fixing a fussy eater

If I lured you in with the expectations of a silver bullet to blast away your kids' so called fussy eating habits, then let me apologize. There is no such panacea. Like their bodies, children grow into their palates. What they don't like today, they may very well love in 20 years—such is the relationship I now have with brussels sprouts.

And that food they obsess about right now? Well, don't be surprised when they turn their nose up to it tomorrow. As with their mood swings, these things change with the direction of the wind.

I'd like to tell you about a little girl I once knew. She survived on peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, some Sicilian salami and pasta with butter under an avalanche of grated locatelli cheese. The sight of marinara sauce on one single strand would set off hysterics. When faced with lunch at a restaurant known for their burgers, she opted for a meal of pickles and diet coke.

I'm not talking about either of my daughters.

That little girl—yes, she was me.

Want to know when I had my first taste of fried calamari, something we Italian-Americans are insane about? It was on my first date with the Mr. sixteen years ago. I was 21 years old, and he almost didn't believe I was really Italian.

I remember that first bite like it was our first kiss. I couldn't believe I'd shunned those crispy coated rings all those years.

As I look back, I have the Mr. to thank for my foray into new foods. Before I met him, our family meals revolved around Italian-American classics, take-out Chinese and American cuisine (what is that exactly, anyway?).

My first taste of Thai was with the Mr.

Same goes for Japanese and Indian food. I'll admit, I'm still not crazy about curry.

See, many parents have the habit of passing their own food preferences down to children. My best friend hates fish. She never cooks it or orders it when she goes out. How do you think her teenage kids now feel about fish?

Want to know how to really cure your kids' finicky eating habits? Step out of your own comfort zone. Try a new spice, vegetable, cuisine you have some preconceived notion about. That nervousness you'll feel just before you take a taste? That's exacty how kids feel when confronted with new foods.

Now take that memory and file it away. Remember it everytime your kids dismiss a food you love or think they should eat. The same joy a great meal gives you, can be a source of anxiety for so many others. Even grown ups.

My advice? Quit worrying and just get cooking. As a matter of fact, have the kids cook with you. Take them shopping with you too. Let them see there's a world of ingredients to choose from, and let them pick one to take home and try.

The first and only time Isabella ever ate mashed potatoes was when she made them after going to the farmers' market with me. She had no interest in them before that point. Then one night she asked if she could help, and away she mashed. That was all she needed to actually taste a forkful. In the end she decided she didn't like them, and I respected her opinion because she took the first step. She tried a new food, and at the end of the meal that's the best you can hope for.

Yes, I've really only skimmed the surface on what is most definitely a passionate issue for many families. Of course there are ways to make food more palatable, and really it's about presentation. A homemade bean dip served with veggies, crackers and a side of fruit constitutes a well-balanced meal in my book. Pasta with butter & peas and bunch of grapes. Yeah, I'm down with that too. Who cares if you're bored serving it. Make a separate sauce to toss your pasta with and maybe one day they might get curious enough to give it a try.

Spruce up salads, like I often do, with citrus wedges, dried fruit and nuts—kids love to pick that stuff out. Who cares if they eat the lettuce, or in this case arugula. More for me, right?

One thing I refuse to ever believe is that food needs to be dumbed down or simple to make it kid-friendly. And I will take that stance until the last breath leaves my body.

Some of Isabella's favorites from In Jennie's Kitchen.

buttermilk ricotta waffles

lentil-ricotta "meatballs"

vegetable wontons

israeli couscous with squash, pistachios & dried cherries

On a somewhat related note, go read Kim's recent post about teaching kids how to really make healthy food choices.

New on Simple Scratch Cookinghow to make steel cut oats.



  • Michelle (What's Cooking with Kids)

    This is a great post, Jennie – and a topic that is popping up more and more in some of my favorite blogs. I have something on a similar topic scheduled for this Friday and again the following one. My favorite part of your post is your suggestion of bringing kids into the kitchen with you. It makes a world of difference. It’s so important for parents to remember that children have to learn to eat. For so many kids, sensitivities are overwhelming and the sounds, sights, smells and textures of foods are simply too much to take – but repeated exposures to foods is needed before they will accept a new food. By cooking, even if they don’t eat their creations, they are sensing the food – getting used to it. Thank you for your delicious recipes and for supporting parents to teach their children to cook. xo

  • diana

    I LOVE this post. I really agree that kids mimick the food preferences of their parents, but I have hope that people will be open minded enough to be lured into trying new things as they get older.
    I honestly wasn’t sure I could stay in a relationship with my boyfriend because all he’d eat was burgers and hot dogs when we first started dating. I’d want to go have falafel sandwiches at Mamoun’s and he’s wrinkle his nose. I’d order deep-fried pickles and he’d get grossed out.
    One time I yelled at him: “How do you know you won’t like it unless you try it? I can’t take this anymore!” That sort of lit a fire under him and he started to try new things.
    The turning point was when, on a trip to Taiwan to visit my family, he ate an entire sea urchin hand roll. He told me recently that he never knew that food could provide so many kinds of enjoyment.
    I guess I’m just saying, yes, people do change. And that trying new foods– however different, weird, unexpected– is a wonderful thing.

