Parenting Picky Eaters 101
A children’s author shares advice for navigating the dinner-table duel.
Picky eaters aren’t made; they’re born. That’s the realization food and culture writer Joshua David Stein had when his first son, Achilles, started (not) eating solid food.
“Food is a big part of my life, but the only way Achilles and I interacted about food was through fighting,” Stein says. He turned to children’s books to help broaden his son’s culinary horizons, but found most stories to be about anthropomorphized ingredients (see: The Runaway Dinner), food-as-fantasy (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Dragons Love Tacos) or “overly proscriptive in an ‘eat your vegetables’ way that I wanted to avoid.”
So Stein starting writing his own. His first book, Can I Eat That?, was published by Phaidon in 2016 (with illustrations by Julia Rothman) and has become one of our favorite gifts for kids with palates-in-progress. The book’s follow up, What’s Cooking?, was released in October. Both combine clever syllogisms (“If … I eat jelly … and I eat fish … can I eat jellyfish?”) with silly dad jokes (“… if I stuff stuffing, can I dump dumplings?”) and the occasional stumper (“Is this a very old grape or a very new raisin?”).
Nimble wordplay aside, both books contain enough actual food facts to get young readers curious about what’s on their plate—even if they won’t put it into their mouth. Breaking through to a picky eater takes more understanding on the parent’s part, Stein says. Here, his advice for handling the food-adverse:
Your kid is not you. “Youngsters have a more subtle and sensitive palate. What we consider to be slightly bitter is unbearable for them, and what we can tolerate with texture might be intolerable to them. But each kid is his own trip; try to remember what you ate (and didn’t eat) at his age.”
But don’t underestimate them. “The way Achilles thinks about food is actually quite complex. He made up a term called ‘outland taste,’ which is what he calls aftertaste. He doesn’t like foods that taste fine initially but have a strong outland taste.”
Work the margins. “Find an ingredient your kid loves and use it to expand your territory. Achilles loves shrimp. He’ll eat shrimp tempura and grilled shrimp, so what if we take shrimp and add ginger and make shrimp balls?”
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