Avoid Creating Picky Eaters

Ivy says:

I have been running across a phenomena so often lately, that I needed to write about it here just to get it out of my head. The only thing is, I know around here, I’m mostly preaching to the choir. Even so, I hope I catch a few people and get them to thinking.

The problem? Picky eaters. I see it all over the place- in a frugality community I read: “Can you give me some recipes that are budget friendly? Here’s what I don’t eat: fruits, vegetables, seafood, fish, grains, red meat, white meat, chocolate, or pasta” I also see it in real life:

Them: Can’t you get Heather to post some recipes that are kid friendly?

Me: All Heather’s recipes are kid friendly, she has 4 kids.

Them: Oh, I’ve never seen anything kid friendly there.

Me: Oven Fried Chicken Fingers? Pizza???

Them: I don’t know. That seems awfully…hard to make….I just usually get takeout. And we have chicken nuggets and pizza all the time. I’d like something new.

Me: ::boggles::

And that’s the problem right there. By constantly catering to your kid’s tastes, you’re setting them up to be like the first example. Now, my kids have had their fair share of chicken nuggets and pizza. And yes, I’ve been through the McDonald’s drive through a time or two (hundred). But the bulk of my children’s diet is a variety of fresh, whole foods cooked in various ways. See, if a kid doesn’t like tomatoes raw, they might like them cooked. And the same kid that despises okra fried may love it steamed.

One of the biggest problems I see is parents who deicide ahead of time that their kid isn’t going to like something based on their own childhood likes and dislikes. I’m guilty of that myself. As a kid, I hated onions. So when my daughter at age 4 wanted onions on her burrito, I told her she probably wouldn’t like them. But she insisted and I let her have them. She loved onions and orders them any time there’s an opportunity. Lesson learned: Let them try anything they want, even if you think they might hate it.

Another problem is that I see too many parents who think they’re being nice to their kids by not making them eat stuff they don’t want to eat. I think they remember all too well being made to sit at the table until they finished their liver, and don’t want that for their kids. So they won’t man up and be parents and make their kids at least try unfamiliar food. In my house, you have to try a bite of everything that’s on your plate whether you like it or not. My youngest son always claims to hate scalloped potatoes until he tries a bite. Then he remembers he actually likes it and will eat it.

Now, of course, there are kids who have special needs or allergies that prevent them from being able to eat everything. And there are people who are just picky eaters, no matter what you try. My brother, who I would not classify as a picky eater, absolutely despises beans. This is the guy who will eat Rocky Mountain Oysters without a thought. But last Sunday at my mom’s, we had ham and beans and he just made himself a sandwich. Beans are just not his thing, and that’s okay.

So, let’s pull all this advice into a nice, neat list for the tl;dr crowd, shall we?

How to avoid creating a picky eater:

  • Cook a variety of fresh, whole foods. Can’t cook worth a darn? Grab some recipes and start cooking anyway.
  • Cook these foods in different ways. Remember, just because someone hates a certain food one way, doesn’t mean they’d hate it in another way.
  • Avoid fast food and takeout. They just don’t serve a variety of foods. That’s not to say you can never go to these places, just don’t make that the majority of what you’re serving.
  • Don’t base what your kids will like on what you like. Believe me, you’ll be surprised.
  • Make your kids at least try it, and not just once. Over time, tastes change. If you get your kids in the habit of at least trying everything, eventually they will start liking new stuff.
  • Finally, take into account your family’s likes and dislikes, but don’t cater to their every whim. Sure, the kids might love pizza and burgers and chicken nuggets best, but that doesn’t mean you have to serve it for every meal. If they HATE what’s for dinner and you don’t want them to starve, there’s always PB&J. (Unless they have a peanut allergy. Then there’s always J.)

Always do your best to keep from creating a picky eater. The future spouses of your children will thank you for it. πŸ˜‰


  1. Caroline on October 21, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    When I was growing up, my mom had a sign hanging over the table that said, try it you'll ike it. We had to eat at least one bite, if we didn't like it we could make our own dinner. There are very few things I don't like, olives and salmon (except in gravlox) come to mind. But if i am at someone's house and they serve salmon, I will eat my portion because it is polite to do so.