  • merry jennifer

    I completely agree with you on this. My kids eat what I put in front of them — the same meal my husband and I have.
    I grew up eating a very limited cuisine of southern casseroles and meatloaf varieties. I never tasted Thai or Greek or sushi until I was in my 20s. Why? My parents didn’t eat it so I assumed I didn’t like it.
    We’ve gotten our kids – well, my 7 yo daughter, anyway – excited about trying new cuisines. My 4 yo son is hopeless for now. But he’ll grow out of it.

  • Karin van D.

    Ah, I so agree. We always encourage our little ones to try anything. They have never been really picky eaters, but I think that is also because we ourselves are adventurous in our eating habits and like our dinners to be a fun family time. Oh, and we once read, or heard on the radio, that to develop a certain taste a child should try something at least 12 times to get used to it, before it can decide whether or not it likes something. Just because it fysically works that way. My eldest heard that and thought it was very interesting and has since then tried everything and encouraged the others to do the same. Nice! 😀

  • Viv

    PREACH! Wise insight, oh wise friend. Dyl and Zoe went insane for goat cheese after trying it at the Farmer’s Market. Who knew?

  • Gina

    Hooray for not “dumming down” foods for our kids, or becoming a short-order chef! We all eat the same meal in our home, and have done so since they could eat solid foods. I really believe that’s one of the most important reasons why I have two great little eaters today.
    Sure, today they love spinach and tomorrow they might not want it, but overall, they’re adventurous and eat almost anything I serve. Even if they don’t absolutely love it.
    Another big reason is that I involve them in planning, shopping for, and preparing our meals. And they love it! They actually fight over who gets to help mommy most nights. I think kids love that responsibility at young ages.
    Great post, Jennifer! I’m so glad you shared this.

  • Jenny

    I think I was about 10 years old when I decided I was just going to “like” things. The first thing I decided to like was Chinese food. Snow pea pods! So I agree that often times it is just a matter of choice, and deciding to dive in.
    Kids can be frustrating, but sometimes we just have to let go. Yesterday my four-year-old daughter tried the bean soup I’d made, and said, “I don’t like it.” I exclaimed, “What’s not to like?” And she said, “Remember, Mommy. Everyone’s different.” Hmmm. Point taken!

  • Maria at Fresh Eats

    Things I love that I used to hate: lamb, olives, brussels sprouts, sausage, spinach etc. etc.
    My youngest will try just about anything and loves that we test recipes at our home. If he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to eat it, but then he’s on his own for dinner (he’s 13). I can’t remember a time when it’s come to that.
    Tastes do change over time and food is just too lovely to become a battleground topic.

  • Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger)

    So true! My kids (ages 11, 8 and 2) are much more interested in food that they prepare themselves. As they get older, they can help more and more in the kitchen, and I make sure to encourage it.
    Soups are also a big hit with my kids. There are so many vegetables they won’t touch when they are raw/roasted/sauteed, but they’ll eat them happily in soups. Go figure!

  • Gluten Free Diva

    My grandson is almost 1 year old. His mommy (my daughter) has recently discovered that when she gives him food that looks like what she is eating (as opposed to the same food but blended to mush), he loves it! He picks it up and eats it – of course, sometimes he plays with it too, but that’s ok in my book. Kids love to interact with their food – and they love to have choices about what they eat, too.
    Great post!!! Thanks!

  • Brandi

    Thank you for posting what I have said for years. I completely believe that picky eaters aren’t born but created, by their parents. My kids will eat anything …but that is because they are expected to. I hate dumbed down food and kids menus. Why do they need different meals? They just need different portions. Nothing makes me happier than to visit a new restaurant and they smile and say “We don’t offer a kids menu, but we can prepare most menu items as a kids portion.” That is precisely when I know I have placed my dinner into the hands of a competent chef.

  • melissa @IWasBornToCook

    This is an inspiring post, from someone whose 2 year old has become a bit “challenging” in the eating department…just came across your blog and subscribed…can’t wait to see more. From your “neighbor” in NJ (hubby is from Brooklyn!)