Meet Sarah Copeland + Learn Everything You Need to Know About Picky Eaters

July 28, 2019

You guys! This post kicks off a new series here on Household that I have been dreaming about for years. Since I started Household over four years ago I’ve had the chance to connect with mothers all over the world, open up, have meaningful conversations and build a community I wouldn’t otherwise have. While the public discussions we have on my Instagram feed and in the comments here are near and dear to my heart, some of the private chats I’ve had you guys have shifted my perspective on motherhood and sometimes even the way I parent. I’ve always wanted to find a way to highlight each of you incredible mothers, give you a place to share your stories and get real about the aspects of this gig that keep us up at night.

Today begins our first of many mother interviews and I’m over here doing a happy dance with a few tears in my eyes as I hit publish. I had a really eye opening conversation with cookbook author, friend and mother, Sarah Copeland, about toddler pickiness and how incredibly normal it was about a year ago. Our chat was so transformative and reassuring that Owen would in fact, eventually, venture away from his ten item diet that I feel like parents everywhere could benefit from her insight. Considering food has been such an essential element of what makes Household what it is I felt like there was no better person and topic to start with. 

If you’re in the depths of a picky phase I hope this conversation with Sarah provides solidarity, hope, resources and if nothing else a virtual hug that you are simply not alone. Enjoy!

So I’ve known you for a few years, but for those readers who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you yet can you tell us a little bit about yourself!

Yes! I am a three-time cookbook author, mother of two littles named Greta and Mátyás (ages 8, and 4) and a contributor to all kinds of food media, from the New York Times to Saveur and Food & Wine magazine. 

We had a transformative conversation earlier this year when I was in my deepest, darkest frustration with my very picky three year old. At that time he was showing no interest in new foods (and honestly is still hesitant). What advice would you give parents in a similar boat? 

Eating can cause so much stress in a family, especially a family with young kids, but chances are unless your child will literally only eat one thing, say only cheddar bunnies or saltine crackers, you are probably doing better than you think. 

First of all, think back to your own childhood: Were you eating kale and grass-fed beef? Probably not (I was probably 12 before I ate a single leafy green, raw) but you turned out just fine. Most parents in our generation are way more proactive about nutrition than our predecessors, and our hyper-awareness will hopefully have a great long-term benefit to society and the health of our kids as a whole, but it’s super important in the short-term to put things into perspective. We have a LOT to think about as parents, so if you’re trying, if you’re introducing new foods regularly, even if they refuse them for what feels like forever, you’re on the right track. 

Also, remember this: Like anything in parenting, the toughest phases, and the best ones, eventually pass.

What has worked for you with your kids when it comes to encouraging new foods and a balanced diet? What hasn’t?

Such a good question. I’ve always consistently introduced food with lots of color to my kids, and vocalized the relationship between vibrant colors (natural colors, of course–not fruit loops) and how it makes our bodies feel. We talk about how blue foods are good for the brain (blueberries) and red foods are good for the heart (tomatoes) and how as much as our eyes love color our body loves it too. 

My kids love being a part of the conversation, and we went through an adorable phase where Matyas asked me before he ate absolutely everything “Is this healthy mama?” and said things like “Ice cream is a healthy dessert, right mama?” It was hilarious but also signaled to me that he was already building a source of pride around the concept of choosing healthy for himself, which is great!

Sometimes we get off track, as all families do with any commitment to “doing the right thing” (like minimizing screen time, oh boy!) and in those times I try to concentrate on one small, attainable goal like: put something green on the plate at two meals a day. This is usually my go-to for re-entry after we’ve had a particularly indulgent run of things. It just helps me to focus on an attainable, actionable step in the right direction.  

What hasn’t worked: bargaining, negotiating, and making my kids eat something if they aren’t feeling it. We ask them to at least try everything–one to three bites, but we never force them to eat anything they are truly not enjoying. I mean, how would I like it if I was required to eat, say, liver every day, just because someone else thought it was good for me? 

Sometimes when I make something super healthy or maybe spicy or a bit of a hippy meal (read: anything with millet in it) Greta will say “This isn’t my favorite mama.” but then graciously eats some of it anyway, or will at least scooch it around on the plate. My son, though, goes straight to “I’m allergic to this.” and there’s no point in having a battle. 

Most days Owen eats some combination of berries, apples, grapes, yogurt, granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches and almost any carb you put in front of him. Is this a horrible mix for a three year old? He’s a self proclaimed vegetarian who has little interest in vegetables. Sometimes I feel like we need serious help, other times I’m confident it could absolutely be worse. 

You are doing great!! It could be so much worse. Apples and berries and yogurt could sustain a small person for quite a while, if it had to. Yes, it would be great if there were more vegetables in that mix, and a little bit of iron-rich protein like beef or beans, or fresh fish–but he’ll get there. 

