I sometimes wonder whether the very conveniences that make
feeding our families easier may have spawned a generation of extremely picky
eaters. Not that long ago, it was common for mothers to say: “Eat what's on your
plate, because that's all there is.” This maternal battle cry was backed up by
legions of pediatricians who assured them that no child ever died of hunger
when food was readily available. But few mothers adhere to that credo today. A
number of things have made it much easier to accommodate a wide variety of food
preferences, without tremendous effort: microwaves have made heating and
re-heating single serving size portions a no-brainer; a plethora of fast food
and take-out options make picking up the full family meal a snap; and prepared
frozen meals make the freezer an endless source of reasonable dinner
options. All of the above, combined with
an increase in food allergies that make special food exceptions a necessity,
have given picky eaters the upper hand in many homes. If these kids were willing to try other
foods, they might find they actually like them. So here are a number of
strategies for getting your picky eaters to try new foods.
Engage the Five Senses
To begin with, trying to engage your child's fives sense is a great way to help them find other ways to talk about their food likes and dislikes besides words like yucky and yummy, which really doesn't help you or them understand what the issue is. Talking about how things look, smell, feel, and even how they sound when you bite into them, gives children's tools to describe how they feel about what they are eating. This in turn gives you a window into what it is about certain foods that really turns them off. Try offering a variety of sense experiences and talk about it with your children—for example: for salty, try whole grain pretzels; for sour, lemons or dill pickles; for sweet, both smell and taste try fruits like oranges or clementines; for texture, there's sticky honey or maple syrup, creamy yogurt, and smooth bananas; for crunch, try veggies like carrots; and for colors, offer a variety of colors like red, green and yellow peppers.
Make a Variety of Foods Available
Offering a variety of foods helps young children accept new foods and leads to healthier habits later in life. In general, children will be most receptive to new foods when they're rested. They will also be more willing to try new foods when they are offered with other familiar foods, and while others around them are doing the same. Family meals, can be a good time to introduce new foods, especially when you can model the behavior by trying new things and embracing variety.
Patience and Persistence
It can take 8 to 15 tries before a child will accept a new food, so keep trying. While we joke about how certain sophisticated foods are an “acquired taste,” it has been found that sometimes children warm up to foods they have turned down before on the 10th and 11th try! Don't give up.
When children participate in planning and preparing family meals, they are also more likely to consider food options they might not have otherwise. This can begin with having them help you make your list for the supermarket, and then shopping together, exploring different food choices found in the supermarket. Preparing food together is another great opportunity to get children interested in different foods, and experimenting with new foods while having fun. (Cooking together is also a great way to bring science and math into the home as the measuring and counting are natural extensions of STEM concepts they are learning in school.)
Although many picky eaters grow out of it naturally, learning to eat a balanced diet is essential for good health and nutrition, and the earlier you start, the better. Not to mention, how much easier and pleasant it is when everyone at the table is eating more or less the the same thing.
Another way to encourage conversation about food likes and dislikes is to read books that hit on similar issues. Sometimes children gain insight into their own behavior when they see it mirrored and exaggerated by another character. Here are a few favorites the will get kids talking about what being a picky eater means to them: Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli by Barbara Jean Hicks, illustrated by Sue Hendra; Sugar Would Not Eat It by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Giselle Potter; I’d Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio; illustrated by Dorothée de Monfreid.