Help for parents of picky eaters


Having a picky eater in the house often results in frustration for the whole family. Some parents cook (or microwave) multiple meals, while others resort to bribery or coercion. Either way, mealtime can be stressful. More times than not, the picky eater doesn’t change and the cycle continues.

But there is hope. “The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes” offers a practical approach — and inventive recipes — for ending the drama at mealtime and changing picky-eating behavior.

Published by The American Academy of Pediatrics, the book is authored by San Diego resident Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, a pediatrician and registered dietitian, and cookbook developer Sally Sampson, the founder of ChopChop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families and the website


“Research makes clear that when we adults have more say in something, we own it more,” said Muth, who lives in Carlsbad with her husband, Robert; son Thomas, 8; and daughter Mariella, 6. “When kids have more involvement and choice in what they eat — and if someone shows an interest in their process — they become invested.

“When kids are involved in helping out with recipes, get to choose a food for the family or actually cook, they end up having more fun.”

The Picky Eater Project provides a six-week plan to revamp a family’s relationship to food, from how to arrange produce and products in the fridge to grocery shopping with the kids. The commitment and extra time it takes in those six weeks should save time and alleviate mealtime struggles ideally for years to come.

The Boston-based Sampson came up with the idea for the book during speaking engagements for ChopChop. Parents constantly asked her about how to deal with picky eaters, she said. Later, in The New York Times, she documented guiding a family through six weeks of changing kitchen and shopping habits.

“It only took the kids about three weeks, because they were having fun,” Sampson said. “A lot of it is getting parents to be consistent and commit to getting their kids involved. Parents who don’t want picky eaters need to stick to the rules they create rather than giving in to their child. ...

“Not having or undoing picky eating for most children is like getting them to sleep through the night. It takes time and patience and is often harder for the parent than the kid.”

The main family featured in the book lives in North County, not far from Muth. The “Picky Eater Project” follows the participating families and their progress.

The book is chockful of handy charts, informative lists and, of course, delicious and simple recipes. The first chapter includes a questionnaire that helps readers determine what kind of parents they are when it comes to food. It also offers “10 Rules of Picky-Free Parenting,” with tips on how to follow them.

Among the rules:

“As parents, we will be good role models.”

“As often as we can, we will shop, cook, and eat together.”

“We will have fun, play and experiment with new foods.”

Muth said the idea is for children to be open to trying new foods and training their taste buds. Sometimes it takes 10-15 tastes for someone — adult or child — to like a certain food. She also advises parents not to worry if their 2-year-olds refuse unfamiliar food.

“Most toddlers have neophobia, the fear of liking new things, especially tastes,” Muth said. “If parents realize that pickiness is normal at toddlerhood, they won’t tend to give them unhealthy foods. If they do, the hungry child learns to hold out and it’s less likely they will choose other foods.”

In “The Picky Eater Project,” ideas for opening up kids’ palates cover children from infants to teenagers. It even suggests things to consume during pregnancy that would help expand a child’s culinary preferences.

Whether parents decide to do the whole six-week plan, take a longer period of time, or just follow one or two of the picky-free parenting rules, Muth is confident they’ll see positive changes.

“Even if it’s: ‘We’ll eat together more often, turn off the TV, and be together for 15 minutes’ — that is huge,” she said. “Also, modeling is underestimated; it can be powerful. ‘I’m not drinking soda; I’ll just drink water at dinner.’ Kids pick up on that.

“It’s good when parents make it easy for their kids to make their own choices about food. When they have control, they’re more likely to try a new food.”

Wood is a San Diego freelance writer.

The Picky Eater Project

by Natalie Digate Muth and Sally Sampson

American Academy of Pediatrics, 250 pages, $19.95

Skillet Lasagna

Everybody loves lasagna, and this fuss-free recipe makes it easy: The pasta and sauce layer beautifully without a lot of effort on your part. Just make sure to keep the heat low so the noodles cook through without the bottom burning. You can make the sauce ahead of time. Simply reheat it and proceed with the recipe.

