Why you shouldn't label your kid a 'picky' eater, according to Food Network personality Catherine McCord

Catherine McCord of Weelicious shares her lunchbox hacks and tips for picky eaters. (Photo: Weelicious; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Catherine McCord of Weelicious shares her lunchbox hacks and tips for picky eaters. (Photo: Weelicious; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child rearing.

Once upon a time, Catherine McCord was a model and TV host gracing the cover of fashion magazines and strutting down catwalks. But since trading high fashion and Hollywood for the food industry — a decision sparked, she tells Yahoo Life, by Sept. 11 — the covers the mom of three now appears on belong to her very own cookbooks; she's currently working on her fourth.

As a Food Network personality and founder of the family-friendly Weelicious food resource, which counts celebrity moms like Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Garner and Candace Cameron Bure among its 309,000 Instagram followers, McCord has carved out a space as a foodie families can count on for healthy eating tips and culinary inspiration.

The challenges of getting little ones fed are all too familiar to McCord, mom to 14-year-old son Kenya and daughters Chloe, 12, and Gemma, 6. Here, the kitchen queen and co-founder of the One Potato meal delivery service shares her secrets for handling picky eaters, supporting vegetarian kids and not overthinking your lunchbox game.

What made you want to transition from modeling to food?

The funny part is that I was interested in food way before modeling. I grew up in Kentucky, where my grandparents went to U-pick farms and grew a lot of their own food. I loved watching my grandmother cook and often helped preserve and freeze produce with my grandfather. I even started collecting cookbooks at a young age. From modeling I had the opportunity to travel around the world and became fascinated with the way people eat in different countries. I lived blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11, which was also the day I was supposed to visit the Institute of Culinary Education. That was the day that I decided it was time to step away from modeling and focus on what I really wanted to do with my life: cook!

How would you describe your parenting style?

Connected and supportive. My greatest goal is to raise kind, self-aware and resilient humans. I try to spend as much time as possible with my kids to listen to what they’re responding to in their day. I don’t like to hover over them, but want them to know they have my ear whenever they need it.

What advice would you give to a parent dealing with a picky eater?

If you’re really committed to helping your child grow to love an array of foods, there are endless techniques you can try at different ages. Start by visiting your local farmers market or grocery and let your child pick any fruit or vegetable to try. Educate your child on how it’s grown, cooked and eaten. Visit a local nursery and pick something to grow together. Nurture the plant and decide what you’ll make with it. Watching herbs or produce grow can create a great sense of achievement for a child. Model how much you love an array of foods and eat them together. If your child dislikes carrots, for instance, try preparing them in different ways: raw with hummus to dip in, sautéed with a spice, steamed, roasted with a touch of maple syrup and more. No matter what you do, don’t label your child as “picky” or that’s how they will perceive themself.

What’s your best hack for feeding kids?

DIY meals! I put out a bunch of bowls to let them create their own meals. We have a lot of theme nights around this theory: making burrito bowls with beans rice, salsa, guacamole and more, or pasta with one or two sauces, cheese to sprinkle on and grilled chicken or a vegetable. When kids have a hand in creating their own meal, they’re more excited to try new foods.

Is there anything your own kids just won’t eat?

My son has been a vegetarian since he was 5 years old, so no meat. My middle daughter will only eat mozzarella and ricotta cheese; every other cheese is off-limits. My 6-year-old will eat just about anything. She started drinking a smoothie every morning when she was 10 months old with every fruit and vegetable under the sun in it, so I think her palate is used to a wide array of flavors. She still sucks down a 10 oz. smoothie in four sips.

How did your son broach the issue of becoming a vegetarian, and what advice do you have for parents having the same discussions with their own kids?

As a baby he didn’t enjoy meat, chicken or fish. When he was 5 years old he declared that he was a vegetarian and never looked back. He’s been really good about educating himself to be a balanced vegetarian, getting plenty of fruits, vegetables and especially protein-rich foods like tofu, cheese, nuts, seeds and more. I see how empowered Kenya has become by choosing to be a vegetarian and how good it makes him feel. We’re five people in our house [with] two vegetarians and three meat-eaters, even though we all eat a lot of plant-based meals. The rule is that you can’t shame another person for their food preferences and you must respect each other’s choices. If you have a child who doesn’t enjoy the taste of meats or has ethical reasons for avoiding animal proteins, you can help them to learn what food options will nourish their bodies while respecting their choice for what goes in their body.

With school returning, a lot of parents have a fear of “lunchbox shaming.” What’s your take? Is there too much pressure on parents to create gourmet meals on the go?

There’s too much pressure on parents to do everything. Social media has magnified many parents' feelings of insecurity in feeding their children, which makes sense given that we’re expected to make 21 meals plus snacks each week. When you’re building a lunch box it should be simple, yet satisfying. Offering lunch in a bento box-style container helps a lot, so your child can see all of their choices as soon as it’s opened up. Start by making sure there’s a fruit, vegetable, protein and carbohydrate at lunch with bright colored fruits and vegetables. Even cutting foods in smaller bite-sized pieces can encourage them to eat it, so the lunchbox comes home empty, which is the ultimate goal.

A lot of parents look to you as a parenting lifeline. What experts inspire you as a mom?

There are so many parenting experts I use and adore: Tina Payne Bryson (co-author of The Whole-Brain Child), Dr. Organic Mommy, Non Toxic Munchkin, Feeding Littles, Dr. Tanya Altmann, GN Sleepsite, Busy Toddler and Kids Eat In Color, to name a few.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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