Getting the Actual People In Your House To Eat the Actual Food

Sharon July 31st, 2008

I think I get more requests for ideas for helping people who are on-board with the idea of sustainable eating get the rest of their families on-board than on any other food storage topic.  So let’s talk about that. 

In a perfect world, of course, our partners, roommates, children and other assorted members of our lives would say “Oh, I’m so thrilled you are growing a garden – now I can get rid of the honey-barbecue chips and the fast food, and start really appreciating rutabagas like I’ve always wanted to.”  In our perfect world, when Daddy unveils his laboriously created six-vegetable risotto with an enthusiastic “Voila!” the kids would say “Wow, Dad, is there really, truly bok choy in it?  And we can have seconds?  Yay!” instead of “What’s ‘wallah’?  It looks gross.  And ewww, what’s that green stuff?” 

I would say the odds are good that most of us live in a somewhat imperfect world.  If we’ve been lucky enough to have started our kids on this stuff from birth, we may avoid the latter (mostly), but since most of our lives also involve some adults we didn’t get a hand in raising, and who we love despite their weird habits, we’re kinda stuck with them, and the painful reality that shifts in diet run up against people’s weird habits pretty hard.

The thing is, changing someone’s food habits is a big thing – we can do this for ourselves – all of a sudden we see the light and begin eating a new way – but making others do it?  That’s a challenge.  In many ways, we define ourselves by what and how we eat – so attacks on diets look like attacks on people, and often are fended off with the ferocity of warfare.  Nor does moralizing work very well – we all know the truth – the Western diet kills people, and the dying often cling to it with a passion that proves firmly that you can’t make most people change by simply telling them how bad their choices are.

As far as I can tell, with rational adults, and extremely rational teenagers there are a few ways of at least getting them onboard for the broader project of changing diets.

1. You enlist them in the name of self-improvement and being better people.  You can do this straight, or manipulatively. (And yes, I know in a perfect world, you’d never manipulate people at all, but I’ve never met a family in which there was no manipulation at all, if you include the sort of blatant, half humorous stuff.)   The straight way is simply to say “I think we all ought to be eating better – do you agree?  Here’s what I want us to do.”  This works in some families and with some people – and it doesn’t with others, even if we wish it would.  Don’t forget to mention the chance to be self-righteous to them that like that sort of thing the “I can’t believe those people who eat all that processed…”

If you do need/want to be sneaky,  it helps, I think if you start the discussion from the assumption that you both care very much about these things and want the same things.  That is, some people can be confused a little by simply starting from the “Of course we both care desperately that everyone have enough food in the future, so I know you will agree with me.”  Some people will assume that if you are assuming they care about this seemingly good thing that they must, and that gets you part of the way.  Or perhaps you could enlist their help against a larger obstacle ”Katie our two year old is so terribly picky, and I’m so terribly concerned that she be able to eat things…perhaps you can help me make it easier for her…” Or if you think that it will work (and if they are a person you’d say this sort of thing to) you can tell them it turns you on when they eat…  Heck, you’ve got weirder kinks than a taste for seeing your girlfriend devour kale, right?

2. You use a different motivator than the one that moves you.  If you know the person you are thinking of is, say, cheap, you talk about how to save money, with an emphasis of doing the things you want to do anyway.  If the person is into cool gadgets, talk about the neat stuff you can buy to preserve food.  With small children, a great strategy is to convince them that you don’t really want to share your asparagus, or to describe the food  in disgusting terms – you aren’t just offering them healthy food, you are offering them roadkill stew with sweet potatoes, and if they eat it, they can tell their friends that they ate week old raccoon.

3. You sneak the food into their diets gradually.  This is often the case when the motivated person is the primary cook, and has some control over what goes into food.  Suddenly, the noodles are whole wheat or brown rice flour.  Secretly, the meatballs are half tvp or ground zucchini. The yogurt is in the old containers, but it comes from home and has homemade strawberry jam mixed in.  You don’t talk about it, unless someone says something nice.  The word “fritter” shows up in your meal, and the fritters are suspiciously green.  The cookies get kinda browner and a little denser.  When asked about these things, you tell people they must be imagining things. 

