We’ve all seen it before. Parents dole out a home-cooked, healthy meal with something that kids haven’t tried before. Maybe it’s a new vegetable like broccoli or new texture like mushrooms. First, the child looks sideways at it. Then they reluctantly stab it with their fork, as though it might bite them. Finally, with a lot of coaxing from Mom and Dad, they give it a bite, almost holding their nose as they do. After some painful-looking chewing, they exclaim “eewww, that’s gross.”
But what’s a parent to do? Picky eating is not a well-defined behavior from a scientific perspective, but every parent knows it when they see it. The American Academy of Pediatrics website healthychildren.org describes it well: “A toddler’s favorite food one day may hit the floor the next, or a snubbed food might suddenly become the one he or she can’t get enough of.”
This problematic relationship in preschool children has even been associated with psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Kids’ reasons for refusing new foods are many, from fear of the new or unknown, “neophobia,” to unaccountable taste preferences, or even problems with the way parents present new foods.
There are a few good rules of thumb, such as focusing on the meal, avoiding TV and phones at the table, being positive about new foods, and not treating them like chores that kids can be bribed to eat by promises of dessert.
But what happens when you’ve tried everything and still can’t get your kids to eat? A dad posted about his experiences on a Reddit parenting forum and his idea was surprising but compelling. Under the username BabyHooey, the dad started posting about his experience with a bunch of picky eaters. The hilarious thread is named “I just retired from cooking.”
The dad revealed how, one after another, his kids (aged 10–16) wouldn’t eat any of the common foods he served (tacos, spaghetti, cheese). To make matters more complicated, one of his daughters has celiac disease, meaning she’s gluten intolerant. He described reaching his breaking point in the supermarket, realizing “there’s an entire store full of food, and I’m able to buy anything in the store within reason, and yet somebody will complain about anything I make.”
He decided instead to buy some basic ingredients and let the kids put their own meals together. The complaints he expected from the kids when they discovered that they were now responsible for cooking didn’t manifest. Instead, they each made themselves something different: two made sandwiches, and one of them made noodle soup with rice noodles for herself and her sister. Sandwiches and cereal quickly became the staples.
When the desperate dad’s first post got lots of comments and upvotes, he decided to post an update to satisfy fellow users’ curiosity about his experiment. While the kids seemed to enjoy their freedom, so did their dad. He got to make the foods he and his wife love without worrying about his children turning their noses up.
But how many sandwiches can you eat? Sure enough, after about two weeks, one of his kids asked, “That smells really good, can I have some?” to which the dad replied he’d made only enough for two but could make some more for dinner the next day if they wished. They then started singing a different tune: “Please, anything’s better than more sandwiches.” Now he cooks for the whole family again, though the kids still have the chance to feed themselves whenever they want. As he said, “the retirement didn’t last long,” but he’s happy with the results!