I have talked to parents whose kids literally eat only one thing, all day long. That’s worrisome. We can’t let them get away with that because it will be hard to expand very far from a core diet of only one food, (and more than likely that is a control issue anyway). But if Owen is eating a variety, even if it seems like a small variety right now, you can build on it little by little. 

Both of my kids didn’t eat any meat until they were about 3 or so (my husband is a vegetarian, but I did try meat with them, and they always rejected it). They always liked salmon, which was great, and would pick up beans with their fingers when they were very young, but for the most part my daughter would eat all the muffins and pancakes and bread and my son would eat all melon and berries and apples if I let them. One day, after my daughter’s preschool graduation, we went out to a meal with a group of her classmates and their parents. I ordered Greta a cheese quesadilla, which she normally loved. The boy next to her got ordered a cheeseburger and she said, out of the blue “What’s that? I want that!” She had one bite, and has totally loved meat ever since. 

Maytas was the same–the photo of him eating meatballs in my cookbook? That was literally the second time he ate meat in his life. I had tried a lot of other things with him that didn’t stick, so finally I tried meatballs. He ate a huge plate of them and declared them the best thing ever. Now he eats all kinds of meat–I make chicken schnitzel and skirt steak and beef ragu and he loves it all (but, he’d still live on watermelon and grapes if we let him!).

When we’re out and about we definitely let him indulge in french fries, ice cream or pizza. Do you do the same with your kids or is it always “healthy”? 

We totally indulge. Right now I’m on book tour, and I have a feeling there are a LOT of indulgences happening back home with my husband in charge–starting with suckers every time they accompany him to the car wash or the bank. 

We follow the 80/20 rule — 80% of the time we’re super careful about what we eat, but I know how much a piece of chocolate or an ice cream cone can turn my day around when I need a little treat and sometimes it’s the same for them. At least once a month or so in the summer I say, “Who wants ice cream for dinner?” and everyone cheers, especially me. It’s usually a delicious lapse of judgement I regret by bedtime, but then we sleep it off and all is well again.  

A year ago, we went to Mexico with my parents and my sweet sister. My husband stayed at home so I was solo parent to two kids under six. Maytas had broken his leg right before the trip, he was still coming to our bed all the time, and I had been taking on demanding new projects so I was totally exhausted. I needed that trip to be super restorative, but traveling with a three-year old, even one in a cast, is super intense. He hated sitting for restaurant meals, and especially several a day, which was the norm on vacation. And, everywhere we went the only thing Matyas wanted to eat was french fries, ketchup and guacamole. 

After about a day or so of observing me trying to adhere to our normal food rules, my sister put her hand on my arm and gently said, “You are doing so great. You’re so on top of all the things about raising good kids. But, what if just for this week you let yourself totally off the hook? What if you decided he could eat french fries and guacamole for an entire week, so that you could just enjoy every meal and relax a little?”. 

It was a literal revelation for me that I could simply choose not to worry about that one little detail for six whole days. So, Maytas ate fruit and chocolate-chip-pancakes or croissants for every breakfast, and french fries, guacamole and masses of ketchup for every single lunch and dinner for the entire trip. It was the best vacation ever. I have never been so relaxed. 

Re-entry was a little hard for us both, but what a gift her wisdom was to me. It taught me that I have to allow myself — that we all have to allow ourselves — moments or days or even whole weeks to just break from the rules and get back on track when we have more energy. When things are feeling tough (during a pregnancy, transitioning to new home or new school or new jobs, etc.) we have to allow some wiggle room to breathe and recover and this is one easy way to do that. 

As a chef, cookbook author and mother how do you balance mealtimes? Do you ever order take-out or have any go-to easy meals you turn to on busy days? 

Yes, yes yes! I did not grow up having pizza or take out — almost ever — so I don’t crave that as an adult. My mom cooked everything except Sunday brunch which we always had out at a restaurant after church. But, my mom also stayed home with us while we were little — she wasn’t also balancing a career on top of all her responsibilities at home. 

Every Wednesday, when my husband is out of town very long days, the idea of cooking, feeding and cleaning up solo is too much for me after a day of work, so we always go out for pizza or tacos or even just burgers and ice cream. Knowing I have this night off to look forward to every week has saved my sanity. Afterward, as long as everyone is cooperating and helpful (ish), we race home, splash through the tub, put on PJS and curl up for a little movie or cartoon. We call it Watching Wednesday. During the time we’d normally be doing dishes, instead I’m cuddling the kids and relaxing, for once. It’s the best.  

Recognizing that I can’t always live up to the standard of my own childhood, or even my own impossible ideal for my kids 100% of the time has been very freeing for me. 

