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Cooking with Joy

Finicky Eaters and
What to Do About Them


By Joy Rotondi

I am blessed with a fledgling foodie. My kids favorite vegetable is the Brussels sprout, and the reward for a job well done is fancy goat cheese. I attribute such fine taste to experiences in infancy. The first smile: cappuccino induced. The first solid food: pesto.

But maybe I was just lucky.

About the Author

Joy Rotondi

Joy Rotondi recently returned to the classroom and teaches sixth-grade language arts near Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in an Italian-American family happily obsessed with good food. Her prowess in the kitchen was first noted when she whipped lime Jello to a mousse at age 7. By age 12 she'd advanced to the salmon mousse in aspic featured on the cover of Gourmet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1996, with the help of friend and culinary cohort Cindy Blandino, she launched , a playful site dedicated to serious American cooking. has been featured on CNN, Better Homes and Gardens , and in The Wall Street Journal, among other places. Her bread and butter for the last 11 years has been designing and maintaining Web sites for the culinary world, including restaurants, culinarians, and food marketers. Rotondi lives on Boston's North Shore with her 12-year-old, a Shetland sheepdog, and four hens.

Visit her Web site

Ive met plenty of kids with gourmet parents who eat nothing but white food. Ive been told its a control issue, as in its the only thing they can control. (Well, put it on the short list.) Im sure there are a few 11-month-old control-freaks out there. But I believe that inspired parental control -- which includes giving children some choices before the food reaches the table -- helps kids develop an appetite for nutritious and varied foods. At home, at the market, at a restaurant -- foster experimentation.

When your kids are in the pre-school through first-grade range, encourage exploratory eating by calling food by a special color. Dr. Seuss had it right -- I have put green food coloring in scrambled eggs and little ones cannot resist them. Dont call them blueberries. Call them blue berries. Black berries. Even red berries. Salmon should go by pink fish. White fish will surely follow. You can do this with beans, and it is already done for you in the rice and bread department. (Dont forget purple rice and black bread!)

At the supermarket, let your elementary and middle school kids pick out a few things in the produce section -- an exotic fruit for that nights dessert, a vegetable that had heretofore gone unnoticed, the weeks lunchbox fruit. Be sure to casually wheel your cart by the clementines in the pretty box, the grapes, and any kind of baby or miniature fruit. Miniature vegetables are fun, too -- little patty pan squash, enoki mushrooms, baby eggplant. Or grow something unusual. You cannot imagine the clamor from kids over my garden-grown baby okra! I flash fry it Italian style along with cherry tomatoes and thin slices of young eggplant.

Go ahead and stoop to the cute factor. What you want to do is develop a taste for taste -- for variety, for subtlety, for adventure! When it comes to kids, we need to step off the buy local bandwagon once in awhile.

Do you plan dinners ahead? Make a suggestion box. Everyone gets to pick a nationality. Then go explore the international section of the supermarket together and experiment. Let them travel by taste bud.

One of the most pernicious forces in the dumbing-down of American food taste is the average chain restaurant, and nothing is more condescending than the Childrens Menu. (Do we even need to go into fast food restaurants? Literally and figuratively?) You know whats on the list: hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, mozzarella sticks, and chicken fingers. (I am getting infuriated just writing about it!) You are aware, are you not, that most of this comes off a truck? Here it comes, in a restaurant supply company semi that pulls up to the bay behind the eatery. Anyway, its filled with mozzarella sticks and chicken nuggets and popcorn shrimp and ranch dressing and coleslaw, all made in a factory eight states away about three months ago.

Order off the appetizer menu instead of the childrens menu. Seriously. And for goodness sakes, dont order the mozzarella sticks! Or if there are more than two kids at the table, order one adult meal and an extra plate. Figure out what must be made in-house, or ask the waitress, or choose a different restaurant -- for instance, the local Mom & Pop -- where you can count on from scratch cooking. Do you really need to be feeding your kid institutional reconstituted soup?

Fight finickiness on all fronts! As I write this, its the dead of winter. If you do grow your own, let the children pick out a package of seeds or two from those catalogs that are cascading off the coffee table. I have yet to meet a child who wouldnt taste what he or she planted, tended, and picked. You might even make a fan of Brussels sprouts. They are the easiest things to grow, and they are so cute when they are babies!