  2. ThatBobbieGirl on May 14, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Great post – I think if I’d been told to write something about picky eaters it would have hit many of the same points. I was bound and determined NOT to let our kids grow up to be like the picky-eater adults we knew. Result? My son DEVOURS broccoli whenever possible, in any form, as well as any other vegetable, especially if it’s raw. The only thing I can think of that he really doesn’t like is that cucumber salad made with vinegar and sugar – which is fine.

    Our daughter will eat just about anything, too, but she’s right there with your brother when comes to beans, Ivy. She will eat a small amount of baked beans with other foods, but if beans are the main dish, she’ll pass.

    Oh, come to think of it, she does like refried beans, and loves hummus. Has your brother tried those? The smashing or pureeing changes the texture so it’s not so bean-ish.

    Both kids learned that if you’re at someone else’s house, you eat what they’re serving, no complaints. If you don’t like it much, don’t take seconds!

  3. Theodora on August 11, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Great post and topic, even though I’m not a parent. Picky eating bothers me to no end; I hate seeing my friends who are parents have to deal with it, and I hate trying to deal with adults who are picky as well.

    One corollary — it’s great to have kids who will try anything. If you’re at a buffet or potluck, please make them take ONLY courtesy servings first and then come back for more if they like something.

    My husband still talks about the time (5 years ago) when we had a party and a couple of the little kids took big servings of something that we had a limited amount of — they didn’t eat it and so it was wasted.

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  5. Marcia on August 7, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Very good posting. My son is two, and I have worked hard to make sure he gets a well-balanced diet. Our doctor said we need to look at his intake to get a balanced week, not a balanced meal.

    It’s difficult though. We just returned from a two-week vacation. My family and in-laws have a lot of snacks in the house…chips, cookies, candy, cake…and my son would, of course, prefer to eat that instead. So I nicely asked (and the family accepted) that they eat their snacks in a different room when possible. Not that he didn’t get the snacks, but my rule is healthy food first.

    I’ve seen what happens when someone is allowed to be too picky…they can end up as a 61-year old diabetic who eats no vegetables but can down a pound of cookies a day.

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  8. Briana on August 6, 2008 at 9:52 am

    They say it can take several times of being exposed to a new food before a child will eat it!

    Our biggest problem is our littlest will eat anything but if her older brothers or sisters say it is yucky, then she thinks it is yucky too. So we have to start at the top and work it down so they will all try something. Usually, they end up liking what I’m trying to get them to eat. Not like I force them to eat things I hate. Oh, yeah, you are right mommy, this IS good. I love when I hear that one!

  9. Alvi the Small on August 6, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Totally agree on the courtesy bite, from a politeness/manners point of view. Growing up in my household, it was acceptable for a person to try something, decide they didn’t like it, and then make themselves a bowl of cereal or a sandwich. You didn’t make a big deal out of it, you just had to sit at the table with everyone else, and talk nicely to everyone. Perhaps this comes from having a picky eater mom. πŸ™‚

    Ultimately, when kids grow up and go to a dinner party, this is an important skill – accept what your host dishes up, eat a small amount, decide it’s gross, and then eat the other stuff without being a jerk about it. Surprisingly, some of my coworkers seem to lack this skill, and come across really strangely in social situations.

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  11. Sara on August 5, 2008 at 8:18 am

    The one bite thing works… unless your child has texture issues. My husband found that out the hard way with our 5 year old in “forcing” him to eat asparagus. I’m not willing to clean up vomit when I warned and the issue was still pushed…

  12. Kati B on August 4, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    The try one bite tactic has a name in my house (both as a child and now as a mom).

    It’s called The No, Thank You Bite.

    conversations with the 2nd grader go something like this:

    kid: what IS that?!
    me: (taking deep breath, standing firm) It’s a new recipe that we’re testing out tonight. Do you want a big spoonful or a little one?
    kid: None.
    me: (looks pointedly)
    kid: little. tiny. one bite.
    me: good job. and if you love it, you’ll say?
    kid: I love this!
    me: and if you hate it?
    kid: (parroting but at least he’s got the concept) No, thank you.
    me: and then you can help me figure out how we can make taste better next time.
    kid: okay, deal.