4. You are a total hardass.  This works only if you are the sole cook for someone without much power to get food elsewhere – young kids, teenagers too young to drive or too poor to buy food, spouses so accustomed to eating the partner’s cooking (or sufficiently well disciplined ;-) ) that they won’t dissent too much.  It starts out once a week – there’s this meal, and no snacks unless you eat it.  Then it goes up to two or three meals a week – dal and rice replaces burgers, no one buys snack cakes and juice boxes and wheatgrass juice is in the pitcher.  Don’t like it?  Tough patooties.  Guess who is holding the car keys?  The problem here is the danger of mutiny, or that someone else might actually learn to cook. 

 5. You compromise – a little of this, a little of that – and the truth is that while you have to eat more out of your storage, and you find some meals that everyone will like, you never quite get to the point where everyone is really eating this way all the time – there’s still some frozen stuff and take out in your life.  And that’s ok – just as long as you have a range of things people will do with the 75lbs of dried chickpeas that don’t involve sculpture.

Some practical ideas:

 1. I’ve had great luck (and other people I know have) getting kids to eat cabbage dipped in ketchup, even if they won’t eat it cooked.

2. Root vegetables roasted in a pan are the basis for tons of meals – they can go inside enchiladas or wrap sandwiches, act as a starchy side dish (and are great at room temperature or cold),

 3. Fritters.  You can dip them in anything.  Also dumplings.

4. Less sweet pumpkin or sweet potato pie can be breakfast, lunch and dinner (although maybe not in the same day).

 5. For people who like strong flavors and mixed up foods, things like jambalaya, gumbo and casseroley things are your friend, because it is hard to tell exactly what’s in it – particularly if you chop the mustard greens finely.

 6. For people who like everything to be seperate with nice clean lines, the potato is your friend.  Meat and potato people can get used to an ever-increasing amount of potato and a gradually decreasing amount of meat.

7. Vegetarian cookbooks are your friends – even if you aren’t veg.  They often have recipes that you’ll be able to put together with only pantry and garden.

8. Teenagers like power.  Get them cooking – and give them the power, within certain parameters, to choose some of the meals.

9. It really helps to let go on some things.  If you reassure your honey you aren’t trying to take away everything she loves, that you will still love him if he stops at the convenience store, your kids that candy is still allowed now and again, this will help the transition.  In fact, it helps if you instigate – let them have ice cream sundaes for dinner once a year, and you put it on the schedule!  Work with them, at the same time you are working “against” them.

10. Sometimes using a fat/salt/sugar laden technique is what is needed to get started with a new food – make rutabaga chips fried in oil with salt – and once they admit they like rutabagas, then you can work on mashing them. 


24 Responses to “Getting the Actual People In Your House To Eat the Actual Food”

  1. Greenpa says:

    Wow, so devious! :-)

    One thing to always, always, keep firmly in mind- children will NOT really starve themselves, nor will they choose, consistently, to malnourish themselves. (barring the occasional genuine psychosis.) If they say “I hate it!, I won’t eat it!” you can, in fact say “fine, don’t. More for me. And you can wait til tomorrow. This family eats what’s on the table.”

    If they are actually in need of calories- they will eat whatever there is to eat.

  2. MEA says:

    Not to rain on your parade, Greenpa, but children in crisis will refuse unfamilar food and starve themselves — though I guess you could count this as psychosis. Very old people will do the same.

    And those of with with children with texture issues, chewing and swallow issues, and even lack of interested in food (and I think there are people on this board who have children with these issues) know that sometimes getting food into children just a matter of waiting until they are good and hungry.

    I got lots of good advice on helping my younger daughter increase her food intake and the items she’d eat from a earlier site run by Sharon.

  3. Sharon says:

    I was actually just about to post something similar to what MEA said – I think what you say is true of neurologically and physiologically typical children in non-stressful, fairly normal situations. It does not apply to young children, the elderly and the medically fragile in high stress situations, when dietary shifts are happening – people will go through extended periods of not eating. This won’t hurt healthy adults too much, but is seriously tough on the bodies of small people and the sick or fragile. That’s part of the reason it is so important to get people eating the food *beforehand.*

    And for children with serious sensory/neurological/health issues, they will stop eating – and this is tough, hard stuff to deal with. But for the majority, you are right.


  4. Sarah says:

    Sometimes using a fat/salt/sugar laden technique is what is needed to get started with a new food – make rutabaga chips fried in oil with salt – and once they admit they like rutabagas, then you can work on mashing them.

