My Family Recipe

One-Pot Chicken Chile Soup; or, How to Raise a Good Eater

On the science behind picky eating (and whether or not we can do anything about it).

January  1, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


In the online cookbook that my parents have kept since 1997, my mom sums up our relaxed holiday tradition in one neat, cheerful sentence: “We always invite friends over and have a soup buffet with Chicken Chile, Oyster Stew, and Minestrone—something for everyone!”

What she didn’t say was that, when she was growing up, there was no soup buffet, no “something for everyone.” Only Oyster Stew and, in a rather bold pairing, boozy eggnog—two specialties of her late father, a legendary figure I would barely get to know other than through stories and recipes like this. Daddy’s Oyster Stew. Daddy’s Eggnog.

To my little brother and me, kids growing up on Trader Joe’s frozen stir-fries and Rice-a-Roni in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Oyster Stew was an alarming mystery. It started with picking up many jars of shucked oysters at the grocery-store seafood counter—airless gray matter, shoved into a tall jar that only seemed to exist this one week of the year. Later, the gray bits would reappear from a big vat on the stovetop, sunk below gallons of whole milk and very little else: some melted butter, celery salt, black pepper. My grandmother ate it with reverence; my brother and I recognized it as ritual, but not food. Any leftovers were doled back into the emptied milk cartons and frozen for someone to eat, someday.

But in spite of our mistrust of the stew, I don’t remember any tension around the meal, or pressure to honor my Grandpa’s memory by forcing down his soup. The tradition was there for us to witness and participate as we chose, but—thanks to the soup buffet—there was plenty of other recognizable food for us to eat and look forward to every year, too. The one I latched onto was the Chicken Chile (not chili). It’s something like a lighter version of tortilla soup, its broth steeped with gentle onions and green chiles, full of soft shreds of chicken and soup-bloated rice. The best part is that it’s all poured over tortilla chips, like soupy nachos, with gobs of melty cheese and scallions (if you like green things).


I’ve thought a lot, almost certainly too much and too prematurely, about how to raise a good eater. For years I felt ashamed and a little bitter about all I’d missed in my picky childhood—avoiding not just Oyster Stew, but foods with any sort of strong flavor or joy. Perhaps my greatest crime was microwaving beautiful medium-rare steaks until steaming brown. I wouldn’t even taste anything that could be considered a salad—too much flavor! On what should have been an adventurous family trip to Maryland, while my parents and brother worked their way through a heap of steamed crab splayed across the tabletop, I ordered a wan chicken stir-fry. I regretted it even then, but felt trapped by my own weird aversions.

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Top Comment:
“Congratulations!! As a mom of two (and pediatrician, though honestly I feel that sometimes makes momming harder!) this is something I think about a lot. I have one almost 5 yo who is super picky and super skinny and an almost one year old who is a roly poly (currently) eating us out of house and home. I guess my main thoughts are, they are who they are. We are fortunate and they are healthy, and though I have certainly stressed about my son’s pickiness, I try to accept it and recognize that he won’t always be this way. He will grow up and he will eat. This and everything else parenting can be so hard to see in the moment. But, they change, and often, and they surprise us. My main piece of advice for all new parents is to give yourself a break. It’s hard. We control very little. We can love them to death, and make their home a warm and happy place, and provide good food when we can-and by and large they figure out the rest. The one “food philosophy “ I do like somewhat is Ellyn Satter who says that we enter into an agreement with our kids around food: our job is to decide what and when, and theirs is to decide how much (and sometimes that is 0. And that is ok. They won’t starve!) Good luck!! It’s a wild ride that I wouldn’t change for anything ;)”
— tinydeckgarden
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Years later, in grad school, I’d obsess over scientific studies proving out biological and psychological culpability for my frustrating tics. Each conclusion would deepen my resolve that I’d never raise a picky eater myself. Someday, I would eat everything while I was pregnant and breastfeeding, because studies showed that flavors are passed on through amniotic fluid and breast milk—through the valiant work of panelists trained to sniff and taste them—and that babies later showed preferences for those very flavors they’d been exposed to early on. I’d scrupulously keep introducing as many new foods (anchovies! spicy greens! cumin lamb noodles!) as I could before the infamous toddler food lockdown: As soon as kids are mobile, I learned, they’re pre-wired to reject bitter and unfamiliar flavors, since they’re otherwise suddenly able to wander off and put exciting, toxic things into their mouths.

At that point, even more psychological findings would start to kick in. Science says: Don’t offer desserts as rewards (or rescind dessert as penalty). Don’t make mealtimes stressful by forcing bites. Most of all, despite what two competing cookbooks were advocating at the time: Don’t lie and hide vegetables in cakes and mac and cheese, because then your kids will only ever learn they like cakes and mac and cheese, not the things hidden inside. And, oh, try not to give birth to a supertaster, because then they’ll probably never like anything with lively flavors and textures—what with their hypersensitive tongues, riddled with extra taste buds the rest of us don’t have. How exactly I was supposed to avoid all of this would be figured out at a later date.

But, after observing the real-life babies that more and more of my friends and family are raising and trying to feed every day, I realize that I actually know very little about what’s coming, and can control even less. The kicking, squirming, now hiccuping little girl who’s growing in my belly will have her own ideas about all of this. I have to let go of raising a perfect eater, or she’ll never stand a chance.

All of this gives me a new admiration for how my parents raised and fed me. My picky-eating persona hardened not because of them, but likely through some combination of a need for control, a shaky ego, and a couple traumatizing, publicly forced bites of salads glopped with heavy, creamy dressings—one at preschool and one at Girl Scout camp, both through tears and shame. By contrast, my parents basically did what all the studies I read in grad school advised, without having to read them. They didn’t pressure me; they just provided the unassuming, wholesome foods that I would eat (frozen lima beans, canned peas, overcooked meats, a little ramekin of carrot sticks), while the rest of them ate big fresh salads and juicy medium-rare steaks, never letting my bad attitude stop them from enjoying the better versions. This was always right in front of me so that I could observe and get there on my own time. I didn’t get to place my own orders for custom meals, but there was always some inoffensive thing there that I would eat and—at best—might even make me look forward to dinner, like the soupy nachos of Chicken Chile.

It’s something like a lighter version of tortilla soup, its broth steeped with gentle onions and green chiles, full of soft shreds of chicken and soup-bloated rice.

It obviously worked over the long haul, maybe even too well. I eventually fell so in love with food as I started cooking for myself in college—studying Julia Child’s The Way to Cook while sunning myself in my first front yard, quickly opening up to the point where I would taste anything and probably like it—that I ended up leaving my fledgling career in economics to eventually work at Food52, an online cookbook almost a little bit like my parents’, for a very different era.

I can only hope to offer the same inspiration and patient cheerleading for my daughter. But I’ll have to let her find the rest of the way on her own terms.

What do you think: Can we do anything about picky eating in children? Share your experience in the comments below.

25 Comments

HalfPint January 14, 2019
I have an almost 4 yo girl who started out a really great eater (ate everything, did not seem to be allergic to anything), then she turned 2 and stopped being a great eater. The "this is the only food you will be offered" mantra has taken a beating because I know my girl and the hangry demon she becomes when she's hungry or tired or both. So I try to compromise (I can already hear the cries of "No! You can't negotiate with someone who can't even spell her name", but hear me out). I try to de-escalate her hangry-ness. I don't push what she won't eat and I (try to) calm her down offering up the usual suspects that I know she likes (currently it's animal crackers or applesauce). Then I offer a compromise: 4 more animal crackers if she eats 2 of her chicken nuggets or her peas. A hungry and upset little demon will listen to nothing we do or say, so defuse the situation and stop making it a full-out battle. Plus a little treat in her belly and she's more inclined to eat that "other stuff".<br /><br />Congrats on your little one!
 
Rhonda35 January 11, 2019
How exciting! Wishing you a happy, healthy baby and an easy delivery, Kristen!
 
Mgboltz January 8, 2019
Offer small amounts so that the child can ask for more if they like it-the “just one bite” try. And repeatedly offer something over time. New things can be rejected on the sole basis of their newness, offer them again at a different time and setting.
 
