Are you or your kids picky eaters? Is it making it harder to transition to a real food lifestyle? Here’s how Stephanie went from being a picky eater to a total foodie!

Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we’re running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better. Our goal is to answer the questions you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!

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