    I’m one of the people that the meal planning posts are targeted to – I’m coming off a 3 year long jag of Whole Foods buffet dinners, and returning to the kitchen. It’s meant that we get to practice this “new recipe” script quite a bit.

    Honestly, the I’m new at this routine has worked in my favor a few times. Since I’ve never made mac-n-cheese at home before for the kid before, I can put frozen spinach in the colander before I drain the pasta and then stir it in, and claim that’s how I always had it as a kid and let’s just try it. (For the record, kid loves it this way and seems suspicious of un-spinached mac-n-cheese now!)

    I really do have to hold firm when he throws up the first resistant volley, though. That’s the beauty of the No, Thank You Bite. I’m not saying that you’ll absolutely love it. I’m not asking you to eat all of it. I am saying that because someone has prepared and offered you food, you will try it and then, if necessary, politely decline any more.

  13. JRae on August 3, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    I want to clarify after the lockdown phase BEGINS (around 2ish) get them to try the yucky food 5 times… not after the lockdown phase is over (after 5ish).

  14. JRae on August 3, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I’m not a parent, but I’ve read a lot about this issue because I’m interested in parenting techniques, and I can’t STAND picky eaters. πŸ˜›

    I’ve read that children lockdown on their tastes from the ages of 2-5. That’s typically when they become picky. It’s because they’re old enough to start foraging on their own, so need to protect themselves from bitter and sour foods, which in nature are more likely to be poisonous (plenty of exceptions, of course).

    The key is to expose them to as many foods as possible BEFORE the lockdown phase.

    Then after the lockdown phase, you’ve got to get the kids to try a “yucky” food at least 5 different times before they’ll get over their innate pickiness and can actually evaluate whether they like it or not.

    I’ve heard a good technique is to get the kids to take 1 bite for every year of their age. Another key is also to be relaxed and calm when you offer the new food to the kid, and try not to make a big deal out of it. That way kids don’t associate negative emotions with that particular food.

    I understand it’s difficult if they won’t take their courtesy bites or whatever, but you’re the parent, you gotta win at some point or else they’ll walk all over ya. πŸ˜‰

    These are definitely the techniques I’ll be using with my future kids. I’ll let you know how long it takes before I throw them down the tube. πŸ˜‰

  15. Heather on August 2, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Asking a child to take one bite is a far cry from a power struggle over a plate of food that must be cleaned. I am sure there are inappropriate ways to demand a child try a bite. However, there is nothing wrong with requiring a child to demonstrate basic manners at the dinner table and that includes at least tasting what is set before them and then being polite if it is not something they enjoy.

    No one wants to sit next to the vocal whiner at a company dinner or other such events.

    Again, these comments and thoughts are in regard to children without special needs. I’m fully aware that those on the autism spectrum (as an example) have an entirely different set of issues to cope with .

  16. Kelly on August 2, 2008 at 2:09 am

    I don’t know about making kids “try” a bite of everything. I know I am a picky eater myself, although I eat far more foods now than I ever thought I would. A lot of tastes you just have to acquire. I do know my parents made me sit at the table for hours to make me eat some foods and what was the point? Today I still don’t eat those foods and all it did then was make dinnertime a battlefield.

    Most kids will eventually eat the things they need to but forcing them to eat foods they don’t like and aren’t ready for will only delay that – by years sometimes. I can tell you this from experience.

  17. Hilary on August 1, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Love the post. Of course, I know of what you speak!

    What WON’T Picky eat?

  18. learning the ropes on August 1, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    I so hear you on this. My MIL has been very choosy about what vegetables she would cook, as a result, I have a husband, who will eat anything as long as it is potato. Seriously, I am practically preparing everything with potato. chick-pea potato anybody? Due to a spike in BP sometime ago, he’s started paying attention to the food, and at least tries to eat lots of greens, veggie etc. Well, a start to say the least…

  19. Badbadivy on July 31, 2008 at 12:30 am

    I have a feeling that with the ever increasing cost of food, more & more parents are going to take a different look at how they approach the whole β€œI don’t like that” defense at the table.

