I know I’m not the only one who goes through the trials and tribulations of having a picky eater (nor am I the only one who headdesks over it). I know I’m lucky because I do have kids who will get less picky as they get more hungry (and no, I’m not above letting them feel a belly-growl or two, either, because they’re old enough to know what “eat it or wear it” means). But I’m also not above seeking out an arsenal to combat those “Not X again!” where X is anything from the ubiquitous meatloaf to roast chicken, shrimp scampi, or yesterday’s favorite whatever.

The velvet glove isn’t the worst first volley in the clean plate crusade. Kids are notoriously mercenary when it comes to looking out for themselves. Maybe because for most of humanity’s history they’ve been chattel, an afterthought, or cheap and disposable labor with a short life expectancy (look it up). Asking, “What’s in it for me?” isn’t all that hard to imagine being an inborn survival tactic. I’m willing to negotiate.

House Rules. We’ve established a house rule here at Casa Athena. Anything new, experimental, or otherwise comprised of edible WTFkery is given three bites’ chance. Whether it’s the kids’ creations, mom’s kitchen mad science lab experiment, or dad’s “doctorin’ up” of something otherwise simple, everybody has to take three bites–one to thank the cook, one to find out what you like, and one more to find out why you hate it. With my older one, I’ve started asking the budding chef, “Well, what would you have done differently?” or “Why, specifically, don’t you like it?” And quite honestly, if their answer shows thoughtful consideration, they don’t have to eat it. If, however, they’re just being whiny (and you know we can tell), they’ve gotta work for it.

If Ye Don’t Eat Yer Meat, How Can Ye Have Any Pudding? This most obvious of tactics isn’t a bad tool to have in the box. Bargain for food consumption with the opportunity to consume more food. Balance the tasty and the obligatory, in moderation. If you time it right, you can fill little bellies with the good stuff in exchange for, “Wow, I’m too full to finish this cake.” But I will warn you, once they figure that out, you’ll get resistance in the form of, “I’m saving room for dessert.” In which case, you make sure that your smaller portion sizes of everything–especially dessert–keep the kids from making more room in the form of childhood obesity.

The Waiting Game. A touch more devious, playing the waiting game can be as simple as saying, “OK, go play for now. This will still be here when you’re hungry enough to eat it.” Older kids will get a kick out of seeing if they can out-wait you. You can return the favor by reminding them that the longer they let it sit, the more unappetizing it will be.

Ask For The Stars, Settle For The Moon. Start high. Clean your whole plate. As time goes on, you can move the goal posts to a more reasonable amount of dinner–because face it, sometimes they just aren’t hungry, and aren’t gonna eat it no matter what you do. The point is to make them aware that resistance takes commitment. This will benefit them later in life when they resist authority and adopt radical ideas from college friends–they’ll go into it knowing that radical ideas will require them to commit and accept consequences.

If You’re Not Part Of The Solution… The occasional crab about the food isn’t unheard of, even in Martha Stewart’s kitchen. If it gets to be a habit with the old enough, it might be time to teach them about being part of the solution versus being part of the problem. Let them invest some time and effort into picking what goes in the pot and onto the table. You still get to be the parent, but let their brains start taking up some of the slack. They just might surprise you, and it certainly doesn’t hurt their future families for them to have learned the ins and outs of What’s For Dinner before they flail around as young adults.

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