As a veteran mother of a picky eater who’s now five and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to navigate the dinner table without either giving in to his demands or failing to nourish him properly. At certain points over the years I’ve left the table in order to take a deep breath in the other room, left the table to lie down on my bed for a moment in a quiet place where no one is saying “Yuck!” over and over and again while waving his napkin in the air, and left the table to work on the book I ended up writing about, yes, my picky eater and my own love of food and cooking. In fact, sometimes excusing yourself is the best way to deal with it. When it’s not, here’s a list of tips that I’ve discovered — through a lot of trial and error, needless to say — that make mealtime as painless as possible.
1. Don’t assume they won’t like something. Just put it in front of them and see what happens (This is how I discovered my 5-year-old, who won’t try shrimp, will happily eat shrimp tempura).
2. Always serve bread. It’s easy and it will at least fill them up if all else fails.
3. Never negotiate — number of bites, what they have to do to get dessert, anything else. It only opens the door to arguments and broken promises.
4. Once or twice a week make something you know they like. There’s no point in being needlessly dogmatic and sometimes a little generosity goes a long way.
5. Don’t offer them food later. When the meal is over, it’s over. Unless your child is severely underweight, it’s not going to hurt him or her.
6. Don’t punish them for it. Not catering to them by making them something else to eat is plenty.
7. Once the unpleasant meal is over, let it go.
8. Teach them to manage in other people’s homes. They can refuse food politely and ask for something simple like bread or yogurt. Trust me, no one wants your kid to go hungry on their watch.
9. Sit down at the table hoping for the best. If you radiate tension before the meal has even begun, you’ll be sure to get exactly the kind of behavior you don’t want.
10. Don’t use arguments that make sense to you, like “You’ve never even tried it. If you did, I’m sure you’d like it.” Or “It’s made entirely of things you love, just put together.” Picky eating is usually pretty irrational (see item one on this list), so trying to explain why it’s silly to the picky eater has zero effect.
Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, just out in paperback. She writes a column on food books for Bookforum and is also the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. For more, check out Melanierehak.com, follow her on Twitter @melanierehak or like her on Facebook.com/MelanieRehak.