Whenever we pass a McDonald's, my five-year-old reacts in much the same way. He gets really excited, points out the restaurant, and says, "Mom, Mom, Mom! It's a McDonald's! We should go there right now!"
I am not a fan of McDonald's and it's rare for me to eat there. I'm concerned about all the waste and packaging that comes with a fast food meal, as well as the quality of the food. Pink slime, anyone? I also prefer to eat ethically-raised meat. My kids, on the other hand, love McDonald's, which isn't surprising when you consider the way that the company markets to children.
My son's reaction to McDonald's is a symptom of a larger problem that many parents of picky eaters face when they try to choose more sustainably-produced, local, whole foods. While we're excited about trying sunchokes or making zucchini 'lasagna', our children are clamouring for highly-processed foods. They like the foods, they see their friends eating the foods, and they're afraid of something that seems unfamiliar.
I try to be zen about my children's pickiness. I know from experience that it's pretty normal for preschoolers to be choosy, and that as they get older they become more willing to try new things. I do my best to keep healthy foods in the house, so that I can feel good about whatever my kids are eating. Sometimes it does get to me all the same. When it does, I have a few tips I use to encourage my kids to eat the healthy, sustainable food I'm serving.
Encouraging Picky Eaters to Try Sustainable Foods
- Make the presentation fun. If I lay out fruit and veggies on a tray my kids are going to eat a little of whatever they're most comfortable with. When I lay out a plate for each of them with a fruit and veggie face on it, they're much more eager to try it. The tomato cheeks, carrot lips and broccoli hair are eaten far more quickly than if I presented each of those items on their own.
- Look for more eco-friendly substitutes for familiar foods. If you're trying to shift your family's diet, sometimes using eco-friendly substitutes for familiar foods is the easiest change to make. For instance, your kids won't know the difference between organic strawberries and conventionally-grown strawberries. In the same way, choosing a better cracker may be a more realistic starting point than giving up crackers altogether.
- Start small and work your way up. If you present a meal filled with completely new foods your kids will likely balk. If you present mostly familiar foods with one new dish, however, the meal won't seem so strange. If you've ever had a picky eater, you know that strange is bad and familiar is good, so by easing into change you're less likely to provoke a negative reaction. Over a few weeks or months, you can make some changes to your child's diet in a gentler way.
- Get your kids involved. If you let your child pick one new fruit or vegetable at the farmers' market or grocery store, they're more likely to try that food than if you impose it on them. Sometimes when you do this your kids may even surprise you by choosing something you wouldn't expect them to.
- Be flexible. When my daughter was a baby I read something that said if she didn't like a food the first time, or the second time, I should just keep trying. Eventually, they insisted, she would come to love it. Maybe that works for some kids, but it didn't work for mine. My daughter has hated avocados since the first time she tried them. If I insist she eat them, it becomes a battle. On the other hand, when I leave the door open she's more willing to try new foods of her own volition. I've found that encouraging kids to try something is good, but forcing them to eat something isn't. Flexibility is key.