Family dinners are supposed to be fun and relaxing, not epic battles over peas and broccoli. Here are ten simple ways to please picky eaters -- from grandchildren to grandparents -- without a lot of extra fuss.
1. Use nostalgia.
Seeing or smelling or tasting a food and being transported back to an earlier time is powerful, in part, because it's so universal. Most people have fond memories of their mom's meat loaf or their dad's hamburgers or their grandma's cookies. Tap into these memories when trying to find meals to please your picky eaters.
Older adults probably have a long list of foods they can remember eating and liking. Ask them about it. Is there a family recipe book or box of recipe cards that you can find? Can your mother remember the casserole her mother used to make -- and teach you how to make it? Can your father remember what he ate on his first date -- and share the story with the whole family over the same meal?
Even young kids experience food nostalgia. Ask them if they remember the barbecued chicken their grandfather made or the big pasta dinner you all had together at your parents' house -- and then eat the same meal together.
2. Create nostalgia.
With a little psychological maneuvering, you may be able to create nostalgic food memories as a family.
If you're on a family vacation, try introducing new foods, especially if they're regional specialties (corn in the Midwest, apples in the Northeast, coconuts in the Caribbean). People are more willing to try new foods -- and new behaviors -- when they're out of their normal context and comfort zone. Especially for kids, the novelty of being in a new place might encourage them to try new foods.
If you happen upon a new food or two that they're willing to eat on vacation, try those items again at home after a few weeks, while reminiscing about the highlights of the vacation.
3. Blanch vegetables like a pro.
It's no surprise that most people don't like Brussels sprouts that have been boiled to near mushiness, or broccoli that's steamed so much that it's falling apart. There are better ways to cook vegetables so that even picky eaters will like them.
Blanching sounds like a fancy French technique, but it's actually surprisingly simple. Just bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and fill another big bowl with cold water. Using tongs, a heat-safe slotted spoon, or a kitchen sieve, lower a handful of prepped vegetables into the boiling water. Let them cook for a minute or two (experiment and adjust the timing to your taste and the type of veggie you're cooking), and then scoop them out of the hot water and into the cold water. Let the water on the stove return to a boil, and then cook the next small batch of vegetables. This technique cooks veggies quickly but retains their satisfying crunch -- and works particularly well for items such as broccoli florets or green beans.
4. Roast vegetables like a pro.
Roasting vegetables is even easier than blanching -- just line a baking sheet with aluminum foil (to make cleanup easier), spread out prepped vegetables, and drizzle with some olive oil. Slide the sheet into a 400-degree oven, then pull it out when the vegetables are soft and caramelized.
Roasting brings out the natural sugars in produce, making the vegetables sweeter and therefore more likely to please a picky eater. Roasting works well for almost any vegetable, from eggplant to tomatoes to Brussels sprouts. Even kale and other greens can be roasted, which gives them a texture, almost like that of potato chips, that many picky eaters love.
5. Make mix-and-match meals.
There's a reason that almost every cafeteria has a salad bar and why fast-food restaurants like Subway and Chipotle do so well: People love designing their own perfect meals.
It's easy to set up the same system -- essentially a mini buffet -- at home. Invest in some cute plates and bowls (or your regular salad plates and soup bowls will do just fine) and place out lots of different ingredients for everyone to mix and match as they please.
If you're making salads, set out the lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, apples, and salad dressing separately. If you're making tacos or fajitas, put the meat in one bowl, the cheese in another, the avocado in another, and the salsa in yet another. You can make sandwich bars this way, or serve a soup with several optional add-ins, or set up a breakfast oatmeal station with lots of different toppings.
More tips and tricks for pleasing picky eaters
6. Put your picky eater in charge of a side dish.
Experts disagree about whether it's a good idea to let picky eaters make a peanut butter sandwich instead of eating the chicken dish you prepared, but they all agree that you shouldn't be made to feel like a short-order cook.
One simple compromise: Put the picky eater in charge of a side dish. Let her pick out what she wants and, depending on her ability, handle or help out with the prep and grocery shopping too. That way she can contribute to the family meal (and experience what it's like to get mixed reviews). Plus she has at least one thing on her plate that she likes to eat.
7. Pay attention to the presentation.
Part of the reason restaurant chefs make big bucks is because they make food look elegant and mouthwatering. But you don't need a culinary or art degree to make a meal look appetizing.
Use pretty dishes and silverware, and get out the bright cloth napkins even for a weekday dinner. Everyone loves personal servings of food, from cupcakes to individual pot pies, so see if you can make mini versions of whatever's on the menu. Kids will love it, for example, if you bake them a personal pizza with a smiley face made out of veggies.
People pay attention to bright colors, so use this to your advantage. If your toddler loves colorful food, play it up by seeking out orange sweet potatoes or purple fingerling potatoes for a delicious mashed side dish.
On the other hand, if your mom won't touch anything that's green, try cooking spinach in tomato sauce or covering broccoli with bright yellow cheese sauce, so she won't be immediately put off by the presentation.
8. Eat out.
It's rare these days to find recommendations to eat in restaurants more often, especially since home cooking is generally cheaper, healthier, and tastier than eating out. But for a family with a picky eater, a weekly restaurant trip might be a good idea.
The beauty of a restaurant is all the choices on the menu. Without any extra work on your part, the picky eater can have her favorite food, and everyone else can get something they like too. Be sure to choose a restaurant with a wide menu -- but don't feel constrained to go to the picky eater's favorite place every time if there are other places that will serve something she finds acceptable.
People often assume that whatever's on a restaurant menu is what you get. In fact, most restaurants are happy to work with your picky eater on food substitutions. If one main dish and one side dish look particularly good to her, ask if you can get them together even if they don't go together on the menu.
Meanwhile, make the most of your restaurant trip by ordering the food you crave but can't cook at home. If your picky eater won't eat seafood, order the oysters. If it's always an epic battle to get a salad on the table, order a huge one with everything you like on it. And make sure that everyone else in your family has a chance to eat the kind of food he or she likes, too.
9. Get takeout.
Sometimes even a restaurant won't provide enough options. If you're craving Chinese food but your picky eater will eat only pasta, chances are there are Asian and Italian restaurants near each other. Swing by both and make everyone happy, or check online to see if there are local restaurant delivery services in your area that will deliver more than just pizza.
10. Enlist her doctor's help.
If none of these strategies work for you and your picky eater's crackers-only diet has you worried about her nutrition, talk to her doctor about it.
Many children and adults do just fine even on very restricted diets, so the doctor may be able to allay your fears or suggest supplementing regular meals with a multivitamin or some other alternative.
If the doctor is also concerned, however, ask him or her to talk to your picky eater. She might listen to a professional even though she just tunes you out.