Empower Your Finicky Eater {Chicken Fajitas}

I was definitely a stubborn, picky eater growing up.  Even though Mom’s kitchen was always full of life with intoxicating smells and a carousel of colorful foods, I usually always defaulted to the generic pasta-with-butter-or-marinara and select meats (namely grilled chicken and hamburgers or cheeseburgers).

However, despite my palatal limitations, my mother (and father) did not subscribe to the philosophy of providing me with three different meal choices every night.  Everyone was offered the same meal.

There were no exceptions.   The only options were, take it or leave it.

To some, this method may seem really callous.  I mean, who doesn’t want their growing children to thoroughly enjoy a nice, healthy, filling dinner to satisfy their taste buds and a day’s worth of thinking hard and playing hard (not necessarily in that order)?  Don’t get me wrong, when I was young, dinnertime was not a scene out of Mommy Dearest.

Famous Mommy Dearest picky eater scene...

I was never left sitting at an empty table, in a dark kitchen, in front of a plate full of wilted spinach through the wee hours of the night.  Nor was I served that same plate for dinner the next day.  My parents simply did not want to cater to my idiosyncratic eating.  If they were to offer me a choice every night for dinner, they too would be defaulting to my lack of experimentation and would just be prolonging my vicious cycle of pasta-with-butter-or-marinara-and-select meats.

I now struggle as a mother to a finicky eater.  I’m finding myself drawing upon my own experiences around my dinner table and those certain subtle tricks my mom used to help mollify any food arguments, empower me at the table, and eventually encourage me to try new foods.   I must caveat these tricks by saying that I didn’t have a defined eating”disorder” like my husband who only ate cheese sandwiches until he was twelve, had high cholesterol, and had to see many therapists along the way.  That’s a totally different psychological situation to which I’m certainly not qualified to respond.  These tactics are geared towards the frustrated parents with kids who are picky and stubborn, who think foods look “gross” and therefore won’t try them, who think sweetened apple sauce should be considered a “vegetable.”

Hopefully they just need a little coaxing at dinner time and, over time, they develop just enough confidence needed to sample new foods.  I’ve witnessed a slight progression with my children in only the past few months!

Diversify your meals and avoid surprises

Your meals don’t have to be gourmet.  But, don’t fall into the pasta rut either.  Chicken is just as easy to prepare (I actually have a cookbook that is titled 365 Ways to Cook a Chicken).

I’ve learned that just by changing an ingredient or two, you can alter the whole landscape of the meal.  Who knew? Last week I book-ended our Monday and Friday dinners with two different chicken dishes.  The kids didn’t even notice because they tasted so completely different.  One was Parmesan-Crusted Chicken and the other was Chicken with Chipotle-Lime.  Both recipes took under 20 minutes to make and now, my little guy says he’s interested in trying other foods with Chipotle. We’ll see if that actually happens but, I’ll definitely support him.

Don’t forget, planning ahead helps diversify your family meal selection.  Make your list ahead of time so you can mentally prepare and shop for the ingredients but also,so you can start promoting the meals to your kids to generate excitement and to avoid any surprises.  My mom always told be before I went to school what we were having for dinner that evening.  There really weren’t very many surprises, whether I liked them or not.

Apply incentives (slight bribes without the dessert reward)

Mom would always encourage me to eat my vegetables (what mother doesn’t do this).  Knowing I didn’t like most of them, she’d place a smaller portion on my plate and give me an incentive. At times the incentive did involve a nice  bow full of ice cream for dessert, but most often it involved something else that was important to me like: choosing where I could sit at the dinner table (believe it or not, sitting at the head of the table was the coolest and most coveted spot) or selecting my choice for dinner the following night or staying up later on the weekend.  If I tried food that was completely out of the realm of anyone’s thinking, like brussel sprouts or fish, I was promised the best reward: the next time my mom served mac and cheese in the pie dish, I’d get to eat all of the left over melted cheese stuck on the side.  My sister, brother and I always fought over that darn crusted cheese.

Themed Nights – the perfect time to add in (or reintroduce) new foods

I loved fajita night in our house.  I loved taco night too.  There was something so exciting about having the various ingredients laid out across the counter top in an assembly line.  And, I was always allowed to build my own.

We started out with the basics: the shell, the meat filler, and the shredded cheese.  Then, every other time, a new item would get added to the assembly line: corn, rice, tomatoes, beans.  Often times the new food would get swallowed up with all of the other food tastes I actually liked.  For instance, once I had no idea I was eating black beans in my fajita because I overcompensated with the cheese and beef.  After having eaten the beans and not disliking them, guess what?  I started eating burritos.  And then, the domino effect took place.

Every night can be a themed night.  Last night we had “pasta night.”  I added shrimp to the pasta with tomatoes and feta.  My daughter initially refused to eat the shrimp, proclaiming they looked like shriveled up ears.  However, when I told her she actually tried them in a different context last summer – Mom’s Shrimp Dip, she got the confidence to try them again and liked them.  There’s a similar story for avocados.  My son proclaimed he didn’t like avocados and wouldn’t eat them.  When I told him he smashed avocados in the guacamole we made at home this summer, his eyebrows perked up and he tried them again.  He liked them.

It’s so stressful having a finicky eater.  The last place I want to have arguments with my kids is at the kitchen table.  I also don’t want to zap meal time of its fun.  Empowering your finicky eater in little ways not only takes away the focus on what he/she isn’t doing but, gradually makes meal time more enjoyable for everyone.

In eating and in life, the happier you are, the more amenable you are to taking risks.

I’m holding off on Mom’s Chopped Liver recipe for a while though….

Do you have picky eaters?  What tricks do you implement to try to empower your child to branch out and try new foods?


  1. I too grew up in a household where the dinner motto was take it or leave it. That said, my mother always made something available on the plate that she knew I would eat. I use the same tactics in my house. Our dishes always contain a protein, vegetable and starch. I know for certain my son will eat the protein and starch. My daughter will always eat the vegetable and starch and they will both try everything on the plate. The fights in my house ended when I relaxed more about what they ate and when we sat down to eat as a family.

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