Dealing With Picky Eaters

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.

Photo by 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.