Anyone who’s prepared meals for a picky eater knows the challenge. All the more so when the cook involved possesses an adventurous palate, at odds with the hesitance. We cherish our children (and spouses) and want them to experience food they love, but when even basics like onions and tomatoes are vetoed, mustering patience, let alone tender feelings, can be difficult. Many parents simply cave under pressure, morphing dinner at home into a short order dining experience in which everyone counts on a personalized meal. Or give in to mac and cheese on a regular basis, while forsaking artichokes and asparagus entirely. This, is not my style. I’m not running a restaurant here. And complaints don’t fly far in my kitchen as I plate up something new—an event that occurs nearly nightly. At the same time I remember all too well the terror of soggy spinach and soft-boiled eggs, so I don’t mind the lonely pile of carrots or capers, picked out and moved quietly to the edge of the plate. Just as long as everyone tries everything. There’s no need to hide the rejects under a napkin—I store the feedback for future reference. Admittedly I’m happiest when there’s excitement around the dinner table, so I’m always in search of creative tricks to present edgy (according to some) food in enticing ways. Enticing to all.
Recently my friend, Jane, shared a trick she employs to get her family eating sun-dried tomatoes. Jane loves a lentil salad with the bold-tasting dried fruit, but each time her children painstakingly pick them out—while leaving a trail of complaint behind. Not one to surrender without a fight, Jane started puréeing the tomatoes in the dressing and leaving out the whole fruit. The signature pop of flavor remained, just not the chewy chunks. The story goes that not only did the kids fail to realize the tomatoes were still in the mix—they raved about the taste. One day they’ll thank their mother for her sneaky persistence. In the meantime Jane silently declares victory. And savors her salad.
Tricks for satisfying picky eaters without sacrificing the adventure in meals:
- Try roasting strong foods like onion and garlic. Roasting mellows the bite and coaxes out an inherent (and surprising) sweetness. Toss roasted onions into a salad instead of raw. Opt for milder raw cousins like scallions or shallots. Or quick pickle raw onions in a puddle of lemon juice for 10 minutes to remove the edge.
- Roasting is a favorite treatment for nearly any vegetable—and the only means through which my oldest would consider consuming a carrot. Cut into uniform cubes, dress in olive oil and place on a rimmed baking sheet in a 375 to 400 degree oven, until tender. Works for everything from broccoli to turnips. The strong licorice notes of fennel mellow out, and blah squash gains a boost of caramelized flavor.
- Add something sweet to green salad—like a lusciously ripe strawberry.
- Raw tomatoes can be difficult to stomach. Try cooking them in a light sauté or longer roast. The antioxidant lycopene is most readily available in cooked tomatoes, anyway. If you must have raw fruit, cut them open and remove the seeds, which some mouths find unbearably slimy.
- Smooth, puréed dishes in which vegetable nemeses merge benignly into the background are sometimes more readily accepted than chunkier fare. Simmer a pot of soup, purée pesto or an herb oil, mash beans with sautéed greens or sun-dried tomatoes into vinaigrette.
- Cut vegetables into small pieces for soups. Oversized bites just serve as glaring reminders of what’s being forced.
- Allow sensitive eaters the latitude to pick out a despised food (like capers or pine nuts). But insist that at least one bite is taken of each dish. Palates change and desensitize over time and sometimes a food that was once on the no-fly list, is suddenly a go.
- Understanding that not everyone shares food preferences doesn’t mean giving in to separate meals. Instead, make sure dinner includes at least one dish a picky eater can actively enjoy. Involve said eater in meal planning (and cooking) for best results.
Recipes for the Week:
Lentil Salad with Arugula and Sun-dried Tomato Vinaigrette (pictured at left above)
Broccoli Cheddar Soup (pictured at right above)
Roasted Broccoli and Cherry Tomatoes with Pasta (pictured left)