Confessions of a Formerly Picky Eater

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Written by Stephanie, Creator and Editor of Keeper of the Home

Would it surprise you to know that I was an insanely picky eater as a child?

I ate meat-and-potato type meals just fine, along with white bread, cheese, cereal, pizza, granola bars, pop, sugary juice, chips, sugary treats. I would tolerate some vegetables, in things like spaghetti sauce, or small chunks of carrots in a chicken noodle soup. My raw vegetable repertoire consisted of carrot sticks and iceberg lettuce in ranch dressing. Cooked vegetables? Frozen carrots, corn, cauliflower (slathered in cheese sauce), and maybe peas, if I had to. For fruit, I tolerated most berries, grapes, fruit roll ups, orange juice and Minute Maid fruit punch. I even disliked drinking milk.

Anything beyond basic comfort-food, carb and starch heavy, Standard American Diet meals pushed me to the cop-out answer, “I’m not really hungry”.

Yet here I am today, an avid gardener and lover of farmer’s markets, whole/alternative grains, most raw and fermented foods, and would even consider myself to be a “foodie”.

How did I get from there to here?

I don’t remember exactly what the catalyst was, though it may have been watching my other friends at university eat vegetables and fruits like they were no big deal, and realized that perhaps it was a bit childish to have such a restrictive diet. I guess peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.

In my third year of university, something prompted an inner motivation to make my narrow-minded taste buds a little more open and inviting.

This was how my cunning plan went:

  1. Start with soup, like cream of tomato or mushroom. No chunks of disgusting foods, I only had to tolerate the taste at first.
  2. Then try a few small additions to my salad bar plates. It could still be hidden under all that ranch dressing.
  3. Try buying the pre-made spaghetti sauce that included a few different (finely chopped) vegetables to pour on my white noodles. Then, add cheese.
  4. Pizza with more than just cheese and meat. Surely it couldn’t be that bad to eat an onion or pepper or olive here and there.
  5. Fresh lettuce on my cheese, meat and mayo sandwiches. And then (gasp!) a whole wheat bun instead of white.

It was daring, people. My sense of adventure knew no bounds.

Absurd as it may seem, my baby step plan worked. Very slowly but surely, I began to tolerate a larger array of produce and other more wholesome eats.

As time went on, it became easier to tell myself to try “just a little bit of this” or to see if I could hide something nutritious in a food I already liked eating. It became a game, even. The prize? A healthier, more adventurous and confident me.

Image by neilconway

What worked for me– tips from one picky person to another

So, you’re a picky eater, just like I was? And you’re ready to make some changes?

Or perhaps you have other picky eaters in your home. Maybe you’re looking for some techniques to encourage them to say “yes”  to foods more often than they say “ewwww”.

(and to my own parents… now that I’m a mother of four, I feel the pain I put you through. Will an “I’m so sorry” and dinner at my house count as penance?)

These are some of the crazy/bizarre/deceptive sorts of food trickery that I played on myself to broaden my repertoire of acceptable edibles:

Start with tastes before texture.

I’m not sure why this works, but it does. Somehow the taste-texture combination with new foods can be like a one-two punch. Sometimes it wasn’t even the taste that bugged me at all, but rather the slimy feeling of cooked onions (for example- this used to be one of my personal hangups).

But, if you remove the texture hurdle and focus on acclimatizing your taste buds into handling a new flavor without running in the other direction, you can actually get somewhere.

For me, the simplest ways to do this was to stick with liquids. I mentioned soup above, and creamed or blended soups were fantastic for introducing myself to new tastes. Tomato, squash, cauliflower or broccoli– any of these can be made into delicious creamed soup. Smoothies are another option for the fruit disliker. When the flavors are blended together and it goes down cold and smooth, fruits that you normally wouldn’t touch become a whole lot more palatable.

Find alternative solutions that you’ll tolerate better.

There are things I’ve had to continue to teach myself to like, even after those initial years of overcoming my dislikes, and oatmeal was one of them. I’d always felt it was soggy and repulsive.

What I figured out was that I liked it best made with steel cut oats instead of rolled oats, because the texture stays chewier. Adding a pat of butter, plus using cream instead of milk, and dried fruit and nuts, has turned me into an oatmeal-enjoyer (instead of an avoider– I remember the days when I would make it for my kids, then walk around the corner where they couldn’t see me eating my toast and cheese!)

