The picky eater is known to all of us: tantrums, hunger strikes, and determination to eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of his life. The picky eater’s modus operandi typically includes refusing to eat anything green, any food that happens to touch other food, or anything she has never seen before. For every picky eater there is at least one parent who has tried everything: the power struggle, bribes (eat your chicken and you can have a cookie), threats (eat this carrot or no TV), and who may have even resorted to the acceptance of his or her role as short-order cook.         

Children at this stage are just learning the boundaries of their independence; they want to make their own decisions without regard to rules and ultimatums. They especially like to feel autonomous in their food choices, and why not—after all, it is their palate to train. According to Penn State Associate Professor of Food Science, Katherine Cason, it can take eight to ten occasions of offering the same food before a child will try it. Avoid forcing your child to try something, because this will likely make the child only more determined to avoid the food. Patience can be the toughest virtue of all. 

As a Health Education Specialist, nutrition is a passion of mine. In fact, it was my own beautiful children who encouraged me seven years ago to eat healthier and lose 100 pounds. I did what I thought would serve as the best lesson of all: I led by example. I could not justify insisting that they try carrots when I was unwilling to try carrots. Since that time, I have tweaked my approach to fit their needs and developed some fun and educational techniques to involve my children in the joy of cooking and eating well.

As homeschooling parents, we have the unique opportunity to introduce curricula that our children would not otherwise receive. Health education is definitely at the top of this list. With childhood obesity on the rise, incorporating nutrition and fitness in our daily lives will provide them a lifetime of good health and wellness.

Parents can help their children expand their culinary horizons by involving them in the process of preparing food from beginning to end. This educational undertaking can be fun and informal, and you can do as much or as little as you like. Try our family favorite, “the food adventure,” on your next grocery store visit. Allow for extra time and limit this particular visit to only a few items so that your child won’t experience meltdown from shopping fatigue. Even better, plan for this grocery store visit to be only about your child and his/her discoveries.

I recommend starting in the produce stand. Ask your child to choose a few fruits and/or vegetables for your evening meal. Fruits and vegetables are easy to hold and taste during preparation, and misgivings about these foods usually are the most difficult to “overcome.” As you and your child become more adventurous, you may want to expand into whole and alternative grains, seafood, or even international cuisine. Don’t be surprised if your child heads right to the horned melon; it was the first food adventure item we tried and I have to say the least successful, but go with it.

As your child picks the items she likes, discuss the name of the food, the color, the texture, the smell, and any other obvious characteristics. Think of this as introducing your child to a stranger; it is natural to be cautious, but learning more about the strange foods will essentially create a “database” of food acquaintances. Often grocers will have information about the foods displayed or knowledgeable staff available to answer questions. For smart phone users, there are several applications regarding produce information, selection, storage, and preparation that you can access right in the store.