T.R. J. January 8, 2019
I have a theory that parents now days spend too much time worrying and focusing on whether or not their kids eat. I believe kids pick up on that tension and that that is what can cause "food wars." We pulled the high chair up to the table as soon as the kid could sit in it and let them start to taste foods that we were eating. I never fixed anything special for them if they didn't like something, and I didn't let them have dessert an hour later if they complained that they were hungry. My oldest became a food 'adventurer' when he was an adult, my youngest was and is always up for any kind of food, and my middle one,well, he is still a picky eater at the age of 46, and is pretty much a meat and potatoes guy. Hang in there and enjoy your little one.<br />
 
gingerroot January 6, 2019
Congratulations Kristen!! Love this post so much.
 
tinydeckgarden January 6, 2019
Congratulations!! As a mom of two (and pediatrician, though honestly I feel that sometimes makes momming harder!) this is something I think about a lot. I have one almost 5 yo who is super picky and super skinny and an almost one year old who is a roly poly (currently) eating us out of house and home. I guess my main thoughts are, they are who they are. We are fortunate and they are healthy, and though I have certainly stressed about my son’s pickiness, I try to accept it and recognize that he won’t always be this way. He will grow up and he will eat. This and everything else parenting can be so hard to see in the moment. But, they change, and often, and they surprise us. My main piece of advice for all new parents is to give yourself a break. It’s hard. We control very little. We can love them to death, and make their home a warm and happy place, and provide good food when we can-and by and large they figure out the rest. The one “food philosophy “ I do like somewhat is Ellyn Satter who says that we enter into an agreement with our kids around food: our job is to decide what and when, and theirs is to decide how much (and sometimes that is 0. And that is ok. They won’t starve!)<br />Good luck!! It’s a wild ride that I wouldn’t change for anything ;)
 
Lindsay-Jean H. January 6, 2019
Congratulations Kristen! How exciting! xo
 
noknok January 5, 2019
My 13yo is finally coming around, but it has been a saga. As a baby, he wouldn’t eat things that were mixed (peas, yes; carrots, yes; but peas+carrots, no). As a toddler, he eschewed all wobbly textures. He went thru a chicken-only phase, a no bread/pasta/rice phase, an only-beige food phase, etc. Throughout it all, we tried to focus on his manners more than his refusals. He was free to reject foods, but he had to be kind in how he did so: No yuck faces where a simple, ‘no thank you’ would do. And we taught him to frame his rejections as him ‘not being ready for this *yet*’ (emphasis on that last little word) and reminding him that our taste buds evolve and change with age. Proven, in fact, by the fact that he, indeed, continues to gradually come around to happily eat wobbly eggs, bread, rice, pasta, various meats, legumes, tofu, and vegetables of all colors, shapes and sizes, as well as exotic spices and more.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 5, 2019
Love these ideas, noknok—thank you.
 
Beth January 6, 2019
My almost five year old just ate a huge bowl of veggie bean soup, after two years of an almost complete veg strike. He ate everything until then (we did lazy baby led weaning where we just fed him whatever and he loved it), and we did what noknok did, and hopefully it’s working!
 
Beth January 6, 2019
And embrace what they do love! He loves sushi and Mexican flavors so we go with that a lot!
 
Katie H. January 3, 2019
My favorite food related kid advice ever.....You are in control of what you offer them, not of what they eat. That and once you start solids with a baby it takes something like 14 times before many will accept a new food. <br /><br />I’m raising 3 kids (6,4, & 16mos) who are varying degrees of amazing eaters. We eat a variety of foods and flavors. I cook the same thing for the whole family. They don’t have to eat it but we don’t get them anything else.....if they love the sweet potato but refuse to eat the rest, no more sweet potatoes. If they eat it all and are still hungry, then they can choose what to have seconds of. A more strict approach than many of my friends, but it’s working well for us! <br /><br />Best of luck. Now ignore all the unsolicited advice you’ll get and just relax and do you. 😉
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thanks for sharing what works for your family, Katie—not unsolicited and very much appreciated!
 