This works for lots of foods. Don’t like regular brown rice? Try brown basmati. The texture is easier for those who prefer white rice. Find yams hard to swallow? Sweet potatoes have a slightly lighter color and mellower flavor, but are similar in nutrient content.

Childish? Perhaps, but it works.

When all else fails, you can try these unsophisticated strategies that I employed for years. I promise, they work! Last night, I asked my 8 year old daughter, who has recently hit a bit of an independent/picky phase, and she agreed that these are some of her techniques of choice.

  • Mix a bite of something you like with a bite of something you don’t like. Mashed potatoes hide veggies well. Or pair something with a bite of meat.
  • Smother things in cheese. Everything taste better when it’s cheesy.
  • Sauces are your friend: ketchup, BBQ sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, etc.
  • Eat your least-preferred food first, saving all the things you like for the end. You get the yucky stuff over with and finish your meal on a tasty note.
  • Chop things small. This alone was HUGE for me in the beginning.
  • Pair things you don’t love with something you do love. When I first began teaching myself to like tomato soup, I ate it with a grilled cheese sandwich, dipping the sandwich in to help me get used to the taste and soak it up, so there was less to just eat plain on my spoon.

Image by Steven Jackson Photography

Small is the new large.

Get good at dicing vegetables. The finer you dice them, the less you notice them. Then they’re even easier to hide in dishes (see below), plus, you really don’t notice them as much. I used to chop things like peppers or onions in extremely small pieces so that I could add them to pasta sauces. They become somewhat anonymous when they’re tiny.

To this day, even though I now adore vegetables, I still shred carrots and zucchini into my meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, etc. just because it’s a convenient way to add more goodness in and ensure that my kids won’t pick around large, obvious chunks.

Keep it hidden.

When I say this, you may be thinking of truly hiding foods, a la Deceptively Delicious or other actually sneaky cooking techniques. That can be somewhat helpful in retraining taste buds at first, but that’s not really what I mean.

Instead, think of foods that can easily accommodate lots of little add-ins: casseroles, soups, chili or stews, scrambled eggs or omelets.

One common example of this in our house is that my children aren’t fond of cooked greens (though they love salad), but I really want them to eat greens both cooked and raw. I finely chop things like spinach and add them to scrambled eggs. I also chop greens like kale or cabbage and add small amounts to soups and stews, or make tasty savory dishes like Okonomiyaki which my kids gobble up, blessedly naive to the mounds of cabbage it contains.

Start with half-and-half.

Growing up on sugar-sweetened yogurt, the plain Jane kind was way too sour for my liking. Mixing sweetened yogurt half and half with plain yogurt helped me acquire a taste for the tartness.

Same goes for whole wheat bread or sourdough rye. Coming from fluffy white bread, these can be daunting, Some stores or bakeries carry things like 60% whole wheat bread, which isn’t ideal, but it makes for an easier transition. Light rye is a good gateway into darker sourdough rye bread.

Set small goals and reward yourself.

Make it a goal to try something new once a week and then when you actually do it, it’s perfectly acceptable to reward yourself. That could be food rewards in the form of a favorite treat (which doesn’t even have to be sweet, although it could be, but specialty or gourmet foods can be a fun incentive), or it could be buying yourself a book you’ve been wanting to read, getting some pretty wool to knit a scarf you saw on Pinterest, or booking a coffee date with a friend.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how you reward yourself, but make sure that you give credit where credit is due. Cement those positive changes by letting yourself feel good about achieving your goals.

Changing your tastes and food preferences, especially when they’ve been deeply ingrained for most of your life, is a hard thing, believe you me. It’s entirely possible, but it doesn’t happen overnight or with a snap of your fingers, so celebrate how far you’ve come and how much better you’re treating your body by filling it up with nourishing foods!

Other posts in the series:

Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better

First Steps to Real Food

What Is Real Food?

Cutting Your Kitchen Prep Time in Half — Or More!

How to Read Food Labels

The Grain Controversy: Should We Eat Them or Not?

Second Steps Towards Eating Real Foods: Switching Your Food Sources

Sweeteners: How They Affect You, Which Ones are Best, and How to Use Them

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Pantry Staples

5 Strategies to Help Your Husband and Kids Transition to Real Food 

7 Foods to Avoid

Finding Real Food in the Grocery Store

20 Easy Real Food Switches and Substitutions {with Free Printable Chart}

First Steps to Eating for Fertility

Keeping Costs Down in a Real Food Kitchen

Raising Kids on Real Food

5 Ways to Get More Fruits & Veggies into your Diet

Food Is Not Cheap: 4 Steps to Budgeting in Real Food

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Baked Goods

Simple Roast Chicken (And Fabulous Side Dish Recipes!)

