My littlest daughter was always complaining that she was too short, whining about being the shrimp of the family, until the day came when she could brush her teeth without a stool. Suddenly, she realized how much taller she was, and how the tiny bits of daily growth had sneakily added up to something quite significant. That is the nature of slow-but-steady change. We had a similar experience on vacation this summer, except that it was about the tremendous growth we’ve witnessed in our picky eaters.
I’ll back up. I have four daughters, and two and half of them are picky eaters. While I’d had some success in improving their eating with a few strategies here and there, I wanted to see a more fundamental shift, not just an occasional willingness to eat a vegetable. About a year and a half ago, I started researching picky eating. I suspected the story was bigger than finding a magical recipe that would make my kids like spinach. My research confirmed my suspicions: Picky eating was a complex issue with many causes. And each one of my kids probably identified with several of the root causes to varying degrees. So I decided to create a program that focused on root causes, something beyond tips and recipes. I invited Food Network viewers into my home to watch and learn along with us. The result was the unique Food Network Web series called The Picky Eaters Project. By the time we completed the program ourselves and the cameras came down from our family dining room (we called it “carrot cam” because it spied on us all throughout dinner!), my girls were eating foods I never dreamed they would (Margaux liked peas?!) and had started making their own wise choices about healthy eating (Charlotte was reading cereal labels before choosing a box). The response from fellow parents of picky eaters was tremendous, and we were thrilled that The Picky Eaters Project was included as a Webby honoree last year.
But life is busy with school, work (including finishing my latest cookbook, Supermarket Healthy) and parenting, and I no longer noticed the little victories (as I did for my Victory File during The Picky Eaters Project). So when my entire family showed up at my in-laws’ house in France on the tail end of a three-week whirlwind family vacation through five European countries, the last thing on my mind was managing picky eating. (The first thing on my mind was laundry: Everyone was allowed one carry-on for three weeks of travel, so I’ll let you do the math on the status of our clothing.) But when we sat down to dinner that first night and my mother-in-law loaded up the kids’ plates with dinner, something amazing happened: No one complained, and everyone tried a little bit of everything, even if it ended up not being a favorite. My mother-in-law commented on the big difference she noticed in the girls’ eating habits. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t stressed about the kids not eating well away from home, and that was a new feeling for me. A tension I didn’t realize I had been living with as a mom of picky eaters had been lifted, like shoes you don’t realize are too tight until you take them off and your feet spread out in glorious freedom. It felt that good.
This moment of truth was my version of Margaux reaching the faucet, and later that evening, I found myself reviewing the year on the picky eating front. The kids have maintained a willing palate and have fallen in love with homemade versions of just about everything, which means I can be in charge of what their little bodies take in. Most nights I set the table well in advance of dinner, and the table is reserved for positive discussion and sharing. The kids are clued into nutrition more than ever, the kids are exercising regularly (and loving it!), we still present dinner and create menus with the kids, and the list of foods they like has easily tripled over the past year. We had (pleasant, no-stress) lunch and dinner in places like Istanbul and Athens this summer! But the winner of “best new habit” coming from The Picky Eaters Project has to be the dinner bell. Wow! If I had only known how a $20 bell I bought online would change how easily the kids transition into “dinner mode” from whatever they are doing, I would have bought one years ago.
We still have room for improvement, but parenting is about progress, not perfection. And that’s why The Picky Eaters Project is written to be followed whenever we need a brush-up on our family’s eating habits. So that’s what we’ll be doing this back-to-school season: brushing up on eating right. Right after I jot down all our successes in our Victory File.
My kids’ favorite Picky Eaters Project recipes: