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Breaking Your Kid's Picky Eating Habits


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today we thought we'd get some advice about food.

And we were thinking about this because as we head into summer, parents may be taking kids to more picnics and cookouts and family reunions, and many are dreading that moment when your family friend or your mother-in-law places a carefully prepared plate of home cooking in front of your children and they go, eww, I'm not eating that. Many parents know the type. They only want the chicken nuggets or hamburgers or pizza or - anything else will bring an upturned nose, even some tears.

But our panel says you can end the tyranny of the tears about food. You can enjoy those family meals instead of dreading them, even with those so-called picky eaters. So with us now to talk about this - Sally Sampson, she is founder of ChopChop, an organization that encourages children to cook. She's also a mom of two. Welcome, Sally.


MARTIN: Thanks for joining us. Frederick Douglass Opie is a food historian at Babson College, also a dad of two. Frederick Douglass Opie, welcome back to you. Thanks for joining us again.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS OPIE: Thank you for the invitation. And hello, Sally.

SAMPSON: Hi, how are you?

OPIE: Good.

MARTIN: And also with us, Anupy Singla. She's a cookbook author and a mom of two. Anupy, welcome back to you as well.

ANUPY SINGLA: Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Sally, let me start with you 'cause you're kind of like super nanny for food.

SAMPSON: (Laughing).

MARTIN: You recently spent six weeks with a family who have 4-year-old twins to try to get them to be less picky. And you wrote about that experience for The New York Times. And you say that picky eating is often about control. Tell us about that.

SAMPSON: Well, if you - I think kids often control the meal and therefore the parents. So they get the parents to sort of jump up all the time and cater to them. And if you - if somebody's catering to you, you don't have a lot of reason to stop. So I think it really is about control.

MARTIN: Frederick, you were telling us that - you know, I was thinking about, like, the old-school way of dealing with this, since you're like our historian here. How back in the day, I think it was not at all uncommon for people to say, you know, you'll eat it and you will sit there all night. I have friends who were actually literally forced to sit at the dinner table all night if they didn't clean their plates. I don't know about - you know, I'm not disclosing who this may have happened to. But - I don't know...


MARTIN: But that kind of old-school attitude toward food - I mean, where do you think it came from and why do you think that - I think you'd hear very little about that now?

OPIE: Where did it come from? There's so many things in our food traditions and culture that we don't have the answer to. You know, a lot of these are kind of family traditions and habits and quirks, to be honest with you. But, you know, every family is different. And I think it is about balance. It's certainly - you know, I was thinking about, you know, our conversation. And I'm a 50-plus dad. So I have an 8 and 11-year-old, and I tend to be much more old-school than the contemporary, you know, to the parents of my children's classmates. So if you come to my house, it's going to be one experience. When my kids go to another house, it's a lot more laissez-faire, I'll put it that way.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's why - I think - that there's more variation on this because people don't like how they were necessarily raised around food and they want to be more loosey-goosey about it? Do you think that that's kind part of it - people are throwing out the old ways, but they don't know what they want to replace it with?

OPIE: Yeah, I do think - I think there's a lot of what I would call cooks in the kitchen when it comes to, you know, how do you raise your kids. And, you know, how do you get your kids to eat is one of those. But I do agree with Sally, this whole ideal of catering to the kids to the point of exhaustion, I think this makes for a very difficult way to get them - to train them up in some good eating habits.

And my philosophy with my kids especially is I cook with them and I think they have a better sense of it. Also garden with them, they'll have a better sense of what they're eating. So my kids are much more user-friendly when it comes to things like vegetables.

MARTIN: Good, I want to hear some practical advice from each of you in a minute but, Anupy, I want to hear from you first. You were saying you think we should actually do away with the phrase picky eater. Tell me why.

SINGLA: Yeah, I really do. I hear a lot of my kids' friends coming to my house actually - they come to my house and they'll announce to me, you know, I'm a picky eater. I only eat white foods, I only eat this, I only eat that. And I always say to them, hey, guys, let's not label ourselves. And so I think what's happening is often parents are out there saying this stuff. Their kids are picking up on it and thus they are using it as a way to go ahead and not eat certain things, giving themselves an out.

The other part of it is I believe that we're all human beings that are evolving, even as adults, in terms of what we like and what we don't like. I mean, you could say - and I write about this on my blog, "Chicagoan as Apple Pie," which is part of the ChicagoNow family - and I talked about how my kids you could almost say they're picky eaters. They eat every fresh vegetable or fruit out there. However my older one won't eat sauces. My little one eats every sauce you give her. My older one will only eat fresh food - I mean, I've spoiled her just cooking, cooking, cooking at home. I write cookbooks so obviously we do a lot of that. But she'll go somewhere and they'll say, no, we don't eat this chicken or we don't eat something prepped this way.

