Pesky Picky Eaters

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Picky eaters are hard enough to deal with in a home kitchen, but in a camp kitchen where what you have is what you brought, picky eaters can make camp life miserable.

We are blessed to have two children who will eat just about anything. They are always open to trying new things. I am still amazed by what they like and what they will eat when presented with something new. We frequently experiment with new recipes (a must when you’re blogging about food) and they are always game. How did we do it? I’ll share our secret.

When they were babies and started eating solid foods, we fed them as much table food as we could. We tamed down our spices so as not to overwhelm their tender palettes and mashed up everything from spaghetti to apple pie. We started with sweeter things and slowly added the savory. As their little taste buds developed, we introduced more and more foods and flavors to them.

 

We Only Had Two Rules:

#1 You have to try at least one bite. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it.

#2 If we make it again, you have to try it every time we make it.

Here’s why: Taste buds develop and mature as you grow, so what a child does not like today, they may like tomorrow or next month or next year. By making them constantly retry things, sometimes they discover that they like something they didn’t like the first time they tried it. Kids are way smarter than we ever give them credit for so, telling them why is important.

Another thing I tried to do was not pass on my food dislikes to them. In trying to broaden their palettes, we sometimes prepared a food that I wasn’t too keen on, like peas. But I put on my happy face and I ate them with a smile. And, you know what? Over time, I learned to like peas too.

Sometimes our dislike of certain foods was the way it was prepared when we first tried it. So my husband and I experimented when preparing foods that we thought our parents had botched when serving them to us as children.

In addition to expanding their palettes, we’re also teaching problem solving, adapting, and compromising, which are important skills to have in the family and in life. For example, my husband and son like dishes with heat, my daughter does not, and I’m probably somewhere in the middle. But rather than just eliminate all things spicy from our menu to the great disappointment of the majority of the family, we have helped her adapt at the table by using sour cream, cheese, milk, and breads to counteract the heat.

Whenever we have gotten push back, we explored why they didn’t like it. Even young children can be great food critics because they are not inhibited and will be, sometimes brutally, honest with you. So we asked questions and helped them explore what it was about the dish that they didn’t like. Was it too much of a particular spice or ingredient? Was it a texture thing? Was something undercooked (a little too al dente) or overcooked (mushy)? Having a child say, “I don’t like it,” and not exploring why they don’t like it, robs you of the opportunity to be able to make changes and try again.

The end result is two teenagers who will now eat just about anything, and I couldn’t be more proud.

 

What if the Picky Eater Does Not Belong to You?

So, what do you do when you inherit a picky eater? It could be a relative’s child or your child’s friend who’s on a weekend family camping trip with you, or scouting buddies you or your child is cooking for on a troop outing, or perhaps you’re a foster parent. This can be tough because you have not fed this child from birth and they have not had to live by Rule #1 and Rule #2. And, just like grampa, they can be stubborn and set in their ways!

I start by explaining my rules and the whole developing taste bud argument. I also explain that this is all we have and I encourage them to give it a try. Campers are usually hungry and when faced with a “this is all we have” scenario, it’s amazing what they will eat and in what quantities. I also try to serve a well-rounded meal with a few side dishes, bread, etc. Usually there is something on the plate they will eat. In some cases, it is not that they don’t like it, it’s that they’ve never had it and they are afraid of the unknown food or dish. Most of the time, if I can just get them to try it, often times they end up liking it.

My son’s Boy Scout troop went winter camping at Camp Sheppard and we cooked all our meals in the small lodge kitchen. The first night, I served them a hot and hearty beef stew and one of the boys didn’t want any. I played all my cards and discovered that this 12-year-old boy had never had stew, which completely blew my mind, but what can you do?! I encouraged him to try it and he took one bite and then another and I walked away and left him to his exploration. A little while later, he came back to the kitchen with a big smile on his face asking for seconds! That made my night.

So, what do you do with a hardcore picky eater who refuses to try it or does try it, but insists they don’t like it and won’t eat it? The first question you have to ask yourself is: Are they being honest or just being obstinate because you are making them try it? I’ve seen kids do this. They try it and it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted but they refuse to admit it. Whichever it is, sometimes I just shrug and say, “Well, this is all we have,” and I walk away. They have to decide how hungry they are or if there are enough other items on the table to satisfy them.

Finally, we always have a good supply of snacks and I almost always pack peanut butter and jelly to supplement or replace a meal. But I don’t offer that to them right away. If you give them an easy out, you will never get them to try new things. Sometimes they need to be a little desperate to get up enough courage to try something new. When all else fails, I never let them go hungry.

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