays for everyone in your program or family to: make conscious decisions about what’s important for your celebratory meal. Set goals together about your food priorities for taste, budget, as well as health to ensure your meals this holiday season reflect something that everyone feels great about cooking, serving and eating!

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A Solution for the Picky Eater: Multicultural Recipes

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Picky eaters are not confined to children alone. Many finicky children grow up into adults who are averse to eating anything beyond the ubiquitous mac ‘n cheese, hamburgers, pizza, spaghetti, etc. In nutrition education, a common school of thought is to only choose program recipes that reflect the cultural background of the participants. But, there is another approach to broadening the palate of a picky eater that is not an uphill battle.

For many years we’ve effectively used multicultural recipes in our school and community programs, inviting participants of all ages to have an ‘open mind’ and an open mouth.  A sense of adventure is stirred up in participants when an announcement is made that the experience will be an exotic culinary exploration. This approach ignites curiosity and prepares participants to ‘think different’ and expect radically new flavors as well. In fact, when we surveyed elementary and middle/high school students about their favorite aspects of our program, over 75% report they love the opportunity to broaden their horizons about the kinds of foods that are ‘out there’ and learn how to cook with them.

During one of our typical family cooking classes, Thai Inspired Fish Chowder was on the menu. A parent was shocked and asked why we were not teaching his kids to make something they would enjoy, like ‘mac n cheese’. He was adamant that his kids would not eat fish, herbs or lima beans. We had confidence in our approach and by the time his children squeezed the last lime, chopped three types of herbs and helped season their soup, they were excited to enjoy it. That same dad was thrilled and surprised to let us know his kids had three helpings!

So let’s explore this strategy by breaking it down into four steps.

  1. Collaborative Planning
    Who says the primary cook or program leader has to do all the planning too?  Instead, invite picky eaters to help select the cuisine and culture that everyone will explore together. If possible, include them in the entire planning process, such as shopping for ingredients, looking up cultural references and discovering the ‘whys’ of how a culture’s cuisine and recipes evolved the way they have. Families (or groups) can rotate among members to choose the cuisine for the next meal. It’s clear that at regular intervals, each participant can choose a culture they would like to explore. After a few weeks of unfamiliar cultures and ingredients, you can then begin to draw on the heritage of the participants.  Ask them to share their family recipes and together discover ways to enhance their dishes by adding more flavor through additional vegetables. Learning about nutrition becomes more exciting and interactive when highlighting their own cultures.

  2. Strategic Recipe Selection
    Choose (or suggest others choose) a recipe that has a bold flavor profile; the goal is to wake up the palate of the picky eater in a pleasurable way. If the end-product is delicious, then the picky eater will eat it. Ask yourself what flavors do your picky eaters typically like (e.g. if they like tangy things, choose a sweet and sour soup or something that has lemon or lime flavors). Make sure the seasonings in the recipe can be adjusted to taste (e.g. make it more or less spicy), and teach your picky eaters to build the flavor and seasons to their preference - the more control they have, the more comfortable they will feel.

  1. Make it a Routine
    Expanding the palate of a picky eater takes time, so it’s important to be patient and to have fun while exploring new dishes and cuisines together. Create new habits and build and maintain progress by gradually awakening the palate meal by meal in a predictable way, rather than a once-off occasion or class. The more often a picky eater is exposed, the more likely they will begin to enjoy new flavors and textures.  

  1. Success with One Pot Meals
    At FamilyCook Productions we swear by one-pot disheslike a stir fry, curry, or stew instead of a segmented meal format like meat+vegetables+starch. There are two major reasons why: 1) it helps overcome intimidation factor of a pile of vegetables;  and 2) this strategy addresses the negative feelings that kids might have about certain foods touching each other (e.g. cold slaw touching meat loaf). One pot dishes usually offer plenty of ingredients that need to be broken down, making for lots of jobs to keep children engaged and feeling proud to contribute.

Try This

To start putting these ideas into practice, check out this favorite FamilyCook recipe and from our founder’s primer for families dealing with picky eaters and one from Jamie Oliver - happy exploring!

Scandinavian Barley Salad with Apples

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Super-tasty miso broth

 What are some solutions your family or program have used to satisfy picky eaters?

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Turn your vacation into a kids' cooking camp

Since returning to Europe from Brooklyn 2 years ago, we started a new summer tradition to spend two weeks with my two kids together with their four French cousins in Saint Malo, a beautiful town on the cost of Brittany, France, where their grandfather lives. For part of that time, I am by myself in charge of the kids, three of them in their mid teens. The idea was for them to go to a day sailing camp and spend time together. 

The first year, the children had a great time. I didn’t. Meals were the culprit. Cooking from scratch by myself was a lot of work that went totally unappreciated.  The kids were too busy playing. Cleaning up was a battle if I expected them to help.  After each meal, they magically disappeared. Who to ask to clear the table? Clean the kitchen?  If I caught one and asked for help the eternal question came out: 'why me? What about the others?‘  In the end, it was I who did it.