    Yeah, in this apartment, it’s stir-frying. If I stir-fry it, or let him stir-fry it, my boyfriend will eat it. I wouldn’t have thought this paradigm would apply to, say, rhubarb, but whatever make him happy ;-) (I wasn’t actually there for the rhubarb-cucumber-banana stirfry, but he really shouldn’t have told me about it; I’ve teased him about it ever since. Now he’s working on candying rhubarb, which strikes me as a somewhat better thing to do with it.)

  5. Rosa says:

    As the parent of a toddler who is already off the bottom of the weight charts, and who will quite cheerfully refuse to eat if he doesn’t like the look, taste, or texture of the food, or if there is anything more interesting going on, or if he has had an upset stomach anytime in the last week or so, I have to differ.

    That said, we have a longstanding custom that whoever cooks, chooses the food. If you want different food, volunteer to cook for everybody. Of course right now, everybody is just the 3 of us and one isn’t allowed to use hot or sharp things, so it’s not such a biggie. But it’s just as effective on adults as on teens.

  6. kory says:

    “Oh, I’m so thrilled you are growing a garden – now I can get rid of the honey-barbecue chips and the fast food, and start really appreciating rutabagas like I’ve always wanted to.”

    brought a tear to my eye…

    Kids, as bad as their reputation for being picky eaters is often portrayed, are in my experience much more open minded than many adults. My daughter thought it was the coolest thing in the world to actually eat a flower (nasturtium) and so did her friends.

    I’m hoping the sunflowers will produce plenty of seeds this year so we can maybe…just maybe start phasing out the crapsnacks in lieu of something better.

  7. Jade says:

    I’ve had great success by involving the kids in the cooking. Once they’ve vested a little of their interest and gotten to use something hot or sharp that is normally reserved for adults, they’re in. Let them bring it to the table with pomp and serve everyone.

    This works even better if they get to pick it from the garden too.

  8. Paula Hewitt says:

    I have found with little kids just mixing it up is the best strategy – one meal of wm pasta in amongst the white pasta (or brown rice)- and then increase the ration until it is always wm being served – THEN work on the toppings. if they like tomato sauce add a few grated veggies first Then add chunks etc.
    i have also found that if i can find a recipe they like serving a veggie one way (middle eastern style spinach with sultanas (raisens) and pinenuts is my favourite eg) – then once they are used ti they are more likey to eat it other ways.
    i have also found that using a bit of meat in a ‘vegetarian’ meal paves the way for the real vegetarian version. slowly slowly is my tip.

  9. Matriarchy says:

    I have a DD15 who will try anything, cooks for all of us out of the garden, loves Indian food and demanded I buy lentils, can clean a fish, etc. Then I have the DD11, who cooks all of her own meals because she won’t eat anything we do. She does eat a lot of fruit, carrots, eggs, chicken and whole grain cereal – all very plain. I worry about her in a food crisis. She has made some small changes; we got her to switch to an organic all-beef hot dog made locally.

    She did grow her own carrots this year, and has expressed an interest in bread baking, which would help move her away from store-bought white bread. I think she is finally started to feel left out of the whirlwind of gardening, cooking, and canning.

    The rest of us are really doing pretty well at changing our shopping and eating habits. We already didn’t buy soda or chips. We buy so much less processed food that we are amazed at ourselves. We still hit the McDonald’s dollar menu occasionally, or buy a box of snack cakes. But we found we would rather splurge on a load of u-pick fruit than go out to eat. We have experimented until we found new favorites to replace boxed mac-n-cheese or ramen noodles.

    We have become big soup eaters, curry makers, quick bread bakers. That’s where I hide veggies we don’t all love. Kale, blah. But garlicky Cream of Green Soup, yay! My herb and spice collection has tripled.

  10. homebrewlibrarian says:

    I’ve had a lot of success with getting people to eat kale by making Krispy Kale. So far, only one person wasn’t enthusiastic (an adult) while every kid who’s eaten it loves it. With kids, calling them Green Chips helped and the adults seem to be very trusting of my assumption that it tastes good. A couple of young twentysomethings took a bite on my offer and then ate some more. Big smiles when I handed them a bag to go.

