As parents we have all felt the “wrath” of a picky eater. I myself have spent hours or precious minutes on busy evenings proudly preparing balanced, healthy, and attractive meals for my family only to hear the dreaded, “yuck! I’m not going to eat that” or “that’s stinky”. It is crushing to hear those words and listen to complaining especially when you are doing something good for them. So as a parent I feel your pain and want to validate all of your frustration. Luckily there are some valid reasons why kids are “picky” with their food and some strategies caregivers can use to promote food acceptance.
They look really cute, but they are scary to feed! LOL
First I want to reassure you that pickiness with food is very normal for children. Everything is new to them and they don’t have the ability to reason or process that something might be new but might be good, or that a food might not be their favorite but it’s good for them so they should eat it. Toddlers also may suddenly stop eating foods that they had been previously eating as they move into phases of wanting more independence and control over what they do. We have all heard a two year old proclaim, “NO I do it!” and “NO I don’t want that!”
The more times a food is offered to a child the more likely they are to accept the food. Some studies have reported that a food item has to be presented to a child up to 16 times before that item is fully accepted. So I encourage parents to keep offering a variety of food choices to their kids even if they are not accepted the first few times.
Children also taste food differently then adults. Research has shown that children’s taste buds are more sensitive to bitter tasting foods like vegetables. This also causes them to be more drawn to sweet tastes. With age taste buds become less sensitive leading to more acceptances to bitter tasting foods such as broccoli, lettuce, and asparagus. This may also explain why kids tend to accept vegetables like carrots, tomato sauce, corn, and sweet potatoes because they are less bitter and sweeter tasting.
These are some of the very normal developmental and physiological reasons for picky eating which should peak around age six. Below are strategies that parents can try to encourage more variety in their children’s diets and to help support normal eating patterns.
1. Mealtime should never be made a battle. Set eating and meal expectations with children before the meal and be consistent. For example a family meal guideline might be that you have to try at least one bite of each item on your plate. Expectations should be adjusted for age.
2. Never use negative language when talking about food or mealtime or force a child to eat. This creates trauma associated with food and only escalates picky eating and food issues.
3. Avoid rewarding or punishing behavior with food.
4. Offer kids choices at meal times, often times if a child feels included in the decision making process of meals they are more likely to eat that meal.
5. Let your children help prepare dinner. Kids who help to make their own food are excited to eat what they have made and feel a sense of pride having made their own meal.
6. Have children help grow a family garden or potted tomato or green bean plant. Studies have shown that kids who help grow fruit and vegetables are more likely to eat them!
7. Don’t make children a completely different meal if they reject what you are making for dinner. If what you are making for dinner is not a meal that is kid friendly for littler ones try preparing a similar looking plate for them that is more appealing for their age but with the same types of foods that everyone else is eating.
8. Offering smaller portions of new food items can be less intimidating.
9. Kids love to “dip” their food so a good way to encourage them to eat vegetables, fruits, and meats is to have different dips they can try. Some ideas are hummus, light ranch, yogurt dips, honey mustard, and BBQ sauce.
10. Children also like to “assemble” their own food, mine love to put together their own tacos, nachos, add their own cheese, or assemble their own wraps.
11. Let older kids help you make the “menu” for the week before you go grocery shopping. They may not all be meals they love (like pizza every night) but if they feel they had a say in what meals are planned they are more likely to eat them later in the week reducing potential food drama ahead of time.
12. Set a good example. Eat the same foods you expect them to eat. Eat your vegetables, fruit, eat with the family, and limit snacking.
13. Make eating a positive experience, play music during meals, pick a topic for discussion, the more levity there is in mealtime the less drama there is.
14. If possible try to eat at relatively the same times during the day.
Finally, don’t take picky eating personally. It can be hard but kids don’t do it to hurt anyone’s feelings. Give some of these strategies a try and don’t be afraid to seek additional advice from a dietitian. Every kid and situation is different.