    Absolutely. My grandma was born 2 years before the Depression started and she often said if she had been a picky eater, she would have starved. I remember my absolute love of white rice as a kid, and I never could understand why she didn’t dig it until I was much older- she ate so much of it when she was a kid, she never wanted to see it again.

  20. Brenda on July 30, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    This is a great post….& a very timely one, as well. I have a feeling that with the ever increasing cost of food, more & more parents are going to take a different look at how they approach the whole “I don’t like that” defense at the table. There is nothing cruel, or even unreasonable, about expecting people to try things that are served to them (I believe someone called it the Courtesy Bite). There will always be foods that have a smaller appeal, usually what is considered out of the mainstream. But if we think about a favorite food, it’s good to remember, & to remind our kids too, that there was a first time to try that.

    Anyway, I like what you said about the effect on future spouses….too true! My husband is wonderful about mealtimes (well okay, I’m not a half bad cook), & I really cannot remember a time that he has ever complained about what I’ve served. He has his favorites, to be sure, but he’s always gracious about things that don’t turn out to be “5-star meals”. This has been a great example to our children, & gives me confidence in the kitchen, because I know that everything new will be at least given a try, & assessments made honestly but kindly. :o)


  21. Tara on July 30, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    If the kids don’t like cooked spinach, try it raw in salads etc. It’s the only way I eat it.

    DD eats what is on the table. I’ve always made kids (mine, my sister’s, visiting kids, etc.) take a courtesy bite unless they are allergic. I haven’t had power struggles either; I tell them one bite and you can stop. Easier to take the bite than argue I guess!

  22. Cheryl on July 30, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    “Over time, tastes change”. My very real example: my now adult son liked corn as his sole vegetable. Tomatoes not in salads but in sauce. This is the boy who went to college, using the food plan in the dorm, because he didn’t know how to cook anything but ramen noodles. Now he’s 25 and does the cooking for he and his wife. He uses a wok. He loves using spices I can’t even pronounce. They mostly eat Thai and Indian food. Go figure…

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  24. Kristin on July 30, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Amen! Our girls are never given the option – they will eat what I cook! And I have found that the more they eat a certain food, the more they like it.

    I think that by incorporating many foods into your child’s diet at a very early age (as soon as they can chew!), you help them to develop a wider palette.

  25. Karen on July 30, 2008 at 9:56 am

    For the past few years I was pretty sick and just didn’t have the energy to fight the food battle with my son. Well, I’m now well and he’s now almost eight and things are changing! He has to eat at least one bite of everything served. Maybe I’m just really lucky, but the battle hasn’t been that bad–it only lasted about a week. He could tell I was really serious and I had complete backup from Dad. There’s still drama over spinach, but no more resistance.

    So, if you have been catering to your children too much like i was, I offer up hope to you that it is not too late!

  26. Club Amaro on July 30, 2008 at 7:58 am

    I could not agree with you more on this…!

    I am not a short order cook.

    Rule #1 at our dinner table – you have to at least TRY it! I can’t tell you how many things my daughter turned her nose up at and now loves because I made her try.

    Give your kids a little credit…

    THANKS for the blog….love it.

  27. Patia on July 30, 2008 at 3:32 am

    Totally agree.

    I feel so sorry for picky eaters. They don’t know what they’re missing! How sad to miss out on a world of wonderful adventurous tastes.

    I don’t think kids should be forced to eat anything except one bite — a “no-thank-you helping.”

    If they get hungry enough, they’ll eat what they’re offered.

  28. Sheri on July 29, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Yes, our daughter ate exclusively homemade baby foods.

  29. Judy on July 29, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    I totally agree with having kids try things multiple times… it’s how I’ve learned to like different foods as well.

    My 15 yo and 10 yo are relatively picky (although not as picky as I used to be – I’ve gotten much more adventurous and willing to try things in my old age), but my 12 yo likes most foods.

    We recently spent a week with family friends who’s 13 month old daughter eats just about anything… except eggs (she’s allergic), chicken (my guess is she might be sensitive to that as well), nuts and honey (her mom thinks she’s still too young for them.