    This falls into the “disguise it as a snack food” ruse – bite sized pieces of kale tossed in a little olive oil and soy sauce with a dusting of granulated garlic and then baked. I claim it to be better than potato chips and so far, no one has argued with me. I’ve tried this with different types of greens and found that the curly varieties of kale work best because they don’t lose their structure during the baking and so don’t stick to the pan. Otherwise any green would probably work.

    Additionally, you can hide kohlrabi in coleslaw. Or if you have enough, you can make very tasty slaw just using kohlrabi. You don’t have to say what it’s made of, it’s just coleslaw.

    Brussels sprouts that have gone through a frost then simmered in a malty beer with butter have been slurped down by adults who normally won’t eat them. Brussels sprouts lovers practically swoon over this dish.

    Besides hiding zucchini in baked products, I’ve heard that grated beets can be included into chocolate cake. I have not tried this but my guess is that it would work.

    One last suggestion is to thinly slice up vegies so it’s tough to know exactly what they are before tossing them in salads, throwing into soups and stews or adding to an omelet.

    Kerri in AK who has a love affair with plain steamed kale (::swoon::)

  11. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Getting the Actual People In Your House To Eat the Actual Food I think I get more requests for ideas for helping people who are on-board with the idea of sustainable eating get the rest of their families on-board than on any other food storage topic. So let’s talk about that. Casaubon’s Book: Season Extension – Getting More Green From Your Garden July 31st, 2008 [...]

  12. Greenpa says:

    MEA and Sharon- jeepers, guys! I didn’t know I was required to write a full monograph for a blog comment! :-) Yes, I did think “barring psychosis” covered all those exigencies, without all the specifics; “genuine extreme aberrant circumstances not included”.

    Just trying to encourage parents struggling with what looks like a problem- but usually isn’t one. USUALLY!! :-)

    My shrink older sister ran a top state accredited treatment center for seriously disturbed children, for years- all under 5. Most of them had “food problems” as part of the list when they got there. What she found (and these were kids with real illnesses, all kinds, including of course various kinds of horrifying abuse) was that if you a) get the parents out of the room, b) put all the food, including dessert, right there in front of them, and c) let them eat anything, anyhow, with no rewards or penalties for anything – in about 2 weeks, the majority (MAJORITY!) – simply had no problems with food, and were eating a balanced diet all on their own.

    But I pity new parents, with a kid who starts to get picky; because in general the topic is one people go ballistic about, particularly grandparents. You can get advised to death on how to handle the “problem! Omigod you have a PROBLEM! You’re going to RUIN that child FOREVER if you don’t…” !!!

    Man: how to terrify a new parent, in one easy step. – And the kid will pick up on the parental anxiety- and either become anxious, or possibly manipulative- and we’re off to the races. Years of angst.

    If you kid is anywhere NEAR normal- you should just relax.

    Ok, now, do I have to define NORMAL now?? :-)

  13. Rosa says:

    I just hate that particular response because

    1) we’ve been advised by a series of specialists to just make food available and let him eat what he wants, so as to not make a power struggle out of it and

    2) if he isn’t eating/gaining weight people always give us advice. You know, because we’re doing something wrong.

    We’re too strict, or not strict enough, we don’t keep enough kid-friendly food around, we let him eat too much junk food, we don’t have enough sit down meals, we don’t have enough casual snacks, we aren’t vegan, we don’t serve enough meat, we *clearly* (this one is aimed at me because I’m fat) have some sort of food issues we’re projecting onto him, we feed him too much calorie-dense food… whatever it is, if there weren’t something wrong with the parent, the kid would be perfect.

    And, dude, my kid is pretty normal. Aside from the not really wanting to eat. Which is how his dad is, too, except he’s old enough to reasonably know he has to eat anyway.

  14. Ailsa Ek says:

    I am reminded of back when my son was in Early Intervention. The only things he was willing to eat were cucumbers, peanuts, and Carnation Instant Breakfast, so his EI therapist put him in an Eating Group, where they worked with various foods to get them comfortable with them. The group may have worked for some of the kids, but for David, it utterly failed. When he graduated from Early Intervention, he was still getting all of his nutrients from Carnation Instant Breakfast.

