February 17, 2010

Deceptive Dining: Why tricking your picky eater can do more harm than good

by Michele Johansen

As the parent of a picky eater, I've become well versed in the dos and don'ts of how to get a child to eat. I've read magazine articles with titles such as "Solve your toddler's eating troubles today!," "No fuss ways to get your child to eat!," and "Put an end to food wars with these simple steps." Frankly I've taken issue with most of these techniques since they assume that all kids are alike, including picky eaters.

No Silver Bullet for Getting Kids to Eat Healthy

Picky eater

One trend that has gained momentum is that of hiding pureed produce or meats in other foods. Jessica Seinfeld jumped on this “trick to eat” bandwagon with her best-selling cookbook, Deceptively Delicious which I admit is filled with clever recipes that have worked for many families.

I’ve tried this method too, hoping it would finally be the answer I'd been searching for. But it wasn't. Not only did the recipes require too much time and effort, but my picky eater was still averse to trying a new meal that I had labored over in my furious quest to up her nutrition intake. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became with the idea. Sneaking food to my kid? How is that okay?

As it turns out, deceiving kids about their meals may set their palates back more than parents realize.

Parents of picky eaters know the basics: Don't stress, serve nutritious meals, allow the child to choose what and how much he eats, and don’t become a short order cook. We know it's part of a child's development and that eventually he will grow out of it. But come 5:30 when dinner's on the table, all of the rationalizing in the world doesn't ease a troubled mom's anxiety as she watches her child take a nibble, shove his plate away, and run off to play.

These nervous parents become easy targets for Jessica Seinfeld and her contemporaries; we're eager to try anything that might make a difference, even if it means lying to our child.

Better to Trick or Go Veggie-less for a Day?

But before you get sucked into the idea of using a food processor to puree produce or stock up on squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots from the babyfood aisle, consider this: By hiding vegetables, fruits, and even meats into brownies, muffins, or chicken nuggets, you're depriving your child of the opportunity to actually try and taste that hidden ingredient. If he doesn't know beets are in there, he may not realize that he's actually partial to them.

Rebecca Michi, a parenting coach in Seattle, advises parents to not go the deceptive route for that very reason. "You don't want to trick your child," she says. "You want them to be open to trying new foods."

Of course that's a catch-22, as parents of picky eaters know. Yes, we want our kids to try new foods but being picky about what they eat doesn't help. Michi stated, and other experts agree as well, that a child may need to be offered a food 8 times or more before he will finally succumb and take a bite.

According to Michi, this is where most parents fail. They'll offer a food once or twice and then give up, saying it didn't go so well and that Junior didn't care for it.

"Being vegetarians, beans are a large part of our diet. I'd say that I had to serve beans to my daughter about twelve times before she finally took a bite. And no one was more surprised than she was to discover that she actually liked them!" says Lexie Tigre, who has come to understand it takes time for her daughter to accept new foods.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't toss in some extra broccoli or zucchini into spaghetti sauce. If it's convenient, go for it. Unless you're really into the recipe, you shouldn't have to go through the trouble of being deceptive with your meals. As with all phases, picky eating won't last forever.

In the meantime, offering a variety of nutritional foods and having consistent meal times will go a long way towards helping your child become, in time, a better and healthier eater-without the trickery!

Have some ideas to help picky eaters (and their parents!) at mealtime?  We’d love to hear  your thoughts!

Get your family organized and on the same page with Cozi, the free online family organizer.

Michele Johansen is a writer in Bellevue, WA. As a mom of two young daughters, she realized the importance of getting out of the house to keep her sanity. She is the co-creator of the Ruby Slipper Guide, a website that lists activities and events for families living east of Seattle and blog that delves into the foils of parenting. She also co-authors a regular feature for 425 Magazine, Kid-Sized Eastside.


Paola N

I bought the Deceptively Delicious cookbook to help me sneak in some veggies when I came about desserts.
I did not buy with the purpose of cheat my children into eating veggies or fruits, I, like you, don't believe that this is the way to get your children to eat their greens.
We have lots of potlucks at church and events from school and work and it is nice to give the kids something extra when they are eating some sweets :)

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