How to feed a picky eater, with tips from a food writer

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When you have a child, your greatest fear or desire is for them to be just like you. Sometimes it’s both.

That’s the position I find myself in when it comes to food – and my wayward 5-year-old son.

See, I’m living proof of two of the biggest tropes in my industry: the picky kid-turned-food writer and the food-author parent of a picky eater. I had hoped my son would not be like me at that age but I have hope that when he is older he will be more like me now.

We started out with solid foods on the younger end of the spectrum, and he responded by happily eating anything and everything, as if to say, “You mean I missed something all of it?” Curries, enchiladas, eggs, you name it. If we ate it, he wanted it too. As he got older, the list began to shrink. You better believe my mother reminded me of my similar background.

My mother also likes to remind me that my son always eats more variety than I did as a small child. When I make a black bean burrito or quesadilla for the millionth time, I grumble while acknowledging that there was very little chance I would have been amenable to them.

Honestly, you could be driving yourself crazy trying to follow all of the conflicting advice out there about how to feed your kids. You only eat what you eat. If they want something else, they have to make it themselves. They only ask for a different dish if they at least try what’s on the table (somehow the no-thanks bites were acceptable at school but not at home). Mom is not a cook and the kitchen is not a restaurant! As I’ve learned, that’s harder to sell if you happen to cook, often at home, for a living.

Like sampling a buffet, I take a bit of each of these philosophies—and more, depending on what’s appropriate and how I’m feeling. I make certain dinners because I know my son will eat them. Why insist that his appetite is always secondary to ours when my husband and I enjoy eating some of his favorites just as much? I try to get his input for the week or at least the day or morning before so there are no surprises. I stock the freezer with reheat meals or components that can be quickly pulled together when needed. I put out some fruits and veggies (raw or very simply cooked to make it easy) for him to choose what he wants. I acknowledge that everything is temporary and know that one day he will be more independent in the kitchen.

As long as I’m sure my son is growing well and consuming a reasonable amount of fruit and veg, I’ll do my best not to get too bogged down in the details. Some days this is easier than others. As mundane as it is, current events have a way of putting things into perspective. I’d rather he was looking forward to the meal than girding up for a fight (like I said, opinionated). I would prefer us to sit down happily as a family to talk about our day than to start the meal on a tart note. I train myself to focus on the big picture and to recognize that the payoff might be in years instead of weeks down the line.

That’s not to say your priorities or strategies are wrong. That’s exactly what it has – more or less, but not always! – worked for me.

If you’re looking for some easy, quick, and not too taxing dishes to add to your repertoire that have proven kid-friendly at my house, here are a few suggestions from The Washington Post’s Recipe Finder.

Breakfast burritos with black beans. Those are the burritos I mentioned above and I don’t know how I would function without them. If I don’t have a bag of these ready to put in the freezer, I get nervous. I often skip the chorizo, but it tastes just as good with beans, egg, and cheese. Sometimes I just make the black beans that cook in the Instant Pot and use them for family quesadilla night. The beans also freeze well. Simply thaw in the fridge overnight or thaw in the microwave when needed.

Classic basil pesto. “Green pasta” is another must in our house. To be honest, I’m pretty easygoing when making pesto as I tend to just watch things in my food processor. This recipe from Italian cookbook legend Marcella Hazan is a good place to start if you need guidance. I used to incorporate more kale, but my kid can smell the stuff a mile away. So I started using baby spinach in conjunction with basil. It’s milder and has the added benefit of keeping the pesto greener. I freeze containers of about 8 ounces of pesto, enough for 3 or 4 servings of pasta. Somehow they keep popping up underneath everything else I have in the freezer, much to my infinite relief. Thaw the pesto in the fridge overnight, but if it’s still slightly frozen don’t worry. Tossing it with hot pasta and some cooking water will make it softer.

Roasted broccolini with lemon and chili flakes. At this point, I can’t remember which came first: my son declared that he likes broccoli stalks, or I decided last year on Voraciously that I wanted to create a broccolini recipe for my Thanksgiving meal. Either way, the two are linked, and this dish was the result. A high heat roast makes for a quick cook with some deliciously charred tips on the florets, but it’s easy to adjust the temperature to suit your desired texture or anything else that’s being cooked in the oven at the same time. If you don’t like spicy food, just leave out the pepper flakes. With this change, my child was fully into it.

Buttermilk waffles and Fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Is there a more exciting meal for a child than breakfast for dinner? Admit it, you love it too. Both recipes are simple and flexible, easily spiced up with some whole wheat flour (again, despite my best efforts to introduce it to him, my kid has a radar for these kinds of things) or special add-ins. Go ahead, sprinkle some chocolate chips on your pancakes. I agree.

BLT with Sriracha Mayo. Let’s call this a work in progress. My son bit into my version of the classic summer sandwich the other day and thought it would be pretty good without the tangy mayo. Then he showed little interest when I offered to make him one the next day. But we will see. I’m not giving up yet. The recipe is designed for a single sandwich. Baking a larger batch of bacon in the oven and then grilling the bread slices to toast makes it a family dinner, no problem.

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