Picky Eaters: How I Reversed My Cooking Strategy and Brought Peace to the Dinner Table

by Ivory Soap on 05/26/2012

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I have friends who have trained their kids to eat what’s in front of them. This is not my life. There are a few things that they don’t HATE and I can pull the whole “you sit there until you eat it,” but there are many foods that even if I force them to eat it, it won’t stay in the tummy long. Since the first bites of solid foods, my boys have been gaggers. I draw the line at gagging. We all have our weaknesses. Mine is vomit.

I asked myself, how did my mom get REAL food into us?

My mom cooked from scratch, or at least the “Semi Homemade” version with a can of this and that and a real meat and frozen vegetable.  There might have been a bunch of refined flour in it or a canned cheese sauce, but it had enough REAL nutrients to make it worthwhile.   But, all this food has been off my radar for almost 15 years.  Atkins, personal digestive issues, whole food eating, and the like, eliminated those recipes as anything I would ever cook long before my kids got old enough to have food opinions.

I re-examined my cooking priorities.

  1. Keep out as much refined crap as I can.
  2. Variety for me and hubby.
  3. Get enough good nutrients in the kids.

I rearranged those:

  1. Get enough good nutrients in the kids.
  2. Keep out as much refined crap as I can.
  3. Variety for me and hubby.

If my number one goals it to never soil my children with inferior ingredients, I look for certain types of recipes—things my kids won’t likely eat. If my top goal is to provide variety for me and my husband within our dietary restrictions, then I look for other kinds of recipes—things my kids won’t likely eat.   But if my number one priority is to get a particular nutrient down the gullet come hell or high water?  I end up with recipes that THEY like.  Heck, I would totally wrap grass fed beef in a refrigerator crescent roll and douse that asparagus in canned cheese sauce.  But what would Jeff and I eat?  I would just NOT WRAP some of the beef in crescent roll and leave off the cheese sauce.  How easy is that?

I started cooking normal American carby stuff for THEM and adapting for US.

Jeff and I could eat peanuts and greens for dinner.  We aren’t the picky ones.  But I WAS cooking for us and trying to adapt for the picky people.  THAT IS HARD WORK.  Now, I’ve reversed the formula.  Now I make lasagna…with WHITE noodles (GASP!), because that gets a whole lot of grass-fed, hormone-free beef and pesticide-free veggies into the kids.

When I make the sauce for the kids’ lasagna, I triple it.  Jeff and I have the pristine sauce over homegrown zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash.  A while back, I might have PLANNED spaghetti sauce over zucchini noodles.  But cook an extra lasagna with CRAP in it for the kids? NO.

Somehow altering my focus and making Lasagna with White Noodles for dinner, mine and Jeff’s adaptations seem like they don’t require any work.

Nowadays, I plan spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, nachos, awful stuff that would kill my digestion and my waistline and make a side version for us with some weirdo crust or vegetable noodle that only impresses people who can never again eat real flour.

But, I still have standards.

I require a certain proportion of protein in a food before it passes inspection. I don’t care how whole grain something is, if it doesn’t have enough protein involved, it’s out the window. Conversely, I tolerate a certain level of refined crap if it gets something high quality in the tummy.  But, goal number 3 is still on the list.

From time to time, I *try* to sneak in healthier versions to see if I can get a away with it.  Sneak whole grain flour in the pizza dough, buzz veggies in the spaghetti sauce, trade out white rice for organic brown. I can dream.  But, if people gag, I retreat to the refined crap to get the rest of the good stuff in the tummy.

And, I set limits.

You don’t get refills until the healthy stuff is gone. It comes as a set. If I give you a small serving of homemade bean dip and a small stack of refined, crappy chips to dip for lunch, know that once those chips are gone, you’re on carrot sticks for dipping. But once you eat the dip, if you’re still hungry, I’ll give you another serving of both chips and dip.

