Preventing Picky Eating - Lessons from a Spanish Buffet


You’ll not likely be surprised to hear that one of the things I love to do while travelling is to observe and experience different people’s cultural food ways. I was travelling alone for two of my four weeks in Spain last month so I had lots of time to observe how people ate.

One thing that really struck me is how people chose their food at a buffet. In one of my hotels, a breakfast buffet was included. There was an optional dinner buffet too. I noticed that the Spanish families ate very differently at buffets than we do here in North America.

You know the routine here in North America. Every family member goes up to the buffet and chooses how much of which foods they’ll put on their plates. Kids who are too young to serve themselves either stay at the table and they receive a plate made up for them by a parent. Or, the little ones come up to the buffet and “help” choose what foods go on their individual plate. Then every family member sits down with their individual plates and people eat.

This is completely different than how the Spanish do buffets. What I observed is that some family members stayed sitting at the table and some went up to the buffet. Everyone placed an empty plate in front of themselves at the table. The family members up at the buffet would select a plate full of foods from the buffet that they would place in the middle of the table. For example in the middle of the table at dinner there were plates full of meat, plates full of fish, plates full of vegetables, a plate full of bread, and a plate full of olives. One food per plate. Then, everyone served themselves from these plates. In this way, even at a buffet, everyone shared the same meal. Yes, even if there were toddlers, preschoolers or older kids amongst the family members.

Why am I telling you this? I can’t help but draw parallels between what I observed at the buffet table and how people responded to me when I described what I did for a living. The Spanish folks whom I talked to were completely confused when I said that I helped families with picky eaters. It wasn’t a language barrier- these folks’ English skills were very good and we experienced no problems communicating ideas until this point. People were understanding me when I said that I was a dietitian (although sometimes I needed to use the term “nutritionist”). But they didn’t understand the concept that some kids don’t eat well. They didn’t understand that kids refuse to eat a variety of foods. They didn’t understand that this situation is stressful for parents and creates an unhealthy relationship with food for the kids that can last a lifetime. And, that I can help sort out the situation so that kids choose to try new foods on their own, meet their nutrition needs, and develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Nope, my Spanish conversation partners were completely baffled by me.

You see, these Spanish folks were already doing many of the techniques that I teach parents. I teach making one meal for the whole family. I teach serving food from shared plates. I teach allowing kids to choose from the foods that you provide, without parents getting involved in demanding two more bites of one food in order to earn seconds of another food. I teach planning a meal so that there’s at least one familiar food that each person in the household enjoys. And, most importantly, I teach having pleasant conversations at the table. Each and every one of these techniques I saw in operation at the buffet restaurant. And guess what. The kids stayed at the table during the entire meal. The kids knew how to take turns in a conversation. The kids ate well. The parents didn’t need to scold their kids or cajole them to eat their peas. There were no mealtime meltdowns.

I suspect that the Spanish traditional way of eating was preventing the ubiquitous picky eating that causes us so much trouble here. That picky eating was such a rare concept in Spain that people just hadn’t heard of it. I’m sharing my observations with you today in the hopes to inspire you to eat more like the Spanish – and I’m not referring to the Iberico ham, paella and olives!