17 Homemade Spice Mixes {with Recipes & Why You Should Use Them!}

5 Ways Green Living and Real Food are Connected

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Soups, Sauces, and Simple Dinners

Are you a picky eater? What foods are your biggest struggle and why?

And hey, let’s encouraged one another with this one in the comments. Creative ideas, recipe links, or simply words of kindness and affirmation… I’m sure any of those types of comments would be of benefit to those that are working hard to change their eating habits!

Top image by CarbonNYC

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About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. I feel so concerned with this article since my son who is 5 years old is such a picky eater! It’s so hard to have him eat new dishes…

  2. Ulrike C. says:

    This is a very encouraging post. When I was a kid, I ate almost everything, including veggies from our garden, as long as my mother fixed it. Someone else’s food? forget it. When we ate out, I had steak and french fries (you can’t mess up much there) and dinner at somone else’s house was torture. And even though I have long gotten over that, I now have a son who would order chicken strips and fries at every restaurant if we would let him. He is doing better at home but is very scared of trying anything new. I will definitely try some of these steps with him and my daughter (and husband, come to think of it…) I just have to remind myself to be patient; it took me a while as well.

  3. AJ Skelly says:

    This describes my journey so much! I used to pick tiny pieces of peppers out of pasta sauces but now I devour them raw. I tell people if I can change, you can change. I love all your ideas, and I do a lot of them, too. Our homemade pizza has tons of peppers and onions finely chopped and mixed into the sauce :) But my one holdout has been oatmeal. I eat granola while the rest of my family eats oatmeal, yep, I can’t seem to like it but I’ve never tried steel-cut. It’s a new year. Time for another try, thanks!

    • Oh, I remember those days of picking things out of my food! So great to hear from someone else who has made similar changes. And do try the steel cut. That’s what made it palatable for me, and now I even sort of like it. :)

  4. Liz Joiner says:

    Boy, when I was younger I was literally the pickiest child on the planet. Not a single vegetable passed through these lips. My parents still tell the story about when I was in Head Start and they received a note saying that I ate a pea! Ha! I was as picky as ever until I married my husband (at 19). He ate healthy, and I don’t know what struck in me, but I was sick of not eating….anything really! I wish I had thought to eat soups and such first, but I dived right in. My first vegetable thing was a salad. I thought my parents would faint. Then, I tried fish (I know, not a veggie, but I didn’t ever eat fish). During the first years of our marriage I would stick with one vegetable and gag it down until I could tolerate it. If that meant peas for 2 weeks, well, peas for 2 weeks it was. The rest were a blur, but I learned I could eat onions if chopped itty bitty. It was only until about a year ago that (almost 9 years after starting this journey) that I could actually enjoy larger chunks of onions in my food. The final leg of my journey ended with mushrooms. I have a huge texture issue, and mushrooms have always been a no-no. I’m so glad to say that I actually enjoy onions now. :) This post is fantastic and I hope that those out there who are picky try some of these tips. Because eating healthy really is fun. I wouldn’t love food as much as I do today if I didn’t force myself to learn to like veggies. I’m still working on the fruit, but again, the whole texture thing.

  5. I was a definitely a picky eater as a child. The worst for me was tomatoes – in ANY form (including tomato sauce). Much like you, I eventually realized it was the texture. So I pleaded with my mom to buy smooth tomato sauce for our pasta (and found myself shamed into eating pizza with the other kids)… and eventually I tried sauce with non-tomato chunks in it. I’m still not a fan of raw tomatoes, but I’ll eat them when they’re mixed in with something else. For (most of) the other “yucky” foods – I kept trying them in different forms until I acclimated to them (some are still not my favorites, but they’re not bad). I did grow up with oatmeal and whole-grain bread, so that was never something I had to learn how to eat. :)

    My favorite vegetables now are the ones my mom never made (because SHE didn’t like them – cooked carrots, steamed broccoli, squash, sweet potatoes). I introduced my husband to “yucky” sweet potatoes through fries, and now he’ll eat them in any form! I tell my four-year-old that she is required to take one bite of foods that she “knows” she doesn’t like – just to make sure she still doesn’t like them (because tastes change!)