You “buy” the privilege to eat your food like a traditional refined-grain-loving American by showing me that the healthy stuff will disappear. If you cheat and only eat the bad stuff, trying to wait me out till the next meal, you lose your bread privileges at subsequent meals until the healthy stuff disappears.

Now dinner is simple.

It take no creativity to plan dinner.  There’s no digging through recipes for “something brand new.”  I do still peruse for a nice adaptation here and there for me and Jeff.  And interesting spice mixture, a different way to do the greens, but not full recipes.  And if I want to cook something wacky for me and Jeff, there’s always leftover lasagna or tacos or chicken pie for the kids.  And best of all, I can totally make them sit there until they finish without running for the towels, because I *know* it’s something they CAN eat without vomiting, they just don’t WANT to.

I know this flies in the face of all kinds of WHOLE food theories, but we moms do what we have to so we can get nutrient in the tummy, right?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

daisy May 26, 2012 at 4:01 am

So, I’m having trouble picturing how your suppers go. Do you always fix the same thing for the kiddos? How does your meal planning go? I’m always curious to see what other folks do. My system works for me, but I do tend to get discouraged at times. Thanks for sharing!

Heather@craftcookorcardio May 26, 2012 at 8:34 am

We have done the exact same thing and we are so much happier now. Great, great post!

Chara @ Stitching Hearts Together May 26, 2012 at 9:06 am

Hi! I hope this comes across as helpful and encouraging not anything else. 🙂 I also dealt with fussy/picky eaters and some of them with sensory issues, I discovered the root cause is gut dysbiosis (an imbalanced or unhealthy gut systems) which can lead to pickiness to food allergies and even more significant sensory issues (like on the Autism spectrum). I also discovered Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride and the GAPS protocol and it has changed our whole family (and our eating!) 🙂 I highly recommend looking into her information (here is a video of a talk she gave at a Wise Traditions Conference- it is about 1 hr 20 min, but worth every minute! http://vimeo.com/10507542 ). Picky eaters (esp if you add in the sensory (gagging) challenges) are often GAPS kids and the earlier you heal and seal the gut system the faster the problem is resolved and future problems aren’t developed! 🙂 Hope this info is a little helpful for you! I know how challenging it all can be! 🙂

becca May 26, 2012 at 10:13 am

i started saying yes to between meal snacks as long as they are healthy. my girlies started trying to out-healthy each other. they ate the ingredients to an entire salad the other day (lettuce, tomato, carrots, boiled egg) without ever putting it together. i was so happy when they didn’t have any room left for pizza bites when dinner came around:)

westernwilson May 26, 2012 at 6:23 pm

My oldest was a picky eater and gagger once she turned three. She also tended to vomit when we traveled, usually at midnight after being asleep for a few hours. It was likely all the excitement…it became clear as she grew that she was NOT a kid who liked change at all, nor anything that involved the words “thrill” or “adrenalin”. When she did not like a dinner I made, she had the option of a peanut butter sandwich. She also had a snack drawer she could reach both in the cupboards and in the fridge, which she could access at will, but it was stocked with healthy items ie. non sugar, non refined. Because she vomited so easily, we got a LOT of flack from our friends, particularly those with easy eaters. They felt we were somehow causing the gaggy tummy by feeding into her insecurities and/or attempts to control us. In short, we were flying blind with no support and a ton of criticism. We got through that, putting our kid first, but it was SUCH a relief that our second was an adventurous eater. Not only does it make life easier, we were not constantly being criticized by friends and family for having a picky eater. Glad we are through that.

