How To Deal With Picky Eaters

The 'MasterChef Junior' judge offers tips on getting kids to try new and fabulous foods

MasterChef Junior judge Aarón Sánchez has his own picky eater at home to contend with: his six-year-old son, Yuma. But that doesn't stop Sánchez, co-owner of the Johnny Sánchez taquerias in Baltimore and New Orleans, from turning dinnertime into a win-win, for both him and Yuma. Here's how he does it.

① Incentivize It  

Since young kids can often be picky, Sánchez believes in pushing them to try as many new things as possible, often giving incentives to Yuma. "If he tries something that he doesn't think he will like, I give him some kind of treat or reward," he says. "If I ask him to taste raw fish, a new vegetable or spice, or anything else that he doesn't want to eat, I offer a dessert or an adventure as a reward if he tries it. This usually works like a charm."

② Let Them Help

Sánchez recommends taco nights, since kids love the fun of building their own dishes. When it comes to tacos, go for braised meats, pickled onions, guacamole, cilantro and other garnishes to offer colorful yet healthy options. This also gives kids the ability to choose their own ingredients, turning dinnertime into a creative exercise that helps build their palate.  

③ Guilt Trips Work

"I like to impart gratitude and humility; when Yuma asks why he has to try a new dish or ingredient, I will always try to share about how fortunate he is to get to eat certain foods and how cool it is that he gets to try these new things," Sánchez says. "When my son doesn't want to try a delicacy, such as caviar or huitlacoche, I remind him of how awesome it is that he has the opportunity to try something so fancy and that a lot of other people would love to have this special item." 

④ Mix the Familiar with the New

In order to get Yuma to expand his palate, Sánchez mixes unknown foods in with more familiar favorites; for example, he'll sneak a new protein, like duck, or new veggie, like zucchini, into mac 'n' cheese. Switching up the format is also key, since many kids are skeptical of how these curious newcomers look. "Shrimp can be one of those items—they have a shape, color and texture that may be foreign to children, and that can be intimidating. By simply breading and frying shrimp, they can associate that with fried chicken, which most kids love."

⑤ Kick Up Salads

A lot of kids don't like salads, because they're generally mostly greens, so Sánchez suggests loading up salads with stuff like grilled chicken, roast corn, cheese, avocado and crispy fried shallots. These add-ons make humdrum lettuce far more appealing without sacrificing nutrition.  

⑥ Embrace Storytelling

Use mealtime to teach kids about different cultures and countries. Sánchez loves telling his son about Mayan history and how the Mayan people introduced ingredients, such as chiles, squash and tomatillos, into the landscape of Mexican cuisine.

Helaina Hovitz is a native New Yorker, editor and journalist, who has the unreasonable notion she can help change the world, which food somehow factors into through six degrees of separation. Follow her on Twitter at @HelainaHovitz.