A Cure for Picky Eating—Maybe

July 28, 2016

For every picky eater, there is a village trying to explain how to fix them.

Cook/garden/forage with your kids. Kale up their brownies. Withhold dessert. Don’t withhold dessert. Distract. Stand your ground. Give up. Even Gabrielle Hamilton just hands her kids chicken nuggets sometimes.

Well, ye worn parents, I have the answer! At least, it’s an answer, and it worked for me.

You see, today I’m a food media professional and, if I may brag, I eat everything. Even before I did it for a living, I thought so much about new things I wanted to make for dinner that I had to leave my career in economics to put that energy to better use. But rewind a couple decades, and I was just a kid who ate a lot of plain hamburgers.

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Of the many things I would not eat, salad was especially troubling. A chaste pile of frozen lima beans or canned peas was acceptable, but fresh vegetables of varied textures and acidities and scents, covered in dressings that screamed of flavor were a no-go.

Two disturbing attempts to socialize me only hardened my resolve. The first was at preschool, when I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I tried the lettuce covered in something putrid, probably ranch.

This is how you give a child very vivid memories of crying with a mouth full of salad.

In a similar incident with a cruel Girl Scout camp counselor, I was told to take “three Brownie bites.” Through tears, I did. This is not how you cure picky eating. This is how you give a child very vivid memories of crying with a mouth full of salad.

Other than this, I abstained from salad until I was in seventh grade, when another summer camp cured me.

It was a different sort of camp, a posher Christian camp I’d tagged along to with a friend—there were It’s-Its and candy bars in the canteen, a water slide, some coerced prayer, and otherwise pretty chill rules, particularly at mealtime.

But the trouble was, there were no vegetables, at least not the safe, mushy, boring kind. There was only salad. The first few nights, I ate only the other, browner things—the chicken sandwiches or tacos or whatever other kid food they were serving. And I started to feel ashamed—there I was, an adolescent girl wanting to seem normal and draw no attention to myself, staring down at the only dinner plate at the table that looked like it belonged to a stubborn toddler.

So one night I took a few pieces of iceberg lettuce from the melamine bowl, and, onto a corner or two, dabbed some yellow Italian dressing with little rainbow flecks.

And it was okay! I took more each night, and by the time I went home, I bragged to my parents that I liked salads now and could we please buy some Italian dressing? From there, other strongly-flavored foods weren’t far—olives, mushrooms, pickles, burgers that weren’t plain, steaks that weren’t well-done. One by one they toppled.

This could have gone a lot of ways, of course—there’s no telling if or when the summer camp prescription will work, much like all the other advice people give you. But there are a number of things I think were in my favor:

There was no safer option available to fall back on, but there wasn’t pressure either, so dread wasn’t built in. The dressing was on the side, so I could investigate, and try it on my terms. There was age, and floundering self-respect.

But maybe the most important part? Not being surrounded by the people who expected me to be the way I always had been. None of the other campers were eyeing my reaction, asking me what I thought, or holding me to it if I admitted I liked it. In obscurity, I could experiment.

At its best, this is what summer camp is all about. A chance to learn who you might be, and how to respond, when the world gives you freedom and salads and your parents aren’t there to protect you from them.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • X
  • MarieGlobetrotter
  • Ali Worthalter
    Ali Worthalter
  • Megan Lang Butler
    Megan Lang Butler
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


X August 1, 2016
I cured my husband (he was the worst!) and 2 sons of any pickiness (with my sons, before it had even had a chance to begin) very easily. "Eat it or go hungry" is a mantra I've repeated over and over till everyone got the message. I cook healthy, balanced meals and we don't waste food at our house. If one of my boys ever felt the need to "cry" over food that he didn't want to eat, I'd remind him their are much worse things in this world to cry about, and he should thank his lucky stars that he HAS food at all.
MarieGlobetrotter July 29, 2016
Somehow we were never picky eaters in the family...
When my brothers and I were babies, my mother used to feed us any pureed vegetable, fruits, meat, fish etc she could think of. Result: my little brother loves cooking and cooks for 5 hours every Sunday, my older brother once asked for foie gras at breakfast when he was 5, and my favorite foods are eggplants and fruits (so much that as a kid my mother could barely bring me to the market because I would eat all the fruits).
So suppose feeding babies with a large variety of foods is excellent...Not like we can complain that much when we can't talk
Ali W. July 28, 2016
"Even before I did it for a living, I thought so much about new things I wanted to make for dinner that I had to leave my career in economics to put that energy to better use" Oh how that line resonated with me....
Megan L. July 28, 2016
I'm forever traumatized by carrot soup, thanks to the "you're not leaving the table until you try it" approach! I still flash back to that tearful dinner every time I see it on a menu.