Emma L. January 3, 2019
Thank you for sharing such a relatable, touching piece, Kristen. Loved every moment, but this one especially: "I have to let go of raising a perfect eater, or she’ll never stand a chance."
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thanks so much, Emma. I can just imagine my perfectionism seeping over into her relationship with food if I'm not careful, and I want to fight that as much as I can! I must chill.
 
lastnightsdinner January 2, 2019
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS, and I hope you're feeling good! Second, there is so much you just can't control... embracing it early on is sanity-saving :) I ate everything while I was pregnant with and breastfeeding my son, and while he ate pretty much anything we offered him at first, by the time he hit 3 or so, he snubbed all but a handful of foods. With his sister, I was so sick for my entire pregnancy I subsisted on Triscuits and medium cheddar, and to my chagrin, she's been an extremely picky eater from the start. My husband and I have tried over the last few years to encourage both kids to try new/more things using all of the strategies (good and bad) you've mentioned, with varying levels of success. These days, we cook, the littles have at least one tried-and-true option available to them, and if they are curious about anything else, they can have at it. I will say that I'm encouraged by the fact that both kids like to food shop with us, and that they love helping us cook the things we bring home. I think your chicken chile soup is going to find its way onto our menu soon.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thank you so much, Jennifer. I have one of those signs with inspirational sayings in my kitchen, but instead of "Live laugh love" or something, it says: "It is what it is"—it's from an inside joke with my brother that I've mostly forgotten, but I like that it reminds me to accept when things don't go according to plan. I've thought of it mostly in terms of cooking/writing/life, but I think that in feeding kids it will come into play a lot. It's so nice to hear your story.
 
KM January 2, 2019
Thanks for writing this. I am the mom of a very picky 7,5 year old, who--as you describe--used to eat everything I gave her until she was about 2,5 and started eliminating foods. I had done everything within my control: I ate a varied, adventurous diet in pregnancy and throughout breastfeeding; we eat and enjoy a huge range of foods in front of her; I fed her an array of flavors when she began eating solids. It's hard not to feel that I could have done more, but I can also see she genuinely recoils from certain tastes and textures, and I don't want to force her. It's reassuring to read that some things are not only inevitable but also common, and that there's still hope for her palate when she grows!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
I can imagine how frustrating that must be, and I'm glad this gave you comfort. I'm not the only reformed picky eater at Food52—it seems the pickiest kids sometimes end up very adventurous eaters later on. (Or not, in the case of some of my pickier friends and relatives—but they're happy and healthy, too.)
 
Merrill S. January 1, 2019
I love this so much, K -- Happy New Year to you and Mike and little Baby D! Aren't hiccups in utero so weird? It's almost like they're plucking a tiny little harp in there...
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thank you, M! If she gets as annoyed by having the hiccups as I do, my heart really goes out to her. They happen a lot!
 
Dee January 1, 2019
I always encouraged my kids to help me cook, and my oldest and I had a periodic routine where we would pick a recipe or two from my cookbook collection and then make a Saturday of shopping and preparing the food. I worked full time so it gave us time together. And yes, I let him use knives under supervision- he still has all his digits. I knew I had a good eater when one meal required me to help him (age 7) stuff and sew closed his chosen entree of squid bodies. He now has a PhD in Chemistry and thanked me for teaching him “chemistry you can eat”. Younger brother wasn’t as originally interested but exposure and family attitude have turned him into a proper foodie and excellent cook as well, whose misery knew no bounds when he was forced to eat cafeteria food at college. Also, I told them women like men who can cook!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thanks, Dee—the squid bodies do sound like a very good sign.
 
Eric K. January 1, 2019
This touched my heart! Thanks for sharing, Kristen. I wasn't a picky eater growing up, but I think I've become a rather picky adult b/c of what we do: taste food all day. The things that go into my (now large, but still limited) belly need to be 1) for work or 2) something I really, really want to eat.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Thanks, Eric! I know exactly what you mean—I battle this newer, career-oriented pickiness myself.