One mom, fed up with her kids' finicky food preferences, put them through a picky-eater boot camp of her own invention. Read on for the surprising (and enlightening) results of her experiment.
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Food weaved into a grid pattern
Credit: James Wojcik

We had been seated no more than a minute in the restaurant—a kid- friendly brick-oven pizza joint—when the inquisition began. “Will there be dark spots on the crust? Or those green origami specks?” Dashiell, five, asked plaintively, his lower lip quivering in fear. “That’s oregano,” retorted Bryn, 10. “I can’t believe I have to eat off the children’s menu,” she added, spitting out the last two words with disdain.

When the cheese pizza finally came, both refused to eat a bite: Bryn because it was too plain and pedestrian, Dash because the cheese didn’t adequately obscure the sauce from view. There they sat, plates untouched, scowls firmly planted. And that…was…it. I’d had it. In that moment, I crossed my own personal Rubicon. I would transform my kids’ attitudes about eating dinner, I swore to myself. Whatever it took.

I meant it this time. Since he started taking in solids, Dash—a standard-issue picky eater—would consume only beige and starchy foods: buttered pasta, white bread, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets (yes, they must be dinosaur-shaped). This was frustrating enough. But Bryn made things even more complicated with her esoteric strain of pickiness. Since first grade, she had eschewed all “kid food” (a.k.a. anything Dash would eat) in favor of sophisticated fare—say, crostini topped with artisanal prosciutto and goat cheese. At first, I was proud of her culinary chutzpah. That faded once I realized that her taste for fancy food hadn’t made her less finicky. She would eat sushi but not salmon, arugula but not asparagus.

For a long time, I attempted to satisfy my children’s divergent palates. I spent countless hours searching for balanced meals that would please both of them—a recipe for disaster. Ultimately I got tired of expending so much herculean effort, so I gave up. I would end up making one meal for three of us and a separate dinner for the other child.

I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I know that if there were an Official Mom Handbook, there would be a whole chapter on Why It’s a Bad Idea to Make Your Kids Separate Meals. But I wasn’t sure how to stop the cycle—until my restaurant epiphany.

I had once gotten into shape by taking a daily fitness boot camp. The course’s rigor and compressed time frame pushed me to do things I wouldn’t normally do. And it worked. With that shock-and-awe approach in mind, I decided to create a picky-eater boot camp, a two-week program in which my kids would be forced (er, challenged) to try new foods at dinner and to follow a few guidelines to shape up their mealtime behavior. For some expert guidance, I enlisted Elizabeth Pantley, the author of The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution ($11, Our goal was not only to get the kids to diversify their diets but also to make dinners less fraught and more enjoyable for everyone—parents included.

My New Dinnertime Rules

1. Say “thank you” before each meal and mention something nice that happened that day. I wanted to start dinner on a grace note—versus opening with a litany of complaints.

2. Try three bites before saying you don’t like something. Pantley advises two, but my kids are capable of cutting food into Barbie-size pieces. Three seemed safer.

3. Choose your own portions—within reason. “Many picky eaters want to maintain some control over their meal,” points out Pantley. So with the exception of the three mandatory bites of new foods, the amount is up to them.

4. Once a week, kids plan the menu. Again, this is a chance to give them some control over the meal. Machiavellian mom that I am, I couldn’t wait to see Bryn and Dash try to come to an agreement on their ingredient list.

5. Glamorize vegetables. Translation: Have the kids eat their peas and carrots first, or at least talk them up before you present them. “If you make vegetables the star of the show—for example, saying you’re having carrots with chicken, rather than vice versa—kids will be more likely to eat them,” says Pantley.

With rules in hand, I assembled my boot-camp recipes. (My main concession was to make sure every dish contained at least one ingredient each kid found palatable.) After I gave my tykes a pep talk about our little experiment (they were horrified; I told them they had no choice), we got started.

The Boot Camp

Day 1: Corn, chicken, and Jack quesadillas. The kids have never had Jack cheese, and they’re wary of new combinations. But everything goes well. Dash is pleased that the cheese “has a boy name.” And both say something nice about their days. (Dash wasn’t shushed by the lunch aide for once; Bryn had a fun playdate.) My husband whispers that maybe this will be easier than we thought.