Trace Willans May 26, 2012 at 6:32 pm

My daughter was an extremely fussy eater, I just made sure that i could use some of the ingredients within a meal to feed her. Now she is grown up with kids of her own she eats everything.

westernwilson May 27, 2012 at 7:36 am

Yes, now our eldest is grown and during her early 20’s began to do what we always encouraged her to do, which is make deliberate attempts to expand her food repertoire. She now enjoys a wide range of foods and cuisines. A lot of her pickiness had to do with texture. It was not so much about taste. I had some sympathy for her as while I eat and enjoy most foods, I have never been a fish person. I was punished regularly as a child for my hatred of trout in particular, which to me tastes horribly metallic. Just could not get the stuff down. I have often wondered if our daily and much hated dosing with cod liver oil built on that. I struggle with fish dishes to this day! Managed to learn to like scallops, shrimp and crab though.

Al May 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

We have a veggie, fruit and nut tray that I take out every morning and put on the dining table. If at any point the kids want to eat and its not time for a meal, they can eat from the tray. Or if dinner is too “gross” for them, they may assemble a dinner from the tray. But, they cant just eat all their favorites from the tray. The tray will not be refilled until it is empty. So yes, if they want more strawberries and peanuts, they must eat ALL the celery sticks and broccoli. I’m not worried about fulfilling their protein needs. My kids crave meat, eggs and nuts and eat them at every chance. Our whole problem is the veggies and fruit. So this plan has worked for us. Oh, and they also have the option of making a smoothie out of the tray contents, especially in warm weather.

Ivory Soap May 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I “plan” a chicken pot pie for the kids, which they will eat but has a bunch of things I can’t have. I assemble it in bread loaf trays and cook it in the toaster oven. then I take a pile of the unused chicken, mix it with homemade taco seasoning and Jeff and I eat it over lettuce with some sliced avocado. OR I like I described in the post, I make lasagna in the crockpot for the kids, and Jeff and I have the marinara over zucchini noodles. OR cheeseburger night, I make normal cheese burgers for the kids with raw broccoli, but jeff and I have cheese-free burgers sliced and wrapped with steamed broccoli in coconut crepes. That help?

Sarah May 28, 2012 at 11:59 am

Right! I’m just getting to that point with my kids, and I’m glad to see someone else coming to the same conclucsions as I am!

Jessie May 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

I’ve started doing something very similar now that my little boy is eating more and more grown-up items. All three of us eat differently – hubby does carbs (and is picky), I don’t do carbs (Atkins), and kiddo is coming out of a picky phase. To encourage both of them, I keep ketchup and Ranch dressing around at all times which helps. Broccoli with ketchup is still broccoli (kiddo prefers ketchup).

Good for you – trying to make mealtime work with limited variables is never easy!

Elizabeth June 7, 2012 at 7:39 am

We struggle with many of the same issues: my oldest is a SUPER-picky gagger. The middle child is much more adventurous but if her sister won’t eat it sometimes she’ll join in just to be ornery. Hubby and I are grain-free; he and baby are dairy-free too (except for the formula … almost time to wean!). I really do think the older kids would be healthier off grains, too; they are unfortunately genetically predisposed to obesity, diabetes, etc., and obviously I want to prevent all of that if possible. But they are kicking and screaming all the way (mostly figuratively, sometimes literally). It makes life difficult, to say the least.

I’m frankly exhausted trying to figure out stuff they’ll eat. Your meal-planning system sounds like a dream, but aren’t you concerned that they’ll develop the same issues that have prompted you and your husband to change your diet?

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Sybil September 19, 2015 at 9:58 am

Love your posts! Thanks for sharing your thinking strands!!
I had 5 kids and husband for 21 years and had to always cook for them of course. Now no husband (happily divorced after 29 years- sad but true) and 3 adult/ college kids at home. I still cook something hearty for my 23 year old muscle man and 17 year old Carnivore daughter (both type 1 diabetics.) but I buy and prepare my own food mostly with little /no guilt. I have found I feel so much better eating mostly fruits and vegetables and very little meat or grains or milk.
My 20 year old loves fruit. They all pretty much eat their own things and I provide the food – milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, peanut butter, bread , sandwich meat, fruit.
Sybil. Keep writing and sharing!

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