The transformation occurred the second summer, when I organized a cooking camp for dinners.

To my surprise, we all bonded and enjoyed every minute of our time together  for our last two summers.  We laughed a lot and enjoyed delicious food (better than I expected!) and future family chefs were born. 

THE SECRET? Writing rules, assigning roles and expecting each child to bring their favorite recipes. Dinners were planned in advance, each child took responsibility for their own recipes, and I shifted my energy to make sure the kids were enjoying themselves. What a difference! The rewards far outweighed the couple of hours I invested in advance planning.  Not to mention late dinners (kids cook slowly), and some raucous cooking sessions with loud music!

Benefits far outweighed any inconveniences

As we share in our book, food has a special meaning when it is shared, appreciated and valued. When kids cook they quickly learn to appreciate their home-cooked meals. Kids were empowered by the experience, and got a feeling of accomplishment.  They now know where meals come from and that they can cook them. Additionally:

  • The kids were exposed to wider range of foods. To my children’s surprise, their cousins chose to cook some of their least favorite vegetables. I made sure my kids were the sous-chefs of those recipes to expose them to those foods. I loved how they were watching their cousins eat those vegetables with so much gusto.
  • They became adventurous to try new foods because their peers cooked them. 
  • Children begin to appreciate a clean, organized kitchen (when they are the ones mopping the floor, they´ll complain if you step on it with dirty shoes!)
  • Cooking reveals previously-undetected skills in children!  Who knew Sofia would lead many dinners during the following year, or that David would ever be willing to chop onions?         

Top winning strategies for my successful summer cooking camp

  1. Writing a plan for the whole week, with assigned roles for each kid.  To my surprise there was no need for negotiation. Once written and agreed upon it was sacred. Note: if you leave anything off accidentally, you´ll have to do it.  Note to self: I forgot to assign who empties the dishwasher. Result: too much whining about it – I did it!
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     (I did not help cooking but was there at all times giving advice and encouraging.) 
  2. Daily celebrity Chef ‘star’ designation, taking turns: I did this by filming them. Using my smart phone, I recorded snippets of them prepping, cooking and cleaning. Suddenly, when they were in front of the camera,  they wanted to do their best job even if it was dancing and being silly.
  3. Bringing my iPod and player in the kitchen: Listening to their favorite music made them happy to do even the most tedious tasks: chopping onions, washing pots and cleaning. Amazing!
  4. Taking the kids food shopping on day one: Each child was assigned the ingredients from their recipe to find in the market, plus we assigned other foods for breakfast, etc.
  5. Implementing everything the first day: The learning curve to establish and then keep them on task takes a lot of effort. The first day, there were a couple kids who ‘escaped’ to the TV; reinforcing assigned cleaning made me unpopular that night, but it made all the difference to keep everything on track.

And what about the menu?

Risotto, tomate farsi (tomatoes filled with ground meat), ratatouille with chicken au citron, pizza made from scratch topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions and zucchini, pasta with spinach and more. I have to admit that our French cousins impressed me with their adult palate. They do eat almost everything as Karen Le Billon claims. Can't wait to next summer and to next menu!!

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Emma's Quesadilla

Let your kids try their hand at modifying a recipe…

When my sons were little, my English neighbor Michelle was also a single mom. We often cooked and shared meals together, forming our own hybrid family to help us cope and make meals festive and memorable! Years later, Michelle, now remarried, is back in London. This summer when I visited, our book intrigued her daughter Emma.  As she leafed through, one recipe in particular caught her eye: Fig and Goat Cheese Quesadilla. She made it twice, trying out different delicious possibilities.

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Improvise when you can’t find all the ingredients

Emma is 9 years old and loves goat’s cheese and lots of things most kids would turn up their noses to.  She can also be picky, so when I could not find the fig jam for our recipe, I thought of the berries she loves and settled on black current.  I honestly didn’t know how she’d react to this change, but she wasn’t concerned. She loved crumbling the cheese and was surprised that we did not oil the skillet. When the moment of truth came, and she had cut it into 8 even triangles, she smiled very contentedly – she loved it.

Consider the season when making variations!

Some days later we were planning dinner with her parents, grandmother and cousin.  Emma wanted to make an ‘appetizer’ of the quesadilla.  By this time some fig jam was found and she also bought fresh, local figs at the market with her mom.  When it came time to prepare the quesadillas, Emma was now in full command. She discovered the perfect balance of jam and cheese, and knew exactly how browned she wanted it as she gently lifted the quesadilla with a spatula and peaked underneath to check for the color. She was proud that I photographed her making the final one – I think her self-confidence and pride shows through in these photos!  Well done, Emma!

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