How to feed a picky eater, with tips from a food writer

Don't toss those leafy veggie tops: How to use the whole vegetable.


When you have a kid, your greatest fear or your most fervent wish is that they will grow up to be exactly like you. Sometimes it’s both.

That’s the position I find myself in when it comes to food โ€” and my opinionated 5-year-old son.

See, I am living proof of two of the biggest tropes there are in my line of work: The picky kid who turned into a food writer and the food writer parent of a picky eater. I’d been hoping my son wouldn’t be the same as me at that age, yet I hold out hope that when he’s bigger, he’ll be more like I am now.

We started solid foods on the younger end of the spectrum, and he responded by eating anything and everything with gusto, as if to say, โ€œYou mean I’ve been missing out on all of this?โ€ Curries, enchiladas, eggs, you name it. If we were eating it, he wanted it, too. As he got older, the list began to shrink. You better believe my mom has reminded me of my similar trajectory.

As my mom also likes to remind me, my son eats more and more varied foods than I did as a young kid. When I’m making a black bean burrito or quesadilla for the millionth time, I grumble while acknowledging there was very little chance I would have been amenable to them.

Honestly, you could drive yourself crazy trying to follow all the conflicting advice there is about how to handle feeding your kids. They only eat what you eat. If they want something different, they have to make it themselves. They ask for another dish only if they at least try what’s on the table (somehow the no-thank-you bites were acceptable at school but not at home). Mom is not a chef, and the kitchen is not a restaurant! As I have learned, that’s a harder sell when you do happen to cook, often at home, for a living.

Like sampling a buffet, I take a little bit from all of these philosophies โ€” and more, depending on what’s convenient and my own mood at any given moment. I make certain dinners knowing my son will eat them. Why insist that his appetite always be secondary to ours when my husband and I are just as happy to chow down on some of his favorites, too? I try to solicit his input for the week, or at least the day or morning before so there are no surprises. I stock the freezer with heat-and-eat meals or components that can be pulled together quickly as needed. I put out a few fruits and vegetables (raw or very simply cooked to make it easy) so he can pick and choose what he wants. I recognize everything is temporary and know that one day, he will be able to be more independent in the kitchen.

As long as I am confident my son is growing well and taking in a reasonable amount of fruits and vegetables, I do my best not to get too hung up on the particulars. Some days, that’s easier than others. Trite as it is, current events have a way of putting things into perspective. I would rather he look forward to eating than girding himself for a fight (as I said, opinionated). I would rather we sit down happily as a family to talk about our day than begin the meal on a sour note. I am training myself to focus on the big picture and realize the payoff may be years, instead of weeks, down the line.

That’s not to say that your priorities or strategies are wrong. This is just what has โ€” more or less, but not always! โ€” worked for me.

If you’re looking for a few simple, quick and not-too-taxing dishes to add to your repertoire that have proved kid-friendly in my house, here are some suggestions from The Washington Post’s Recipe Finder.

Black Bean Breakfast Burritos. These are the burritos I mentioned above, and I don’t know how I’d function without them. If I don’t have a bag of these ready to go in the freezer, I start getting nervous. I often skip the chorizo, but they’re just as satisfying with beans, egg and cheese. Sometimes I make only the black beans, which are cooked in the Instant Pot, and use them for family quesadilla night. The beans freeze well on their own, too. Just thaw overnight in the refrigerator or defrost in the microwave when you need them.

Classic Basil Pesto. โ€œGreen pastaโ€ is another go-to in our house. Truth be told, I’m pretty loosey goosey when making pesto, as I tend to just eyeball things in my food processor. This recipe from Italian cookbook legend Marcella Hazan is a good place to start if you need the guidance. I used to incorporate more kale, but my kid can sniff that stuff out a mile away. So I started using baby spinach in conjunction with the basil. It’s milder and also has the added bonus of helping the pesto stay greener. I freeze containers with about 8 ounces of pesto, enough for 3 or 4 servings of pasta. Somehow they keep turning up buried under everything else I have in the freezer, much to my unending relief. Thaw pesto overnight in the refrigerator but if it’s still a bit frozen, don’t worry. Tossing with hot pasta and some of the cooking water will finish softening it.

Roasted Broccolini With Lemon and Chile Flakes. At this point I can’t remember what came first: My son declaring he liked broccoli stems or me deciding I wanted to develop a broccolini recipe for my Thanksgiving menu on Voraciously last year. Either way, the two are connected, and this dish was the result. A high-heat roast makes for fast cooking with some delightfully charred tips on the florets, but it’s easy to tweak the temperature to suit your desired texture or to match whatever else is cooking in the oven at the same time. For kids who don’t like spicy food, just leave out the red pepper flakes. With that change, my kid was all in.

Buttermilk Waffles and Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes. Is there a more exciting meal for a kid than breakfast for dinner? Admit it, you love it too. Both of these recipes are simple and flexible, easy to jazz up with some whole-grain flours (again, my kid has radar for these types of things despite my best efforts to introduce them to him) or special add-ins. Go ahead, sprinkle some chocolate chips on your pancakes. I approve.

BLT With Sriracha Mayo. Let’s call this one a work in progress. My son took a bite of my version of the classic summer sandwich the other week and deemed it would be pretty good without the spicy mayo. Then he showed little interest when I offered to make him one on a subsequent day. But we’ll see. I’m not giving up quite yet. The recipe is designed for a single sandwich. If you bake a bigger batch of bacon in the oven and then broil the bread slices for toasting, it morphs into a family meal, no problem.

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