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Why cooking separate meals for your picky eater does more harm than good.

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True story: I was a horribly picky eater as a child. My poor mother cooked up meals like roast beef and pork chops that I wouldn’t even taste. So she made me a separate dinner (usually buttered noodles), and this went on for years.Now as an adult, I’ve grown out of my picky eating ways (though I still love a good bowl of buttered noodles). And as a dietitian who focuses on family nutrition, I now hear from a lot of parents of picky eaters. They are ready to pull their hair out, and I feel their pain. Though my two kids are nowhere near as difficult as I was, both have gone through pretty typical phases of finicky eating—and still sometimes vex me with their seemingly random whims and refusals.

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Picky eating can be mentally draining—and physically exhausting when you’re doing extra work by whipping up separate meals every day. So here’s my plea to you: Stop! Make just one meal for everyone and be done with it. That’s actually my No. 1 piece of advice for parents with picky eaters, and here’s why: Cooking separate meals enables picky eaters.

After all, why should your child ever want to branch out, be adventurous, or try something different when she knows she’ll get a plate of her reliable favorites instead? Making one meal teaches your child to be flexible and to take risks. It teaches your child that the cook’s time is important and to be gracious about what’s served. It also teaches them what I view as an important life lesson: Not every meal is going to be their favorite—and that’s the way it goes!

You might be thinking I’m crazy. You might be thinking that your child will go on a hunger strike if she doesn’t get those chicken nuggets or buttered noodles for dinner. But this isn’t some kind of you’ll-eat-it-or-starve dinner table tough love. I recommend having patience and compassion too. Make sure you’re cooking her favorite meals occasionally (served to the whole family, not just her). Most importantly, be sure there is always something on the table your child likes, whether it’s a bowl of fruit, some bread, a favorite vegetable, or rice. (Again, it’s not a separate meal made just for your child, it’s a part of the meal served to everyone.)

Keep in mind that with the just-one-meal system, your child may not always eat what you consider a balanced meal. She may nibble on a tortilla and some fruit on burrito night, or just buttered peas and a roll when you’re serving baked ham. But that’s okay. It’s about the overall diet, not every individual meal. And over time, she will probably decide that she’d like to try a bite of the ham after all. It may take weeks, months—or, yes, even years. The trick is to stay focused on the long-term goals, not the short-term bites.

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