Cooking for your loved ones can be one of the biggest pleasures in life -- or one of the biggest sources of frustration. For most busy families, it's tough enough to get everyone to the table at the same time, let alone plan meals that will please everyone.
There's no shortage of tips and tricks out there for dealing with picky eaters. But which ones work best? Is it better to call a spud a spud or hide it in the chocolate cake? Is it wiser to give metaphorical carrots for eating literal ones or stop offering dessert just to those who eat their veggies?
Here are five secrets to pleasing picky eaters, no matter how old they are:
Secret #1: Talk to your picky eater.
According to experts, the first step in overcoming food resistance is simple: Have a conversation about food likes and dislikes.
Ask your picky eater what she likes to eat, and why, and what she doesn't like to eat, and why.
In many cases, a power struggle at the dinner table is just that -- a power struggle. Whether the picky eater in question is a toddler trying to define her independence or an older adult trying to hold on to hers, it's probably not about the food.
"Eating is the one area where picky eaters can totally rebel," says Beth Reardon, director of nutrition for Duke Integrative Medicine, part of the Duke University Health System. "If you really anger them, they won't eat. And their refusal to eat could be about something else that they can't do, like being independent."
Talking to a picky eater puts the ball back in her court. You're showing that you respect her independence and that you're willing to engage her in the decision-making process.
Be sure to time your conversation well. Your questions about her food likes and dislikes will almost certainly come out sounding irritated and hurt if you insert them into the nightly battle over eating vegetables. Plan the conversation for the middle of the day, far from any meals, so you can be patient and genuinely interested in her responses.
"A little loving kindness here is a good thing," says Reardon.
Secret #2: Brainstorm food options.
Once you know what your picky eater's objections are, it's easier to start coming up with ideas that might work.
Pay attention to patterns in the list of foods she does and doesn't like. If she hates broccoli, kale, and asparagus, the underlying problem may be the bitterness of those vegetables, so try cooking methods that play up their sweetness. If she really likes pineapple, barbecued chicken, and peas, she probably has a sweet tooth, so think about adding pops of sweetness, like fresh or dried fruit, to otherwise savory dishes.
Some types of foods are easier sells than others. It might be a lot easier to get your picky eater to try sweet potato fries than to try raw mushrooms, or to eat some broccoli if it has alfredo sauce on top. Start with what she likes, and try to branch out from there.
Be sure to brainstorm with your picky eater -- you can even get out paper and pens (or crayons or markers) and make it a really creative session.
More secrets to pleasing a picky eater
Secret #3: Write a weekly meal plan.
Savvy cooks write weekly meal plans even if they don't have picky eaters in the house. Planning ahead saves both time (because you only have to go to the grocery store once) and money (because you can buy in bulk and make the best use of the ingredients you buy).
Take some time every week to sit down with your calendar, your grocery list, and a general sense of what's already in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Figure out what you want to make on which days, and write a grocery list for the week.
Be sure to get your picky eater involved with meal planning. Ask if there are particular foods she's craving that week, or sit down together to flip through some cookbooks or browse food blogs to see if anything sparks her interest.
Then write out your weekly menu on the family calendar or chalkboard, so everyone knows what's on the menu for every day of the week.
Consider setting specific days each week for different types of meals, especially favorite ones. Some families rotate through two or three weeks' worth of the same meals. Other families want a little more flexibility. Either way, if everyone knows that Wednesday is taco night and Saturday is pizza night, it gives a picky eater something to look forward to -- and takes some of the pressure off you.
Secret #4: Get picky eaters involved with cooking.
Making dinner is a lot of work, so why not recruit some help? Start thinking like a head chef instead of a line cook. Could your ten-year-old wash the lettuce while you chop the carrots for a salad? Could your mom stir the risotto while you cook the chicken?
People naturally get invested in projects they work on, and that extra involvement might make the difference between your picky eater trying a bite or turning up her nose entirely. It's also a chance for you to teach kids valuable kitchen skills or get an older adult back into the kitchen she used to love -- while providing yourself with some help.
Even the simplest meals generally have something you can delegate to your picky eater -- and if you can't think of anything, there's always a table to set, dishes to wash, and dessert to make.
Secret #5: Set the atmosphere.
A meal that looks like an emotional battleground -- stiff backs, hostile silence, bright lights -- is likely to turn into one.
Instead, do your best to create a relaxed atmosphere at the dinner table. That doesn't necessarily mean channeling your inner Martha (though if you love planning parties, just think of this as a great excuse to plan a party every day for your family).
Simple things can do a lot to set the mood at the table. Turn down the lights. Set out candles. Put flowers on the table. Turn on some music. Strike up a conversation. And after dinner, get out a favorite board game or card game. Have your dad tell a story, or ask your little one to show off her latest art project from school.
Even watching a TV show together might work, especially for reluctant older eaters, since adults tend to eat more when they're distracted by what's on television. If you're concerned about your children watching TV while they eat, do it once a week as a special treat, or talk about the show and what they thought about it during dessert.
Want more creative ideas for pleasing picky eaters? See these 10 tips and tricks.