Calling all picky eaters! We have one of your own… Alexander Soto is an 8 year old, self-identified, picky eater! This month, my former student, Vanessa Romo and I interviewed Alexander to learn a little bit more about why he does not like certain foods, and to brainstorm strategies that can help. Interestingly enough, the “I’m a picky eater” excuse is not reserved for younger kids, as people of all ages use these very words to stay stuck in their “Excuse-itarian” ways!
An Easy Out…
We started our conversation with a question that surprised Alexander. What are the benefits of being a “picky eater”? Although he had not thought about it like this before, Alexander soon realized that being “picky” was “working for him.” He told us that if he has never tried a food before, but it looks or smells “weird” – he just says “I’m picky” and he skips it, quickly finding a familiar food.
While most of us are a bit hesitant when we venture out of our comfort zone, there are several great reasons to try new foods! Not only is it difficult to get all of the nutrients you need when your diet is limited to only a few foods, but it can be boring!!! When you are more open to a variety of foods, you can have more fun, since your options expand when going out with your friends or to family gatherings. Plus, many of those “new” foods can turn into fast favorites.
Normal: Yours or Mine?
When I asked Alexander what foods he did like, he told us that he loved beans. “Black beans?” I asked. He promptly said, “No, I don’t like those. I like normal beans.” It turns out that pinto beans are “normal” beans, since they are commonly eaten at his home, and he’d never tried a black bean. He was shocked when we explained that what is normal to him may not be normal to other people, and for a lot of families, black beans are their “normal” beans. It is helpful for all of us to remember that “normal” is relative to our personal experiences, thus far, and we don’t want that to hold us back from experiencing all that life has to offer (when it comes to food and beyond)!
The Tale of a Thousand Bites
When Alexander told us how much he loved watermelon, I asked if he’d ever had a mushy piece that didn’t taste good to him. He said yes, but that only some watermelon was too soft. Since Alexander had eaten a lot of watermelon in his life, he was completely ok with knowing that each bite might feel a bit different in his mouth. Sometimes the “scope of enjoyment” when it comes to food is a result of exposure, with multiple opportunities to taste the same foods enabling us to realize that variation isn’t just normal, but something we can appreciate.
Texture Turn Off
Speaking of texture, the method used to prepare a food can make a huge difference when it comes to engaging picky eaters. My husband grew up doing his best to avoid putting cauliflower on his plate, as he strongly disliked the potent odor and mushy texture when it was (over) steamed. When I asked him to try my roasted cauliflower, he was hesitant, but liked it so much that I quickly named my recipe after him and put it in the newspaper to share! Even Vanessa explained that she didn’t used to like cactus, because when she first tried it in a soup, it had a “slimy” texture, but regularly makes a salad with nopales that she loves.
Taste is learned!
I am sure that by now, a few foods that you once were either afraid to try or didn’t like have come to mind. As each semester begins, I listen for the first, “Ew, gross!” comment, as I mention foods like beets, broccoli or collard greens. I suggest a more appropriate response, “That’s interesting, I don’t believe that I have had that prepared in a way that I enjoyed yet.” Then, I take advantage of that ever-so-teachable moment and explain that taste is actually learned! I ask my students to share some examples of foods they “learned to love” and they can’t believe how much their tastes changed. Many tell me that they didn’t used to like to eat mushrooms, tomatoes, guava or jicama but now can’t get enough of them! If you haven’t heard, it can take up to 15 exposures for someone to begin to accept a new food, so it pays to stay curious!
While it often seems that our kids (or any other family members, for that matter) don’t “listen” to us, you can bet they are watching what we do. Since we all have an innate need to feel accepted, we often mimic those around us without realizing it. If your parents didn’t like onions, you may have assumed that you weren’t going to like them either. Family and friends do play a big role in influencing our food choices, and actions speak louder than words. We all know that one of the best ways to get someone to do something (kids and adults alike), is to set an example. Alexander’s 14 year old sister, Litzi was proud to tell us that she eats a wide variety of foods and explained that she started trying new foods because her friends were eating them and she wanted to be included. Now, they have a lot of fun making new culinary creations and are excited to eat together.
Tell Me ALL About it!