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

2 medium-sized zucchini, ends trimmed, diced

1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, including liquid

1 1/2 cups water

2 cups fresh flat-leaf spinach leaves, coarsely chopped

8 no-boil lasagna noodles, broken in half

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella or Monterey Jack cheese

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

To make the sauce, place a skillet on the stove and turn the heat to medium-low. When the skillet is hot, carefully add the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the zucchini and basil or oregano and cook covered until the zucchini is just golden and tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and water and stir well. Turn the heat down to low and cook covered for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook an additional 10 minutes.

Turn the heat off. Add the spinach and stir until the spinach is wilted.

Carefully slip 4 noodle pieces into the skillet, using their edges to slide them under the bottom of the sauce, and using the spatula, push them down below the surface. Layer on another 4 noodle pieces and then another 4 and push them all below the surface. Add the last 4 noodle pieces and spoon a little bit of the tomato mixture on top.

Add the ricotta 1 tablespoon at a time, dotting the top with dollops. Sprinkle on the mozzarella or Monterey Jack, and then Parmesan cheese.

Reheat the skillet over low heat, cover and continue cooking until the cheeses melt and the noodles are tender when you poke them with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes.

Sprinkle with the basil leaves. Set aside 10 minutes.

Serve right away or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Energy Bars

These are super fun to make and even better to eat. Serve them for an after-school treat or crumbled on top of yogurt for breakfast.

Makes 16 pieces

1/2 cup lightly toasted nuts (one kind or a combination of almonds, walnuts and pecans) (see note)

3/4 cup dried fruit (one kind or a combination of raisins, currants and dried cranberries or chopped dates, prunes, apricots and peaches)

3/4 cup quick-cooking oats

3/4 cup crispy-rice cereal

1/2 cup almond butter or peanut butter

1/4 cup honey or maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with wax paper or parchment paper and leave enough hanging so you can use it to cover the bars later. (You will need a piece a little more than twice the size of the bottom of the pan.)

Put the nuts, dried fruit, oats and rice cereal in a medium-sized bowl and toss well.

Put the almond (or peanut) butter and honey (or maple syrup) in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave until the butter is softened, about 30 seconds. Stir until smooth. Add the vanilla and stir again until smooth.

Pour the almond-butter mixture into the medium-sized bowl and mix with the large spoon until well combined.

Dump the mixture into the prepared pan and pat down as hard as you can. You want to make the bars solid (rather than airy). Using the overhanging wax paper, cover the bars completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 1 week.

Using the knife, cut into 16 pieces.

Note: To toast nuts, put them on a small baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until they are fragrant and look a shade darker, around 5 minutes.

Melting Apples

When you bake apples, the skin more or less keeps its shape, but the inside gets nice and tender, so you can spoon out delicious bites of melted apple. In this recipe, the apples are sprinkled with cinnamon and then stuffed with a mixture of dried fruit and nuts. Add a different spice or change the filling to create your own variation.

Makes 4 servings

4 Granny Smith or other tart apples, with top third of the apple cut off

1/4 cup dried fruit like raisins, dried cranberries, currants or chopped dried apricots or prunes

1/4 cup coarsely chopped lightly roasted nuts like walnuts or pecans

1 tablespoon maple syrup, brown sugar or honey (used as sweetener)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place the apples on a cutting board and remove the top two-thirds of the core using a melon baller or spoon.

Lightly prick the top of the sides of the apple with a fork (this prevents the apples from splitting).

Put the dried fruit, nuts, sweetener, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Divide the mixture into 4 parts and stuff it inside the apples.

Put the water in a small baking dish. Place the apples on top of the water, standing up.

Carefully put the baking dish in the oven and bake until the apples are soft, about 1 hour.

Serve right away or cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Recipes excerpted with permission from “The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes” by Natalie Digate Muth and Sally Sampson; published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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