    As this child is such an avid eater, I asked her how she did this. Her first bit of advice was NOT to EVER give commercially prepared baby food. It is too smooth, and most of it is too sweet – giving our children issues with food textures, and a strong desire for sweet foods. Her second bit of advice was to start infants on eating *real* foods that are either sour or bitter in taste.

    This visit coinsided with my 6 month old’s first forays into solids. We’ve started out with breakfast – and he eats Greek yogurt (more sour than regular plain), oatmeal (regular rolled or steel cut oats that have been ground in the baby grinder after cooking – NO sweetener), and blackberries (a rather sour fruit). We’ll add some additional fruits to this breakfast as we go. When we add lunch/dinner foods, we will start with steamed and mushed greens, mashed potatoes, ground up meats… saving the sweet veggies (carrots, beets) for later on.

  30. Lisa- Domestic Accident on July 29, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    I’m with Jen. I followed Ellyn Satter’s advice in How to Get Your Kids to Eat and now all three of my kids are great eaters. Not a picky one in the bunch. Her book is definitely worth a trip to half.com.

  31. Kate on July 29, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Some great points here, and I can definitely relate to a lot of what you’re saying. My husband and I both avoid mushrooms, not because of the taste- it’s just a psychological thing. =) My daughter, even before trying them, insisted she loves them. It turns out, she does! Weird.

    Which Proverbs 14:1 Woman?

  32. tink on July 29, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    The future spouses of your children will thank you for it. πŸ˜‰

    Ivy, you kick butt woman.

    My kids are grown now, but we went thru the food battles.

    A meat and potatoes husband who likes any veggie as long as it’s corn, a vegetarian daughter and a very picky son.

    It drove me insane!

    One thing I heard recently and REALLY wish someone had told me a loooong time ago is “you aren’t raising children, you are raising children to be adults.”

    The first time I heard that one, it really made me rethink many of the strategies that I had used when my kids were growing up—and then I kicked myself in the butt. By not keeping that in mind, I realized that I had actually taught my kids many of those bad habits.

    My husband, the non veggie eater, HATES green peppers with a passion, but I had always used them diced and in many of my recipes, soooo, I just never let him know they were in there.

    One day I made chili and I was out of green pepper, so we had chili minus the pepper. He hated it, told me something was missing. I finally told him what was missing and the look of shock on his face was priceless.

    Now, he’s the one planting NINETEEN pepper plants in the garden so I won’t run out during the winter.

    Even old dogs learn new tricks, but man, it would have been much easier had I not had to fight the battles with a husband as well as the kids.

    Good luck to all of you with the food trials, you can do it.

  33. Sheri on July 29, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Yep–we require our five-year-old daughter to take a courtesy bite of every dish. We also serve a VERY small initial portion of the entree (four small bites, say), and our assumption is that she will finish it before leaving the table. (Once in a while, she “can’t,” but that is honestly really rare.) This has been our plan for so long–at least three years now–that it doesn’t even prompt a discussion anymore. Lots of times, in fact, she discovers she likes the new dish!

    We also don’t tolerate talk at the table of “not liking” food, let alone “hating” it. We’re lucky to have wholesome food and should be grateful for it, after all. She is allowed–one time only!–to say she “doesn’t care for it,” and that is the end of the discussion.

    I hadn’t thought much about it, to be honest–are we being unusually strict here by contemporary standards? My husband and I were both raised with similar rules, and they seem to be working well with our girl. She enjoys food and eating both at home and with others, and adults often comment at what a good eater she is.

  34. rapunzel on July 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Erin, I am in similar situation right now – my SO’s children are incredibly picky and have such an ever-changing diet, I can’t keep up. Vegetarian one week, vegan the next, chicken but no turkey the next..etc..etc..you get the point. (they have no problem scarfing down fries & other junk, tho!) My kids are also in various stages of vegetarianism and as a former veggie myself, I keep that in mind when I cook. Otherwise, though, they’ll try anything & everything! I never had a problem with them eating fruit & veggies either. I’m going nuts w/his girls, though, and am tired of being a short-order cook so I stopped doing it. If they don’t like the healthy meal I serve, sorry. They’ll not starve, that’s for sure, but I’m not catering to their junk food addictions.