If you have ever tried to argue with someone who says they don’t like a food or it doesn’t taste good, you know that your well-intentioned efforts are futile. Instead of being open giving it another try, the exchange often becomes a battle of wills, or is reduced to bribery, and never tends to end well. Instead, we need to honor their unique experience and invite them to share it with us. One of the most effective things we can do is ask picky eaters to describe the food they are being asked to taste with as much detail as possible, and carefully listen to them! Developing a rich vocabulary related to food can help them recognize that “sour” or “bitter” aren’t bad, they are just different flavors. When the answer is simply “I don’t like it” – there is no way to know if the offending issue is related to smell, flavor, texture or temperature. Let them do the talking, as we certainly don’t want to put words in their mouth and make decisions for them, so hold your tongue if you find yourself about to say something along the lines of, “Oh, you don’t eat sour things, so you’re probably not going to like that.”
Why So Serious?!
Curiosity is powerful and experimenting can be fun, but having a picky eater at home can be stressful! Take the pressure off and throw some taste-testing parties! Taste testing can be done with the same food prepared in different ways (raw, steamed, baked, broiled, with or without sauce), or different varieties of food. With Alexander, we discussed taste-testing 5 or 6 different types of beans and having him rank them from his least to most favorite and describe what he liked the most (and the least) about each one.
Give a Carrot (another) Chance
When Alexander tried a “carrot dog” for the first time, he didn’t realize that it was a carrot, and although he did notice it was a little different, he said it was good and liked it! Then, nearly a year later, Vanessa asked him to try the carrot dog for a second time, in anticipation of our interview, and he was very resistant. Although he said it smelled and tasted like barbecue, he told us he didn’t like it since it was a carrot. At the ripe old age of eight, he just couldn’t get his mind around the fact that a carrot could be served like a hot dog. Fortunately, if you shape the carrot like a hot dog, marinate it for several days and grill it up, it really does look and taste like a hot dog (that loves you back)!
By continue to try foods multiple times in different ways, we can all widen comfort zones and expand options, while respecting our individual experiences with food. Strategies that can make a habit out of trying new foods include monthly taste-tests and a trip to the grocery store or Farmers’ Market for a new food of the week. Don’t be fooled by appearances, as strange ingredients and weird combinations can turn out fantastic! When trying something different, like a carrot dog, be open to the possibilities, and look forward to the differences and similarities instead of judging a food as inferior simply because it isn’t “normal” for you, yet!
Alexander’s Carrot Dogs (see his picture below!)
Don’t let the simplicity of this recipe keep you from making it! We grilled some for everyone to taste at a recent meeting and although we were all open to trying, no one had high expectations. I am so happy that didn’t stop us, as the overwhelming response was, “Wow… It all really comes together well. That actually works!” So, reserve judgement, give them a whirl and describe your experience. (That way, you will be able to make adjustments to cooking time, marinating time or toppings, if needed)! Perhaps they’ll be a new favorite you can enjoy on an upcoming camping trip and throughout the summer barbecue season!
5 medium carrots shaped like traditional hot dog (optional, but recommended)
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of low sodium soy sauce or tamari
~1/8 tsp liquid smoke
1/2 tsp maple syrup
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup water
Black pepper, to taste
1 chipotle chili in adobo, cut into pieces, seeds removed (optional)
Steam or boil carrots until tender (~15 minutes). While the carrots are cooking, combine the marinade ingredients in a gallon zip-top bag. When the carrots are tender, plunge into ice cold water and once cool, add them to the bag with marinade. Place in refrigerator overnight, or up to 3 days. The longer they marinate, the more flavor the carrots will absorb. Cook in a skillet (or on an indoor or outdoor grill), pouring some of the marinade over the carrots while cooking, to develop a darker color. Flip for even color. Enjoy with your favorite toppings! Be creative!
The Nutrition Professor’s Cook Smart, Eat Smart Tip: Cooked carrots are actually more nutritious than raw, since some of their amazing phytonutrients are easier for our bodies to absorb once heated!
Timaree Hagenburger, a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and is honored to work with students like Vanessa as a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. Timaree also conducts local events, corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV and published her first cookbook – The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy. available at www.FoodieBars.com – where you will also find details about Timaree’s upcoming events (cooking demos, book signings and talks about the incredible power you yield with your fork!).