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From Grocer to Grace: Reforming the Picky Eater

  • Mary Garrett CHES
  • 2012 18 Jun
From Grocer to Grace: Reforming the Picky Eater

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.

Once home with your treasures, search the Internet with your child to learn more about the foods you purchased—interesting facts and recipes. Invite your child to choose which recipe to prepare. Recipes with photographs will help your child decide what is visually appealing. Some helpful search engines include,, and Often, simple recipes that somewhat resemble the food’s prior self helps. Involve your budding chef in the preparation and cooking process and let her set the table and decide on an appealing presentation/delivery of the food to the family. Have her share with the family about her experience, including what she enjoyed the most and enjoyed the least during the process.

Since my children are 11 and 8 years old, I have them choose one food item on the dinner menu and investigate the nutritional information online using resources such as At dinnertime, each child shares what he or she has learned. It’s amazing what benefits you will discover about everyday foods. What better way to celebrate earth’s bounty and God’s grace?

One final caveat: your child may not like the taste or texture of your food adventure find and that’s okay, because she will love the process, enjoy the time spent with you, and will look forward to the next adventure. Children may not become overnight connoisseurs of exotic delicacies, but what you will cultivate is a love for discovery and the opportunity to overcome the fear of trying new foods.

The Food Game: Making Ingredients Work Together

This is a great rainy day game that will build teamwork as you learn about nutrition and culinary techniques. Works best with children over age 8.


12 sheets of paper or card stock, in 12 different colors

Black marker



1. On your notepad make a list of food items in your pantry and refrigerator, categorizing them by food types, such as these, for example:

• Grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, grits

• Legumes: black beans, split peas, lentils, navy beans, refried beans

• Vegetables: spinach, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, radishes, etc.

• Protein: chicken breast, pork tenderloin, shrimp, halibut, steak, ground hamburger, canned tuna

• Fruits: peaches, dried cranberries, apples, applesauce, oranges

• Nuts/Seeds: walnuts, peanuts, pecans, almonds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower

• Spices: cumin, curry, coriander, paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric, mustard seed, garlic

• Herbs: cilantro, parsley, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, dill, bay leaf

• Canned Sauce/Paste: tomato sauce, mashed pumpkin, coconut milk

• Vinegars: apple cider, balsamic, red/white wine vinegar

• Oils: macadamia, safflower, olive oil, canola, sesame

• Condiments: Dijon mustard, black bean sauce, curry paste, miso, soy sauce

2. Have your children assign each category a different color and make a small card for each food item on your list, writing the item name on one side and leaving the other side blank.

3. Mix up the cards and place face down on the table; have your children pick one of each color.

4. Turn cards over; with these ingredients, have your child help you create a delicious meal.

5. You can also add categories for the cooking utensils and methods, such as “whisk” or “broil.”


This game teaches children how to make wonderful meal creations with what is available and forces them to get creative about food preparation.



Experimenting with various tastes can be challenging; follow this advice for altering the taste of your creation: If a dish is too sour, add sweet; if a dish is too sweet, add sour. A dish that is too salty needs an increase in volume of the base ingredient (for soups that may be water, for example), or add something sweet. For a dish that tastes bitter, add sweet or salty.

A Garret Creation:

In my own experiment, I pulled the following cards:

• Brown rice

• Pears

• Apple Cider

• Carrots

• Rosemary

• Olive oil

• Pork tenderloin

• Spinach

I roasted the pork tenderloin (lightly coated with olive oil and chopped rosemary), with pears and carrots surrounding, in the oven for about 30 minutes at 375 degrees. After roasting, I drizzled apple cider over the entire dish and let it sit. I also tossed the cooked rice with a small amount of olive oil and a teaspoon of chopped rosemary. The sweetness of the pears and carrots paired nicely with the acidity of the vinegar, and the rosemary provided a little vitality. I sautéed spinach in a small amount of oil and served. Dinner done and creativity abundant!

Inspired by her children, Mary began a 100-pound weight loss commitment in 2003 to set a positive example. Soon after, Mary became an ACE-certified lifestyle and weight management coach. She now holds a Bachelor of Science degree in health promotion from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, is a certified health education specialist, and is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in counseling psychology. Her story has been featured in Health Magazine, Cooking Light, ABC’s 20/20, The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet and more. She began writing professionally in 2009. For more information, visit her website:

Copyright 2011, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download at to read the magazine on your Kindle Fire or Apple or Android devices.