Day 2: Rigatoni with cauliflower, broccoli, and tomato sauce. The kids always run screaming (literally) from red sauce, and yet I serve it. Such hubris. Dash bursts into tears. Bryn sniffs with dismay, pointing out that white pasta isn’t nutritious, so why should she eat it? (She has a point. I tell her to eat it anyway.) Dash goes to bed without taking one bite—much less three. Bryn shovels her food in sullen silence. Everyone forgets to say something nice before, during, or after dinner.

Day 3: Creamy shrimp rolls with carrots. “Now you’re just asking for trouble,” warns my husband. He might be right. I am prepared to have the meal implode again, but it isn’t so bad. Dash mostly eats the hot dog bun, plus three bites of shrimp. Bryn doesn’t hate the mayo-based sauce. I tell them they can have cookies if they eat extra carrots. Pantley has cautioned against such bribery, since it conveys the message that dessert is tastier than vegetables. But dessert is tastier than vegetables, so I do it anyway.

Day 5: Kids’-choice night: cheese tortellini topped with apples and bacon, plus iceberg lettuce. As I predicted, Bryn and Dash spend a half hour arguing over ingredients. (I try to control my Schadenfreude over their stressed menu-planning.) Dash is displeased with the inclusion of lettuce—Bryn’s idea—until he tastes it. “This is delicious!” he cries—and eats a bowlful. My husband whips out his camera to commemorate the moment.

Day 7: Turkey burgers with guacamole, paired with black bean and corn salad. Bryn says she’s not a fan, but I’m not so sure: She cleans her plate. Dash eats part of the burger, then spends an hour staring at his three allotted black beans. When they finally get into his mouth, he’s so disgusted, he spits them back out. “Horror, horror,” he mutters, channeling Joseph Conrad. I burst out laughing. Normally I would be irate about spewing at the table, but instead I’m relieved: If this is the worst thing that happens when my son tries a new food, it’s not all that bad.

Day 8: Spaghetti with tomato sauce and yellow squash. The kids’ melodramatic reaction to tomato sauce made me feel I had to serve it again. (I’m trying not to be cowed anymore by their antics.) This time they eat it with grimaces—but, hey, no histrionics. Only then do I realize I have not been talking up vegetables. Oops.

Day 11: Moroccan chicken with roasted peaches, grape tomatoes, and couscous. The kids think peaches and tomatoes are weird together. They’re right. But Dash decides he likes grape tomatoes. Huzzah! Neither notices the seasoning (cinnamon, paprika, nutmeg) on the chicken. “It’s a miracle,” my husband mutters.

Day 13: Mushrooms and zucchini (with chicken). I announce the vegetables as though they’re about to walk the red carpet: “Now presenting mushrooms in a silky butter sauce!” It doesn’t matter. The kids hate them anyway. But Dash admits he loves sharing something nice about his day before the meal. “This way, you know how I feel about things in my life,” he says thoughtfully. Bryn says she likes the ritual, too. She means it. No eye-rolling! For me, it’s the best moment of the boot camp, hands down.

Day 14 (last day!): Grilled salmon with edamame and corn salad. Go out with a bang, I figure. (Of those ingredients, Bryn and Dash have been willing to eat only corn.) Bryn gushes about the fish. Dash says it’s not horrible. But both hate the edamame.“The only thing good about it is the word,” sighs Dash. “Edamame is the funnest word.”

Our Family Dinners Now

That was just the beginning. These days, the kids are voracious and zealous omnivores…oh, who are we kidding? They still interrogate me every time we order cheese pizza. Bryn remains offended by kids’ menus. Dash hasn’t eaten another black bean. (And I occasionally still serve him chicken nuggets. So sue me.) Still, I consider the boot camp successful.

Our dinner rules—we’ve kept all of them, except glamorizing vegetables—have helped the kids understand what’s expected, which has meant fewer tantrums. Each one now tries food when it’s offered. Plus, they’ve discovered a couple of dishes they’ll both eat (the quesadillas and the turkey burgers). This may not sound like much, but it increases our repertoire about 300 percent.

What’s more, I’ve changed: I’m more relaxed, even when the kids refuse to eat. Yes, I care that they have a varied and healthy diet, but I’m learning not to be so invested in every bite. And that means I can spend more time enjoying the people at my dinner table—and less time worrying what’s on it.