These strategies can help busy cooks but should not be considered medical advice. Please consult a medical professional for advice for medical dietary needs.
One of the most common challenges I hear from busy moms is how exhausting it can be to feed picky eaters and individuals with dietary restrictions.
Whether it is hearing complaints from kids who don't want their food touching other food on the plate, avoiding medical complications caused by food intolerances, or dealing with texture issues, you may feel like you have to be a short-order cook to keep everyone happy. It is no easy task to feed a family made up of individuals with individual preferences.
What causes picky eaters
Kids generally aren't picky about food just to be ornery; they can actually experience food differently than adults.
All five of our senses are involved with the experience of eating, and all of them can affect the foods we find appealing or unappealing.
Sense of Taste
We are each born with a full set of about 10,000 taste buds which regenerate every week or two (source). As we age, some of our taste buds don't regenerate, and the ones that do may not be as effective at processing the sense of taste.
Compared to an adult, a child might have much double the number of fully functioning taste buds, meaning that strong flavors like cabbage, hot sauce, and blue cheese are perceived on a completely different level.
Sense of Smell
Additionally, our sense of smell—which directly contributes to our sense of taste—deteriorates as we age. Combined with fewer taste buds, this means that it takes stronger and more flavors to satisfy our sense of taste as adults.
Touch, Hearing, and Sight
In addition to taste and smell, textures, physical appearance, and the sound a food makes when eaten can affect its desirability.
Kids are no different, and their preferences and sensitivities may go to extremes.
Genetics can also affect how we experience taste. Some people can't get enough cilantro, while others perceive it as tasting like soap. The reason lies in different genotypes.
Another genetic discrepancy is insensitivity to bitter tastes, with some genotypes experiencing far more sensitivity to bitterness. A research team from the Monell Chemical Senses Center genotyped individuals and then tested responses to bitterness:
To provide a behavioral measure of sensitivity to bitter taste, children – who were between 5 and 10 years of age - and mothers categorized three concentrations of a bitter-tasting compound (propylthiouracil; PROP) as tasting either "like water" or "bitter or yucky."
. . .
Having a bitter-sensitive allele (P) on the TAS2R38 receptor gene predicted sensitivity to the bitter taste of PROP in both children and mothers. . . . Children and adults with two bitter-sensitive alleles (PP) were more sensitive to bitter taste than those with just one (AP).
The study also found that the results changed with age, with children more sensitive than their mothers to the solution.
Between the deterioration of our senses of taste and smell as we age and genetic predispositions, there are legitimate reasons why kids might reject food that adults find appealing.
Texture sensitivities and how they are different from food pickiness
Texture sensitivities are not uncommon among kids and adults, and although it's easy to lump people who have them into the same category as picky eaters, they are drastically different. We are all familiar with the reference to fingernails on a chalkboard, which is just one common manifestation of sensory processing issues.
Food texture sensitivities can drive food aversions, so it's helpful to determine whether what you are dealing with is pickiness or a sensory eating issue. Man vs. Mommy blog has some helpful strategies for dealing with sensory issues related to food in her post "Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters."
Dealing with food sensitivities (gluten et al)
Food allergies and sensitivities differ from pickiness. For whatever reason, food sensitivities are more common than ever. While many families deal with family-wide issues, sometimes just one individual in a family has to avoid certain foods.
Food sensitivities and allergies as a whole are beyond the scope of this post, but some of the strategies listed below may help with the challenge.
Setting boundaries as a cook
As much as we internalize the responsibility of cooking for our families, we have to set limits. Making reasonable accommodations or cooking with medical needs in mind is important, but preparing multiple recipes every night so that everyone is happy is unsustainable.
What boundaries look like in your home will vary, but it is important to both recognize legitimate reasons for "picky eating" as well as set boundaries on the work involved with dinner preparation. My strategies for staying sane while keeping everyone fed can help you determine what reasonable boundaries might look like in your home.
Strategies for staying sane while keeping everyone fed
I use these basic strategies to make individual food preferences less of a challenge.
- Layered meal composition
- Small adjustments
- "Make your own" meals
- Single night catering
- Leftover night
- Cook for yourself
Layered meal composition
This is the most useful tool in my sanity toolbox. Basically, layered meal composition is a system of choosing recipes that are easily deconstructed so that I can serve the same recipe in different ways to meet everyone's needs.
After doing this a few times, it becomes second nature and is an easy way to cook for lots of different diets.
Here is how I might implement this with a couple of recipes.
Prepare all of the ingredients and serve the completed recipe with the following modifications where appropriate:
Picky eaters: serve it all separately and if necessary nix the lettuce and dressing, instead providing celery or carrot sticks
Texture issues: same as above, but leaving off trigger foods
Vegetarian: prepare a portion of vegetarian crumbles with taco seasoning to substitute for the beef
Gluten-intolerance: use gluten-free pasta or no pasta and serve with chips that are gluten-free
Picky eaters: forget about the stirfry and serve the rice, broccoli, and steak separately
Texture issues: same as above, but leaving off/substituting trigger foods
Vegetarian: swap the recipe around so that the broccoli is prepared in step one and then cooked in the sauce; remove a portion of the broccoli and sauce before adding the beef and stirfrying until hot; serve just the broccoli in sauce over rice for the vegetarian portion
Gluten-free: preparing the recipe with a gluten-free soy sauce allows it to be served as is
Sometimes just tweaking a recipe can make it suitable for everyone in the family. Substituting vegetable broth for chicken broth, more beans and vegetables for meat, cream of celery or cream of mushroom soup for cream of chicken soup, or gluten-free pasta for regular pasta is all it takes to make a recipe family-friendly.
"Make your own" meals
Providing toppings/ingredients for any kind of food bar or "make your own" dinner is an easy way to avoid food challenges. Consider these ideas:
- Taco bar
- Baked potato bar
- Top your own pizza
- Fondue with 2-3 dipping pots
- Pho/sukiyaki/shabu shabu
Single night catering
By single night catering, I don't mean having meals catered (as nice as that sounds for the stressed-out cook). Making it a point to cater dinner to each individual diet one night during the week ensures that for at least one meal each week, dinner is "normal" for each individual.
We might have a vegetarian dish one night, a night with individual meat/starch/vegetable another night, a meal avoiding foods for which there are sensitivities or texture issues another night, etc.
It's easy to forget about leftovers, but having a leftover night each week is a great strategy for keeping everyone happy. It cleans out the fridge, keeps mom from having to cook from scratch, and everyone gets to choose their own meal.
Cook for yourself
Some nights, adults and older kids who cannot eat what is being served (and by older I mean if you can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can feed yourself) are on their own. They can make themselves a sandwich, frozen meal, or something else they prefer.
Recipes even picky eaters will enjoy
I've gathered a roundup of recipes below that are kid- and adult-pleasers alike.