How to Calm a Parent Overly Concerned with Their Child’s Eating

A lot of money has been spent, cookbooks amassed, recipes carried out, and meals left untouched by unimpressed little hands in an attempt to nourish finicky eaters. A whole industry has been built upon the idea that children, throughout their many stages of food exploration, require special meals embellished with all manner of bells and whistles while surreptitiously burying the more nutritious pabulum under successive layers of fat, salt, and sugar. Books like Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine, and Toddler Cafť by Jennifer Carden all give a cautionary sense that something has gone horribly wrong with the way parents feed their chronically picky children.

Everyone seems to hold the singular silver bullet that will slay the selective eater and give birth to a child who willingly eats heartily and healthily. In the past week there have been two reports on National Public Radio concerning feeding picky children, in addition to the near 200 stories over the past 6 months (by my count) that have run in major media publications on the subject of nourishing/feeding difficult eaters. Judging from this, it appears parents have lost control of their children and are in need of a nutritional bailout.

I am certainly not making light of the very real obesity problems, along with all of the other nutritional shortcomings that are currently impacting young people throughout the country. Parents and children alike need to assume a greater responsibility for what they are eating and how it nourishes or malnourishes their bodies. However, speaking to parents here, I think we need to stop fretting and learn to love food, and engage with food, all over again.

Children go through countless cycles of preference and favor throughout their development, as yesterday’s favorite meal will no doubt be tomorrow’s bore. The trick (as if there really is a trick) is to cultivate a genuine love and enjoyment of food (ideally food that is wholesome and nourishing) and have that set an example for your child. A child that witnesses a parent’s love affair with a spinach salad will no doubt have some curiosity about such unknown pleasures.

If you have some kitchen skills, invite your child into the kitchen with you and put them to work. Give them a sense of involvement in what they eat, and don’t hesitate to make it meaningful by talking about the food at hand; giving some context or even a bit of personal history (i.e. “I remember hating spinach when I was a child too.”).

Ultimately, your relationship with food will inform your children’s comprehensive notion of what food is and should be.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appťtit among other publications.


Anne G.
Anne G5 years ago

Having kids help to cook what they will eat is always a good thing.

Viki V.
Viki A5 years ago

thank you.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

For us it was eat it or go hungry that night. Worked really well.

Shannon B.
Shannon M5 years ago

It bothers me when people force their children to eat, well,anything! I feel pity and horror when I witness the all too common "Eat your chicken or NO DESERT!" type rebuke so many parents seem stuck on. What are you so afraid of? They will eat when they are hungry. Seriously. You are doing more damage then good with comments like that... to their body and, worse, to their mind.

And with this standpoint the western world is rife with, it's no surprise society is no brimming with treat gobbling, sugar and salt addicted, pudgy wonders. If the concept "eat or you are BAD" is constantly pounded into you all your youth, and if your stomach and body is trained from a very young age to receive and digest much more food then it needs, of course we will grow to have not only a confused and twisted mind, but a confused and diseased body.

The habit can be broken and your body can be retrained but if your parents were anything like that, they left you with an uphill battle to fight, that's for sure.

Amber Beasley
Amber Beasley5 years ago


Crash K.
Crash K7 years ago

P.s. Lol, sadly I have to "hide" certain foods in my own food for me to eat them... I guess I'm a bit picky as well... I did recently overcome a major food dislike. I now proudly eat mushrooms every week and do so in front of my son (who knew of my serious dislike of fungus). I hope it helps set a good example for him about food :)

Crash K.
Crash K7 years ago

My son is super picky and I'm learning to deal with that, but my husband gets overly concerned with it. I know that despite my son's picky eating habits he's still eating well, but my husband often feels differently (until I remind him of things like hidden veg, mushrooms, etc in the foods I make my son when he doesn't help me cook and thus cannot "catch" me...). I'm going to have to pass this along to my husband so that he can hopefully take a better view of the situation. Thanks for the article :)

Megan Poettgen
Megan R7 years ago

Kirsten- try tossing some dark green leafy veggies in the shake. If you put berries in it, the color won't be green, and their high in calcium

My parents rule was "try it" I went years without liking most beans(still won't, honestly) squash, and spinach. But every time we had it,I had to take 1 bite. Then one day I suprised them by going back and getting seconds on acorn squash.

Kids taste buds are different. They haven't been able to "train" their body to ignore the 'bitter bad' signal yet. But when they're craving something, they'll eat it. I would let the kids choose their own snacks- from a kitchen full of bright colored fruits, veggies, and other things. If they don't start out different, it won't be different, other than the fact that it tastes a little funny. I honestly prefer the taste of sweet potato fries, but my 6 yr old sister hates them.

Anne F.
Anne F7 years ago

Need to advise dependent on age and health: 4 year olds just don't eat very much, 7 year olds may be quite picky for a few weeks, 10 year olds can help cook ANYthing.

Rita M.
Rita M7 years ago

As most of us with children know, having picky eaters is not uncommon. My son was a great eater of natural foods with me until he started school. He didn't want hot lunch so I packed his lunch which I think is far better nutritionally than what the schools serve. He is 17 now and still stops in to grab his lunch rather than eating hot lunch at school and doesn't want to spend HIS money on fast food all the time. His tastes have grown with time and he is no longer a picky eater. I did not doctor up vegetables or foods to get him to eat. Start them out with real food to avoid the trap of doctoring food or trying to trick them. Also, I wouldn't be so concerned if their diet is limited; it grows with age as do their taste buds. Once they hit their teen years, if they want to go out for fast food let them be responsible to pay for it themselves. Most teens don't like to dig into their own stash of money very often but will definitely take money from mom and dad. Lots of good tips but for the young ones, hang in there; it does get better.