I’m a big Michael Pollan nerd and try to follow most of his food rules. What would you say is your number one food rule? 

Michael Pollan is the absolute best–his rules are so simple and easy to understand (I love: Eat food. Mostly plants!) 

For me if it’s: if nature didn’t make it, be suspicious. That doesn’t mean we don’t eat anything that comes out of a box, but it’s a good reminder that if it’s not found in nature, we should be asking questions — reading labels, using our judgement and eating those things a very small percent of the time. Almost everything our body actually needs to survive and thrive was found in nature hundreds of years ago, and despite massive innovation in all other areas of human life, those foods are still the very best for us. 

How has your life as a mother contributed to your new book, Every Day is Saturday

I don’t think I would have fully understood the juggle or the struggle of feeding oneself, or a family, if I wasn’t a mother. Cooking and baking and even growing my own food are my career, but also my passion and creative outlet, so I would do it regardless. But as a single person or even a couple, you can skip a meal anytime you don’t feel like cooking or doing dishes and everything is fine. You can opt out, any time. Parents can’t do that, and after having my second, and realizing that OH MY GOSH, this is endless — they are so hungry, ALL THE TIME, I wanted to make cooking fun and easy feeling again — for me, and for the benefit of them growing up in a house where food is something wonderful and celebrated, not a chore that lords over us all. 

Sometimes I’ll say, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight,” and my husband looks at me and says “I’m fine love, I don’t need a big dinner tonight.” It’s kind of adorably hilarious (and occasionally infuriating) because sorry love, it wasn’t you I was worried about! Kids literally have to eat three meals a day, so there’s not a lot of opting out for parents. 

Every Day is Saturday was inspired by the idea that making sure there’s always food in the house–and delicious, inspiring, exciting food in the house — doesn’t have to be a hamster wheel that every parent unwillingly climbed on. We can make mealtimes a lot easier on ourselves, and way more exciting, than most of us have been. 

Are there any particular recipes in the book that have been go tos’ for particularly picky phases? 

Vacation fruit salad comes to mind because you can cut the fruit in any shape and include a lot of variety. Even if your kiddo ends up picking out only the blueberries, for example, and mom or dad eats the rest (decent perk!) eventually they will get used to seeing a variety on their plate and start taking interest in the rest. 

Summer Macaroni is a big win for my kids, because I can modify it, and they love anything called macaroni. And of course the meatballs, which were a major turning point for Matyas as I mentioned before (they have bacon in them, so they’re hard to resist). 

One of the things I think I’m good at is making healthy food feel indulgent, and there’s a lot of that in the book. So if your kiddo loves chocolate, you can probably easily get them to eat the Buckwheat Banana Chocolate Chip Pancakes (which are also super fast and vegan, so no worries about dairy allergies) and the buckwheat is a good nutrient boost. Likewise the banana bread, which is naturally sweet from the applesauce and low in sugar compared to most banana bread, or say, a loaf of any pumpkin bread or lemon poppy seed at Starbucks, and is loaded with good-for-you-things kids won’t even notice, like oats. It’s great in lunch boxes or as a breakfast or afternoon treat because it feels like dessert to them, but you know it will stick with them far longer than a granola bar. 

What’s the number one mistake you think most parents make with picky eaters? 

Pressuring kids or negotiating is so very tempting, but ultimately, it’s futile. I have done it, of course. I have felt worried about them, or had my feelings hurt, or been frustrated that I tried so hard to make something delicious and healthy and then had it rejected or wasted or thrown on the floor — and therefore gotten angry or required them to eat it. This is human nature. But if we can remember that for a lot of kids what they choose or choose not to eat is literally the only thing they have control over until they gain more autonomy, so often food choices have to do with so much more than just desire or personal taste or pickiness. There’s a lot of feeling around food (love, control, desire, joy, pleasure…). It’s hard to, but if we can try to see that little person as their own autonomous creature, like us, with legitimate likes and dislikes and moods, (sometimes I’m in the mood for a green juice, sometimes I need a warm chai tea!) it’s easier to respect where they are right now and not push. Keep it fun, keep it light. At the end of the day, we want them to see the joy and pleasure in eating and the nourishment will follow suit. 

Any other words or advice you’d like to share? 

As much as you can, make food feel fun. If we’re stressed and freaked out about food — making it more complicated than it needs to be, our kids will feel that. Let them see you enjoying food and enjoying cooking (or eating out, if that’s more your family’s style) — taking your time over meals, laughing and talking, trying new things, treating yourself from time to time — and they will pick up on that and want to be a part of it more and more as they grow. If you’re feeling stuck, start there. Stop, smile, create a meal you’re excited to eat and watch your family blossom. 

Photography by Amy Frances.

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