The Clean Plate Chronicles: How I Got My Daughter to Eat Spinach (Sort of)

From bribery to flattery, from incentive plans to repeated showings of the same foods to out-and-out pleading, one mom finally wises up on how to handle a picky eater

When my daughter was three years old, her main food groups were cottage cheese, scrambled eggs and Cheerios. I probably should’ve acknowledged this was a phase and just waited for it to pass. But I couldn’t. How could I, a foodie of the first order, have spawned a picky eater?

This development (or lack thereof) in my daughter’s eating habits coincided with my new job as the editor of the food section of a well-known parenting magazine. Every issue would feature a famous chef and the recipes they enjoyed making for their own kids. These chef-parents would boast about how their Little Darlings loved fresh-squeezed persimmon juice with homemade sugar-free graham-flax crackers, devoured monkfish fingers with steamed kale for supper, and had to be forcibly stopped from eating an entire bouillabaisse all by themselves (shrimp heads and all).

All the chefs seemed to be quoted as saying, “I’m a chef, so my children are exposed to the wonderful world of food and embrace it as part of their birthright.” Every one of these chefs leered out of the pages of the magazine at me and smugly asserted their superiority as parents.

I should probably also mention here that I am trained as a chef.

My daughter turned up her nose at every new morsel I lovingly prepared and laid before her. I was crushed. I tried everything to get my daughter to eat something new. From bribery to flattery, from incentive plans to repeated showings of the same foods to out-and-out pleading, nothing worked. I had a few short-lived successes. My daughter wouldn’t eat anything green, so one night I added finely sliced spinach to her beloved scrambled eggs along with lots of shredded cheese. (The undeniable truth being that lots of shredded cheese makes everything tastier.)

You can guess her response. But I was on my game that night and somehow convinced her to submit to a challenge: I bet her she couldn’t taste the difference between a mouthful of eggs that had spinach in them and a mouthful without. I blindfolded her with a table napkin (her idea) and gave her the first mouthful, which was spinach-free. I swiftly followed it with a spinach-y forkful. She ate both happily. I had won!

My vegetable-eating victory only lasted a few more dinners. She enjoyed the game for a while, then wised up.

I wised up, too. It didn’t take Dr. Phil to tell me I was the problem behind my daughter’s eating. I finally realized my daughter was far smarter than I. She had figured out a long time ago how to be in charge. The more I insisted she try a food, the more she resisted. She was 100 percent in charge of the situation. She knew what I wanted and didn’t want me to have it.

It’s been a few years since the blindfold-and-spinach game, and my daughter’s palate has expanded to include a few more foods. It happened naturally, without my trying—in fact, it happened despite my trying. As important as it was for my daughter to finally embrace carrots, my realization that I should just let my daughter be was even more important. As a parent, I am not entirely to blame for my daughter’s pickiness. But I am to blame for turning it into a struggle.

The day has finally come where Cheerios no longer follow us everywhere in plastic bags. We can now eat something different every night of the week. She happily gobbles up meatballs, a wide variety of fruits, chicken teriyaki and even my brisket, which she named “her favorite food in the whole world.” (You can bet I melted inside when she said it.)

I occasionally try to cajole her into trying something new. She often still refuses. But we’re making progress. She explained to me in no uncertain terms last night that she is going to be a picky eater until she is 17. And then, she promises, she will finally eat everything that’s put in front of her. Everything, apparently, but shrimp heads.

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