    At his age four checkup, his doctor did a bunch of blood tests, and David tested positive for Celiac. We took gluten-containing foods out of his diet, and within a couple of weeks, he was coming up to me and demanding food when I’d had to beg him to even taste things before. These days (he’s seven and a half now) he’s still a bit of a fussy eater, but he eats.

  15. Greenpa says:

    Rosa- I’m sorry for your situation- it has to be hell. If you’re an exception- then you are. It’s not fun; I’ve been on the wrong end of strings of specialists myself; yep, they can be wrong.

    But- for most parents- the first thing to try, is indeed to relax, really.

  16. What if your picky toddler who only wants to eat macaroni cheese is almost 60 years old — and insulin-dependent diabetic?

    These kinds of food issues terrify me, and there is no way I can coax him to change or to hide anything remotely healthy in his food. His not-so-tongue-in-cheek joke is that the only green thing that will ever pass his lips is Diet Mountain Dew.

  17. I am going to chime in on the picky food thing. My special needs kid eats pretty well at home, but he got accustomed to eating school lunches back in pre-school days when they just gave him one, free, even though he wasn’t there for lunch. We butted heads with him throughout kindergarten – eat the home lunch – I won’t – and the school didn’t help matters by letting him graze from the hot lunch line. He likes all the packaged goodies.

    Then I got cancer, went to grad school, got a recurrence of cancer, etc. Along the way decided what the hell, let him eat the damn school lunch. He eats home-cooked food with us and his grandmas so he’s eating fine otherwise.

    But now he’s at day camp all summer and he still refuses to eat what is in his lunchbox. If the camp counselor makes him a PBJ from her kitchen, he’ll eat it, but he won’t touch the PBJ I make him. He will eat that same pbj at home by the way. It’s situational. I was taking the tack of – feed him a big breakfast, let him eat a huge dinner & bedtime snack, and let him forage at camp for food he likes, even if it’s junky.

    I wasn’t worried about any of it until his doc said he had lost weight and was too thin. (He is indeed skinny). Then he lost another two pounds after that, what with camp and everything.

    This is all to say that I have succumbed. I buy my kid those packaged granola bars. I am sorry. THat’s what I’m doing. He also gets individual packages of raisins, and a box of juice, and a commercially made cookie.

    If the Big Disaster hits I am pretty sure he’ll eat my lentil soup, pasta, hummus – that’s what we eat anyway. However since he is losing weight at the moment, and his doctor is concerned, I am not willing to say “let him starve, he’ll eat sometime.” I used to believe that but now I see that it’s possible for a healthy kid to actually lose weight out of sheer stubbornness. Oh yes and he’s not happy that I’m in chemo either so that adds to the stress. (no I’m not losing weight)

    If things get weird around here I am pretty confident my kids will eat all the beans, rice and burghul I have stockpiled. Also the canned corn etc. And they love canned sardines and tuna. For longterm disasters like TEOTWAWKI well they will adapt or not, won’t they? I put my faith in God that all will be well.

  18. mea says:

    Greenpa — I know you mean well, but honestly, do you think you are gaining points by tell us our kids are not normal?

    Most of use who are raising a child with what I’ll loosely call food issues are also raise other who eat normally — and not just normal in the the run of the mill bad for us US diet. Yes, there are people who creat problems for themselves, but there are also children (and not just mentally ill ones) who have issues food that aren’t solved by anything simple. Some of them could (as I did) benefit from the wisdom of those who gave gone down that path, as we try to increase variety of food our children eat, and others are facing a situtation that one one else here is facing, and are struggling on there own.

    There is a theory, btw,that you may be aware off, that toddlers stop trying new foods at an age when, if were still all hunting and gathering, they’d be starting to pick some of there own food. Makes sense, yes?

    It’s true, there is no point in panicing if a typically develping child won’t try much variety in the way of food, and there are sensible tried and true methods for dealing with, all of which start, as you say, with don’t panic.

    But in order not to panic some of us need more at hand than the knowledge that most children won’t starve themselves to death if they don’t like lima beans.


  19. Sharon says:

    Wow, Greenpa, way to weigh in that our kids are seriously fucked up. ‘Cause, of course, if they were anywhere even remotely near normal, they would do as you say. Ouch.

    I do understand what you are trying to say, and yes, it is annoying when people insist that you acknowledge the exceptions. And yet, sometimes it is worth doing so. But sorry I didn’t immediately leap the conclusion that when you used the term “extreme psychosis” you were talking about my kid, and the 1 in 200 kids broadly on the autism spectrum (not even remotely related to psychosis or mental illness).

