“No!” Is that word you hear a lot at dinner time? (Perhaps it’s followed by a disgusted expression or a plate thrown across the table, too?) Picky eaters are fairly common, and this selective eating preference is present in as much as 14 to 20 percent of children aged 2 to 5!1. Here are five tips designed to help you help your child develop a well-balanced palate and start enjoying healthy foods.
You want your kids to eat healthy, but you should know they may be averse to the notion of “healthy.” Children can perceive many healthy foods as delicious, as long as emphasis is placed on careful word choice.
Keep the conversation flowing, since an enjoyable environment, filled with fun and laughter around the dinner table, can often create a link between healthy foods and family dinners2. You want to reinforce how fun and healthy can go hand in hand.
Children love colors3, and they’ll want to be surrounded by all things bright and cheerful. The same perception applies to food. If you give your kids a plate of brown and orange healthy foods, and a plate of red, green, orange and purple healthy foods, which do you think will have the most visual appeal? Bingo! The colorful plate wins every time. The key to success is to dazzle and delight. You don’t need to waste endless hours in food preparation, but a few extra minutes may make all the difference.
Next, you should think small and often. What does that mean? When you serve certain foods, namely veggies but sometimes fruits as well, you should cut them into bite-size pieces that will appeal to smaller hands, and you may need to repeat this process multiples times. Don’t try out too many new foods at any given time, since studies have shown that kids may need exposure to new foods up to 15 times4 before they will accept the offerings. One of the easiest ways to dazzle your children is by incorporating fun shapes. If you have cookie cutters lying around the home that you only use at the holidays, you can now put them to good use during the rest of the year. Foods magically become fun when they have an appealing shape.
Another way to delight your children is to appeal to their interests. If you child loves a certain TV or movie character, chances are he or she will be fascinated by dinnerware that reveals a friendly face. There are many licensed character collections that will help your child relax and stay content during meal time. These character dishes are also available in sectioned plates, which can keep the peas from—gasp!—touching the potatoes.
You may love to be the controller of the kitchen, but you’ll never have true success with picky eaters if you don’t invite them to take part. This stage starts before meal preparations, whether you purchase your food at the grocery store, food co op or farmer’s market, or you grow your own produce in the backyard garden. Provide them with specific choices, such as cauliflower or squash, or kiwi fruit or watermelon. If they help select the food, they may be more eager to eat it. You could also vary the way you design the recipe. Consider adding certain veggies to a blended smoothie, or grate carrots or zucchini into cold or hot dishes for flavor and health benefits without the yuck factor.
Give your children a place at the counter, and show them what to do. You could also ask something like, “Hmm, I think this needs more flavor/texture/spice. What do you think?” and then repeat the taste test later. You might even give the food dish a different name, something your children will remember with pride. Baking sets, perfect for children’s hands, are also ideal for creating fun adventures, and the bright colors will capture their attention.
Set a good example for your children, and watch how they will follow your lead. Studies have shown that a significant part of picky eating occurs when young children copy their parents/care takers5. To have success, you must be a good role model, otherwise you might encourage picky children.
Families that enjoy eating the same foods will be less likely to squabble and say things like, “Why do I have to eat that? He’s not eating it!” Of course, you must respect individual taste buds, which can be especially sensitive in children, but you can ward off the development of picky eaters when you win your children’s trust.
When you nag your children, you are forcing them to eat something they aren’t interested in eating. It will never end well—temper tantrums, anyone?—and it may instill a dislike in perfectly tasty food that just happens to be healthy to boot. Recent studies have also shown a correlation between developmental disorders and selective eating6, since children may not receive the correct nutrients their growing bodies require.
Don’t make deals, either. If you find yourself saying, “Just a few more bites and then you can have the cupcake,” your child will link eating the “gross food” with a reward, which is the last thing you want. Serve a small dessert with the meal, or avoid it altogether. If a sweet treat isn’t around, there’s nothing to compare it to at dinner time.
Picky eating is a common part of childhood, but it should never be encouraged. More often than not, your children will grow out of this stage, sample new foods more readily and add variety to their diet. The earlier you begin dealing with picky eaters, though, the simpler this stage will be.