A certified nutritionist, who has spent more than a decade teaching children, reflects on one particularly picky student and offers tips on how parents can get their own picky eaters to try new foods.
His name is Timmy. He is 5 years old, and he doesn’t like to try new foods. I’m guessing that’s why his parents put him in my after-school cooking class at PS 75. It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I announce to my small students that we are making pumpkin pie pasta.
Eventually your kids will eat like you—and the earlier
you start presenting them with interesting options,
the earlier their taste buds will catch on.
This is my fourth week with them, and thankfully, they are starting to trust me. Timmy, however, is still pretty resistant to eating anything unfamiliar. This is common for his age group—except that he also tells me and the class over and over again that he isn’t going to eat whatever we are making. Or, on this particular afternoon, he starts begging me for plain pasta. I tell him we are making pumpkin pasta, not plain pasta. He doesn’t relent. I persevere. We are in a stand-off. Who will be more stubborn? I will, of course. That’s my job.
After they prepare the pumpkin purée, I dump the cooked pasta directly into the pumpkin bowl so that there is no plain pasta left. I sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. They start eating and there is silence. This is a group of 5- to 6-year-olds. They are never silent. And yet, this week, every one of them sits quietly while they eat their pasta—even Timmy.
Get the Recipe: Pumpkin Pie Pasta
A lot of parents of my students ask me how I get kids to eat new foods. Here are some tricks of the trade I've picked up over the years:
Keep it low-key.
I recommend offering something new once or twice and then walking away. No begging, negotiating, or bribery. I will often put the new food on the edge of their plate so that they are exposed to it. I ask them to try one bite and if they don't like it they don't have to eat the rest. Then I walk away.
Take advantage of peer pressure.
Introduce new foods when kids are around adventurous eaters. This works well when they start elementary school because they want to fit in with their friends.
Be firm and clear, and stick to your guns.
This is really important but can be tough to implement. Create mealtime rules and stand by them—even as your kids get older. One friend of mine, whose children are 9 and 6, recently stopped cooking multiple meals but allows each child to pick dinner once per week. Whatever you do, be consistent.
Have high expectations, and don't pander.
The food industry has done an excellent job of convincing us that kids will only eat their expensive, highly processed kiddie food. If that were the case, our species would have died out long before Lunchables were invented! The children of chefs are perfect examples of not pandering. Chefs expect their children to eat sophisticated foods and the kids respond to that expectation. (Go to nymetroparents.com/chef for tips from the husband-and-wife team behind NYC restaurant Tocqueville.)
Model good eating habits.
Be exuberant about your love for a healthy dish. And if you’re a picky adult eater, then make it a project to try new dishes with your kids—a team effort. Remember that they will eventually eat like you. It might be when they are 7, 12, or even 18, but eventually they will mimic you.
Use reverse psychology.
If they don’t want to eat something, I will often say, “Awesome, that means more for me!” and pop it into my mouth and go on and on about how good it is. You know how your kids only want to play with a toy when a visiting friend shows interest in it? Kind of like that.
Treat them like chefs.
Obviously, I suggest cooking with kids—but I also advise having conversations about food, discussing which vegetables look interesting at the market, and asking them if a dish needs to be tweaked. I take them very seriously and they respond in kind. When I ask them if a dish needs more garlic, salt, pepper, etc., they nod and think about it and then declare which ingredient they want more of. They are brilliant chefs. They don't doubt their creativity. I love it.
Julie Negrin, M.S., is a certified nutritionist, cooking instructor, and author. She has been teaching children how to cook for 14 years and spent five years as the director of culinary arts at the JCC in Manhattan. She has appeared on "Sesame Street" and the "Today Show with Al Roker." The above article was excerpted with permission from her "My Kitchen Nutrition" blog at julienegrin.com.