    • There really is something to be said for playing around with foods in different forms and textures until you get used to them, isn’t there? I got my family into sweet potatoes and yams through making homemade fries, too. That’s one of our favorite things to eat now.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head as far as texture being more of an issue than the taste. Your post just gave me a very interesting window in which to see how the picky eaters in my family might view food.
    While I can’t say I’m a picky eater, I really appreciate this post.

  7. Thank you so much for this! My 12 year old has been picky his whole life, and nothing I have tried has really made much of a difference. We have had some success with Deceptively Delicious and Sneaky Chef, but with a large family, the puree technique can be overwhelming. I am so happy to hear some tips to try from someone who is actually picky, and can fully articulate the issues behind the pickiness. It’s like putting an adult in my kid’s brain to spy on him for a minute. Can’t wait to see how it goes.

  8. I grew up on junk food. I also like healthy food but just haven’t gave up the junk yet. I’m trying but I have a couple of children that will taste the healthy food and say yuck and won’t eat it. So I was glad to see the cookbook Deceptively Delicious. I just bought a copy and can’t wait to try it out. Thank you for your inspiration to get my family healthier!

  9. What an encouragement this is to all of the mothers with picky eaters. I will be sharing this with our readers. Thank you. ~Alexis on behalf of everyone at A Moment with MOM

  10. Wow, you sound like me! I come from a family where the only vegetables we ate was potatoes, and frozen peas or corn with Sunday dinner, sometimes. So I hated vegetables, and never ate them. Somehow, my best friend and my husband both got me to try vegetables when they made them, and now I love them. If I go back for seconds, its usually for more vegetables.

  11. Thank you Stephanie, have you ever encouraged me! I am too a mom of picky eaters. It is not easy and often frustrating. My daughter would try to encourage me by saying: “You made a really good meal, BUT I JUST DO NOT LIKE IT.” And yes, I have shed tears in my kitchen.
    Not all recipes on my blog are approved ;) by my kids. I just posted a Dinner Rolls recipe that my kids love, it is about half whole grain. Also the Little Apple Whole Wheat Pancakes are a Hit!

    • Oh, hugs to you! It’s so hard to make good food for your kids and not understand why they won’t eat it. But hopefully this will help you to understand where they’re at a little better and use some of my strategies to encourage them to broaden their repertoire! :)

  12. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. Growing up I was such a picky eater and never realized it until I started dating my now husband. He was amazed the only vegetables I ate came from a can! At first it never really hit me that maybe all the digestive and skin issues I was having had anything to do with my diet. After reading many, many, many books and articles on real food I decided something had to be done. I would do much of what you said in adding my so called ‘questionable’ foods (aka fresh or frozen veggies) to foods I already ate. That was admittedly unpleasant but after sticking with it I realized I actually kind of like spinach, Brussels, and even my dreaded peppers! Now with three toddlers at home I use some of the same ‘tricks’ I used on myself to foods they are hesitant of to start with. Mashed cauliflower can really go in just about anything.. Ha! I do see they are much more open to different types of raw veggies than I ever was so I’m pretty happy about that. Thank you again for sharing and it’s encouraging to see how far you’ve come!

    • It is nice to see how we can help our children to grow up with better eating habits than we had, isn’t it? I’ve definitely noticed that although there is still some level of pickiness with some of my children, it’s nowhere near how I was, so that encourages me. :)

  13. This was so much fun to read! Quite the transformation you went through. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I am not a picky eater, nor do I remember being one as a child, but all 3 of my kids are. I read somewhere that it can take up to 10 to 12 tries of a certain food before a child might like it so I insist that each child have a small bite of each food I am serving and I serve those samples in separate small bowls (think finger bowls) so that they don’t get messed up in the food they do like (my kids hate foods touching). It is working! my 16 year old now eats almost anything and he started off as the pickiest child, my 10 year old is eating more but my 12 year old!!! he is a whole different story.

    • We also encourage our children to continually try small bites of foods that they aren’t sure about, and over time, we have noticed that they learn to like some of them. That’s so encouraging to hear that your older kids are eating well even though they started out picky!

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  1. [...] I am so blessed to be married to an adventurous eater. But if you aren’t, here’s how to help that person expand their palate (if they want to). [...]

  2. [...] I am so blessed to be married to an adventurous eater. But if you aren’t, here’s how to help that person expand their palate (if they want to). [...]

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