    Great article, though, one every parent should read!

  35. Badbadivy on July 29, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    @Jenn: I think a courtesy bite is absolutely essential. My kids would probably never brush their teeth if I didn’t make them- there are just some things you have to make your kids do until they are finally old enough to understand why they have to do it.

  36. Erin on July 29, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    l can’t agree more with this. When I met DH, DSD would only eat certain items and both DH & his ex would cater to her. I did also at first but didn’t like making one meal for DH, DSS & myself and then having to make something else for her. I started slowly getting her to try new things. My first victory was Knockwurst. At the time she ate her hot dogs cut up. Therefore, I cut up the knockwurst and told her it was a big fat hot dog. When we go to our normal buffett place I will put small portions of many items on her plate. She has to try everything on the plate. I also don’t tell her what something is until after she has tried it. For about the past four years I have cooked only one meal for the family and she eats what we eat. Just recently I got her to eat gravy with one caveat. She told me it has to be my homemade gravy.

  37. chocolatechic on July 29, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Amen…and amen!!!

  38. jennifer on July 29, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Just wanted to share a slightly different perspective. Growing up, I HATED vegetables. I was strictly a meat, bread and potatoes girl. Carrots were occasionally tolerated. My parents didn’t really push the issue, which back then was fine. However, I’ve since come to believe that that diet and my resulting unhealthy weight led directly to some health issues in adulthood. It’s only been in my mid-20s that I’ve started forcing myself to try veggies different ways and eat in a way I now know is healthier (even though I’m still picky!). I don’t blame my parents for my health issues, but I do wish that they’d forced the vegetable issue and tried different ways of cooking them. I don’t want to suggest that parents should cater to their kids’ every whim, but by trying new methods to get them to like healthy foods, you’re only doing them a favor!

  39. Jenn on July 29, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Oooooh, this is so hard! I’ve always been a hard core Ellyn Satter fan. She says it’s my responsibility to put food on the table and my daughter’s responsibility to eat it. Or not. No courtesy bites. Encouragement is allowed, but no forcing. The theory is that kids will naturally get the nutrients they need over a weeks time and will, out of curiosity and familiarity, start to try new things on their own speed. Her philosophy removes the power struggle from eating. I like that.

    But we’re not doing so much trying new things here. And it’s starting to get to me. I cook a variety of foods. And everyone gets a turn at having their favorite foods at the table. And I make sure there’s something my daughter likes, or at least will eat, at every meal. And maybe it’s because she’s 5. Maybe she’ll be more open to trying new things when she’s older. Or maybe I’m trying too many new recipes. I don’t know. But it’s frustrating. So I’m tempted to add a mandatory courtesy bite but I’m not looking forward to the power struggle that will entail.

  40. Caanan on July 29, 2008 at 11:50 am

    While I was growing up my mom cooked what she liked, so I was exposed to a variety of dishes. I *really* didn’t like a few things, but PB&J wasn’t an option. If I didn’t eat what she made for dinner, I went hungry. Of course that wasn’t a common occurrence, it happened once or twice a month at most. And I consider myself blessed for the practice. How often do you go to a friend’s house (or in-laws) where they’re serving something you would never choose for yourself? Thanks to Mom, I can go ahead and eat it, even if I don’t like it. Dad faced the dreaded lima beans the first time he ate at my grandmother’s house when he and Mom were dating.

  41. Sheri on July 29, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I’m with you. Our five-year-old has been eating regular food–what we eat, that is!–since she was about 1 1/2. Before that, she ate our food with some modifications and additions. We discovered she loves olives, pickles, and onions when she was only 9 mos. old. Since age 3, some of her favorite foods have been “dragon food” (spicy curried lentils and brown rice) and anything Mexican. She also grooves on chicken dishes, roasts, most seafood, salads, artichokes, etc. etc. Of course she has her own personal preferences–don’t we all?–but that doesn’t excuse her from eating what happens to be on the table on any given night.

    Start them early on your own home cooking, and never give them the idea that there is such a thing as special “kid food,” and they’ll be fine.

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