They don't even eat Indian food in certain Indian restaurants because they get it a certain way at home. Is that picky? Yeah, maybe in some ways it is. So let's get rid of that picky eater sort of term and let's just say, look, there's some days when they will eat certain things, some days when they won't. And you have to just kind of keep throwing it at them and continue to work at it. It's a lot of work.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what Professor Frederick Douglass Opie says when kids come to his house and say I only eat white food. I'm just kind of awaiting the answer. But what do you say when kids come over? I mean, because that peer pressure is part of it isn't it?

OPIE: Well, it's...

MARTIN: Is it that idea that all the kids eat this so therefore I have to eat that? I mean...

OPIE: It's a lot like coaching. I mean, I see kids do - or interact with their parents who I coach, that they don't do that with me. And when you come in my door, it's - you know, I'm - I will be flexible. But there's some things we just don't play in my house. And I - thinking about your question about how did this start - a lot of what we talk about is a class dimension because the bottom line is poor folks who do not get a regular meal, they don't have the option of being picky. That's a middle and upper-class option.

MARTIN: All right, well, having said that, let's talk about some practical advice. Sally, why don't you start because you started with this - you wrote this piece about working with these kids. What do you start - how do you start when you want to break that cycle in your own home?

SAMPSON: Well, what we did with the 4-year-olds was the parents sat down with them and said from now on we're having one dinner. This is it. And they got the kids to participate. So the kids - they took them to the grocery store and said we're going to have - the idea is that you start where the kids are, basically. But in this case, they - the parents said we're going to have turkey burgers tonight. So that was kind of exciting to the kids.

And they said to one twin you can pick any of fruit you want, and they said to the other one you can pick any vegetable you want. The kids were so excited to be choosing. And then they went home and the idea was that they were going to surprise mommy with dinner. So they did all this with the dad. And the kids, just the process of cooking it, induced them to participate fully, you know, by just every piece of it. And they did taste things.

I will say that I think the less of a big deal you make of the whole thing, the better. Like, you don't say to kids you have to try something or aren't you terrific because you tried it, very low-key so that it's just sort of a - it's what we do.

MARTIN: Interesting. To that point - if you're just joining us we're talking about - sorry, Anupy - picky eaters, a term that some feel should be banned. We're talking about that. For people who still use that term, we're talking about how to break that cycle of, you know, kids controlling your dinner table.

So, Fred, why don't you pick up the thread there. You know, it's interesting 'cause you do make an interesting point that a lot of people will find that their kids won't eat green beans in their house, but then they go over to the neighbor's house and they say, well, what did you have for dinner - green beans and they were delicious. And you're like what? You know, what are you doing? So, Fred, what about you?

OPIE: One of the things that I've learned from my two children - they're 11 and 8, boy and girl - is that they will tell you the real deal if your food is good. So you may think you can cook, but when you put it in front of those kids, they'll tell you. I mean, you talk about food critics. So one of the things that I've learned with my kids is small portions, I want to give them enough to tease them to say I like this, I want more.

That's the best compliment to me as a cook. So I give them small portions. And then aesthetics - it's got to be pretty. If it's not pretty, they checkout - I've noticed that with both my kids. So I try - you know, I watch these cooking shows and see how people, you know, present their food, and I really embrace that in how I cook. But at the same time, I also give them buy in when we go to the store - you know, this is what we're getting, this is what we're talking about, this is what we're going to do.

And then there's also a great healthy, healthy - now, listen to me - healthy dessert is a great bribe to get through some of those tough moments, like my chicken bog the other day, which my son - he, you know, he locked in. That was it. He wasn't eating chicken bog. But, you know, having that desert there on the side, at the side of the table - you know, that's great leverage.

MARTIN: Anupy, what about you?

SINGLA: Yeah...

MARTIN: You, in fact - just to remind people who may not be familiar with your work 'cause you've been with us a number of times before - you actually changed careers in part because you wanted to change your own family's eating habits. I mean, you were a TV newscaster and then you kind of - that's part of what the motivation was for moving around into food. So what would you recommend?

SINGLA: That's right. I came home and I realized - you know what? - if I didn't do it and I didn't take ownership of it, nobody in my household was going to do that. My husband travels Monday through Friday. He's not a reporter so he does make money. He made more than I did at the time. So that was an easy call. And we have grandparents - the kids have grandparents that don't necessarily live close. So it was up to me.

And I decided - especially my background as a reporter and a writer and all of this - to really use education as a way to get these kids to understand why food is good. We do not count calories. We don't talk about that aspect of it. We haven't needed to do that with our kids. But it's really more about educating them on minerals, vitamins, why these foods are good. So I would keep this gigantic food Encyclopedia by my table and we would sit down and eat, we would eat a sweet potato and then we'd have one kid look up what is sweet potato, why is it good for us? What else can we do with it? And they would help with cooking it and it's - again, it's a lot of work, but it was really worthwhile. And then they would learn why they would eat that sweet potato.

Also, in terms of the cereals - a lot of these kids are eating very sugar packed the cereals. I would always have my kids take a look at the label and see how much cereal - and they know what a big number is and they know what a small number is. So they would be able to compare and they'd say, OK, well, that big number is a very sometimes maybe rare sort of food treat we get. It's almost like a desert. But this cereal that has less sugar in it is one that we can eat on a daily basis. So it's always sometimes foods, always foods and the never things are, you know, the smoking and the drugs. So I really say that I bring things in. You know, I never completely ban things because I don't want to have that sort of reputation with my kids.