    Look, your point is well taken – it just isn’t universal. Appetite fatigue is real, and there is a huge range of responses to shock and disruption even in kids who are kinda typical.


  20. MEA says:


    I’ve been thinking about your question, and I’m not sure there is an answer. Does your 60 year old accept that there is going to be a time when M&C isn’t going to be readily available? If he does, and isn’t willing to start adapting now….

    Sorry not to have an answer,


  21. knutty knitter says:

    greens mashed into potato with some spices are good. Strangely enough my picky eater loves his potato with parsley, grated onion and grated cheese (tasty stuff not ‘soap’). So does everyone else :) Last time I did that I added some broccoli – it looks a bit like parsley when mashed and it all got eaten – they even wanted 2nds but it was gone! (I also add a bit of cayenne and some salt. The onion is added grated but raw into the hot potato mix.)

    viv in nz

  22. annette says:

    Kate – I totally relate. My husband is 62 and severely diabetic, and insists on eating massive amounts of junk food. I go to the farmers market and try to cook healthy, local, seasonal meals – he will eat some of it, but he complains a good bit, and he insists on running out to the local supermarket and buying junk food (I WILL NOT buy it!) . . . So I’ve given up. I just try to remember that its his life, his choice to not take care of it, and try to take care of myself and not stress about it. Easier said than done, I know.

  23. Kathy says:

    Yeah, I myself am a Coeliac and have two children, one non-Coeliac, one Coeliac, and I can tell you from experience that it’s not just “psychotic”, “disturbed” or even stressed kids who can be extreme food refusers – a child with a painful food intolerance will often reflexively refuse much food just because they fear the pain that might follow eating. My youngest was quite capable of going many days without eating anything unfamiliar or indeed anything at all other than carrots, brown rice and fish (not terrible foods, but not sufficient either) before her diagnosis.

    Now that she (and I) are gluten-free and our guts have healed, both my kids are what I’d call reasonable eaters. They will try any new thing presented to them – sometimes only one mouthful, granted, but they WILL try it. They eat a wide range of fruits in season and a pretty good range of vegetables, partly sourced from their aunt’s garden or ours (I still have not had good luck with cabbage, though I will give the ketchup a try!) They eat my bulk storage staples like lentils, rice and various dried beans in lots of different dishes. I am confident that as supermarket / packaged food becomes more prohibitively expensive and less available, they will cope well with eating predominantly home, relative or locally sourced foodstuffs, and will not starve. My husband fishes weekly (successfully, usually) and we could all transition to fish only as animal protein if we had to (as it is we have very little red meat now).

    Which is not to say that the store-bought ice-cream, fair-trade chocolate, convenience breakfast cereals and spicy sauces won’t be missed, because they will. But starve we won’t, well at least not from lack of willingess to eat what’s available.

  24. MamaBird says:

    Wow, love this post *and* fascinating comments. I like Ellyn Satter’s books about introducing books but I am guessing that the folks with a lot of knowledge of food issues have already read her stuff. Particularly like her commentary about power relationships around food, as I am concerned about eating disorders and hope to help my 5yo girl retain a healthy relationship to food despite cultural madness around this topic. Snorting laughing at the “finally appreciating rutabagas” line! Let’s just say that when I take the kids out of town, Pizza Slut does some fine business in my house. Things I have found helpful with my kids: understanding that there are genetic taste predispositions (my DD loved any and every vegetable and her little bro just ain’t the same kid); growing food especially unusual and accessible kid-friendly food like edible flowers like a PP does, beets (my boy likes em raw!), carrots, cukes, surprisingly not tomatoes (too acidic?); involving them in cooking; feeding them the healthier food when they are starving; letting my DD rant about foods and leaving them around and making it possible for her to change her mind. That said, I have had all wholegrain stuff in the house since before they were born and I still see cultural influences creeping in (dreaded school lunches, my heart is with PP). I guess where I am at right now is being a #4 combined with a #5. Outside my house, I relax. If someone really cares about a particular food I wouldn’t normally offer, I try to allow it infrequently but still allow it to take the allure out of it. Love this post so much.

Leave a Reply