Re-designing Mealtime: How to Deal with Picky Eaters

When I first met my partner’s two children, I could count on one hand all of the foods they would readily eat and that number was starting to decline. Weekend mealtime consisted of removing food from boxes, heating it up and serving it. After the girls finished and were in bed, we would eat their leftovers or cook and eat our own but separate meal.

Fed up with our weekend lifestyle of boxed processed foods, we created one simple goal: we would sit down and eat the same meal together. The tactical roadmap actually consisted of several small, but very important steps.

1.Families that cook together, eat together.

My partner and I are both designers by trade, and any good design project begins with research. One tip we discovered, was that people are naturally more invested in something when they’ve had a hand in its creation. Armed with this fact, we began preparing our meals together. The girls at this time, were aged 5 and 7 and were given tasks appropriate to their age and were under supervision the entire time they were in the kitchen. The difference was immediate. They were proud of their accomplishments in the kitchen and were already more interested in the foods they were preparing. Their willingness to try new foods increased and this new activity had the added benefit of improving their self-confidence!

2. Introduce the word, “yet.”

Most parenting books will expound the benefits of teaching a growth mindset and this can even be applied to new foods. Even though the girls were beginning to open up to new foods they had prepared, they would often taste things and exclaim, “I don’t like it!” to which we would reply, “Yet!” This new phrase introduced the idea that maybe they didn’t like it now but tastes change and how a food is prepared can also change. Pretty soon the girls were happily adding “yet” to the end of their statements on their own even without our prompting. Foods they had tried once and decided they “didn’t like,” were given second chances and they were finding that on the second or third try, they loved it! Armed with these personal anecdotes of success, we could remind them of these stories when new foods seemed particularly unappetizing to them.

3. Reframe!

Reframing in Design Thinking is a powerful tool that can turn problem statements into possible solutions. We were already changing how we spoke about food, but we needed to take it further. At mealtime when faced with new dishes we often heard, “What if we don’t like it?” at first we were stumped by this question that exposed their fear and awakened ours. One answer was, “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” Denying their fears we knew wasn’t useful, but how could we avoid the binary, “like or don’t like”? How could we imply they had to eat what was prepared and ensure that they were getting adequate nutrition? Enter, gamification.

We had already introduced the idea of liking something, “yet” so we experimented with a game. My partner and I prepared meatballs four different ways, and the girls would decide which preparation they liked best. This completely changed the conversation and removed the issue of liking or not liking. We were empowering them with choice and learning about their taste preferences at the same time. The girls loved this game! They tried all four different meatballs without hesitation and we learned that they REALLY liked garlic.

4. Be consistent.

Consistency is key to ANY interaction. Design systems and style guides give structure and consistency to interfaces. These patterns establish rules and make it easy for users to know what to expect. Same with kids. In order to change habits, you have to change behavior and consistently enforcing rules reinforces the new behavior. One of the toughest new rules we enacted was, “No more snacks!”

We realized it’s really hard to be hungry for a meal, let alone something novel when you’ve eaten just a couple of hours before. The girls were used to snacking throughout the day, eating pretzels and goldfish every few hours like most kids on the standard American diet. The downside is, when your blood sugar is constantly raised and you never experience hunger, you’re far less likely to find a new dish or home-cooked meal appetizing. Research is also showing that constantly raised blood sugar isn’t healthy long term. It took a few weekends to get used to we were changing a habit after all. By staying consistent we were able to switch to a routine of three square meals a day and haven’t looked back. This has definitely helped, and a little exercise before mealtime doesn’t hurt either!

5. You have to meet people where they are.

Every success story has plenty of failures along the way. Our story was no exception. We were definitely seeing improvements in the girls’ attitude towards food and had added new foods to our repertoire, but the little ladies were still wasting food regularly, declaring they were “full,” at dinner time yet waking early the following morning from their empty and famished bellies. Clearly they weren’t eating enough. So we enacted yet another new rule: Whatever you don’t finish at one meal, you have to finish at the next.

We were doing a great job of being consistent and thoughtfully setting expectations, but we got a little overeager and introduced a dinner composed of all new dishes. There was nothing familiar on the plate, and my partner’s youngest had reached her limit of what she was willing to do.

Experts say that children won’t intentionally starve themselves, those experts haven’t met Brooke. After refusing to eat for three meals straight not even taking a single bite, we were seriously concerned for her health. Fearing a hospital admission was imminent, we caved. We threw out the leftovers she refused to eat and made her a dish that we knew she would happily ingest. From this scary lesson, we learned to introduce only one new thing at a time. We discovered we needed to be more patient with them. Baby steps, despite being small will still get you to the finish line.

6. It’s all about balance.

Many of us grew up with the rule you have to eat your veggies to get dessert. My partner and I weren’t exceptions, but we didn’t want dessert to be a reward or an incentive for doing things that are uncomfortable. In fact, we noticed the young ladies saving room for dessert and eating less of the nutritious dinner we had all prepared. We want the girls to be armed with knowledge about nutrition and not to think of vegetables as a necessary evil. Instead, we focus on balance. Each meal is comprised of a protein, a starch and a vegetable with fat. If they want more starch (they both love rice noodles) they have to have more protein and vegetables to balance it out. The same thing goes for dessert. Now as they serve themselves at dinner, they check in with us, “Is this balanced?” Or, “Have I earned dessert?” They are even giving themselves extra servings of vegetables with no requirement from us the adults.

This journey started over a year ago and for every few steps forward there’s been inevitably one step back. But today, we have gone far beyond our goal. Applying design thinking to our personal lives we have tested our assumptions and iterated on our findings. We now have two girls that have forked roasted lamb shank into their mouths without batting an eye. They’re even asking to try new foods and dishes like requesting shrimp in their quiche. Recently the eldest tried escargot and octopus for the first time! Separate meals are a thing of the past. The young ladies are constantly trying new foods with little to no hesitation. Most importantly we’re all sitting down at the dining room table together and all enjoying the same meal.