But I want them to be able to kind of make those decisions on their own. And I have to say, Michel, when they go out with their friends, they're the ones, when it's ice cream at the end of the day, they look at me and I go, OK, you want an ice cream and all your friends are getting it - well, what was your day like? Did you have treats before. And like, yeah, we did mom, we're going to take a pass. They actually say that to me because I've taught them why they need to say that.

MARTIN: So, Sally, I want to loop back to something that Fred talked about earlier, which is the whole class dimension of this, which is that I think it's great when people can take two 4-year-olds to the grocery store and not lose their minds. I think that's - as a twin parent myself, I'm thinking, you know - (laughing). But for people who don't have the kinds of jobs where they can take two hours at the grocery store. For people who are perhaps single parents and have to get a lot done, have to get that food on the table in kind of a minimum amount of time - I mean, how do you recommend working on this?

I mean, you can understand why people fall into the chicken nuggets. And I mean, even our first lady, Michelle Obama, has talked about the fact that, you know, back when her husband - now the president - was at the state - was serving in the state legislature, was away from home a lot, and she's trying to manage sports practices and her own job and their lives and homework and all that - you could fall into the food in the sack that you can throw into the oven quickly. Sally, so thoughts about that?

SAMPSON: Well, first of all, it's actually not true that it's cheaper to eat junk than it is to cook fresh food. It really isn't. But you can make a sandwich, you can do non-cooking things. You can grab carrots. I mean, you can do very, very small steps, which I think is the way to start. So even putting aside the buying the junk food - let's say you're making - let's say it's a sandwich. You can say to a kid, do you want to put this on it or this on it? Do you want to set the table? Just all those little steps. But back to what you asked, I think...

MARTIN: I think it wasn't so much the money issue as the time issue.

SAMPSON: You know, simple food doesn't take much time. People forget about - you have to get to the fast food place, and you have to order and wait. And if you're making - I mean, even if you think about how long it takes to make a burger - a burger takes 10 minutes from start to finish. And - but I do agree that picky eating does not exist in poor families. And it didn't exist until - I mean, not - it didn't never exist, but it didn't exist in the way that it does in this generation.

And I think it's generally speaking a parenting issue rather than a taste issue. I think it's parents who don't want to create rules and regulations for their kids. I know it a very unpopular thing to say, but I really do believe at the end of the day it's that. Also, I do agree that the term picky eating is not a great one, in spite of the fact that I'm using it. But I don't think picky eating is not liking things. I think you cannot like certain foods and not be a picky eater. To me, a picky eater is somebody who just says I'm not going to eat this whole class of food, I'm not going to taste it. It's just this sort of turning off.

MARTIN: I see your point. Fred, final thought here? We have about a minute and a half left, and you and Anupy can share final thoughts. I've heard a lot from each of you about choice - giving some choice seems to be a common theme with all of you - giving the kids some choice and role in preparation. But, Fred, can you do that and still make it pretty, as you were telling us?

OPIE: You can. You can. And, you know, fortunately at Babson College, where I work, we have a garden, you know, behind my office. And we live close enough to campus that my children love - my daughters always ask me can we check the strawberries, are they ripe. They love to pick food from the garden, including the herbs, and come home and incorporate them into whatever they're eating. So I think that's important. You know, I think it's also important because I'm the only guy, you know, in this segment that people understand, I'm the cook in the house by choice.

That was my prenup - are you comfortable with me cooking 'cause I want to do it. So I'm not just talking theoretically. I do think Sally is right - it's a lot about prep. A lot of the cooking that I do is on the weekend and I'm prepping things, whether it's marinating something that I'm only going to cook on Tuesday or Wednesday. So a lot of it is prep, a lot of it's just planning ahead and thinking about what you're actually going to choose. And I also do cook by what's on sale when I go to the grocery market, not based on some menu that my kids have asked for.

MARTIN: All right, Anupy, final thought from you? Has to be brief.

SINGLA: Well, real quick - don't - I'd almost say starve your kids, but in kind of a funny, humorous way. You don't have to feed them every minute of the day. I see moms giving their kids all of these, you know, dry cereals and all this in between meals. How about three solid meals, a few snacks, but make them healthy snacks. These kids are full already. Why are they going to sit down to a meal if they've already eaten three times before they get to dinner.

MARTIN: So lose the granola bars or something like that. (Laughing) OK.

SINGLA: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: All right. Anupy Singla is a cookbook author and a mom of two. She was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Sally Sampson is founder of ChopChop. That's an organization that encourages children to cook - children and families I should say. She's a mom of two. She was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. And Frederick Douglass Opie is a food historian at Babson College and a father of two. He's with us from Boston. Thank you all so much.

SAMPSON: Thank you.

SINGLA: Thank you.

OPIE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.