Bartering, bribing and flat out begging. If your kid is a picky eater, you may feel more like you’re negotiating with the UN than having a meal with your family. It’s a rare parent who hasn’t gone through the trials of getting their kid to eat their vegetables or experienced the dreaded drama of bedtime resistance. And no two kids are alike; while some may be notoriously picky eaters, others with healthy appetites may suddenly turn up their nose at certain foods out of the blue, which can be can be as perplexing as it is frustrating.
Young kids often refuse food because it has a certain color or texture. Has the tomato on that sandwich made the bread a bit soggy? Do their mashed potatoes have flecks of pepper? With picky eaters, the devil is in the details. But even though adults can ignore these things, they can be unappetizing for the younger culinary crowd.
Don’t despair. Every parent wants to raise a kid who isn’t afraid to try new things, and the same is true when it comes to food. This starts with helping kids change the ways that they think about food, and to challenge their assumptions. Here are six strategies to build confidence in picky eaters—and in their parents.
Tip #1: Don’t push a picky eater—it won’t help.
Young kids may eat a food one day and refuse it the next. Some parents may think their kid is being willful and respond with discipline or by pressuring them to eat. But this doesn’t work, especially with very young kids. Pushing a kid to eat a food they don’t want will only result in more resistance, much like the refusals of the “terrible twos.” And as you will likely remember, this back and forth will get you nowhere fast. This kind of pressure can teach them to avoid foods they may actually like and accept when they aren’t in such a fussy mood, which can close an early door on all kinds of exciting food options.
Tip #2: Make healthy eating habits a family affair.
The best way to help your kid to be unafraid to try new foods is to let them see you enjoying them first. Talk about the flavor of new foods with your kid; talk about its texture, color, or anything else that can start a conversation. Serve new foods at the dinner table with the whole family gathered and have a fun, social meal. Arguing during dinnertime can make your kids associate negativity with eating, so keep conversation upbeat and fun.
Tip #3: Sneak fruits and veggies into foods your kids already eat.
Nutritionists will tell you that a good way to get more fruits and veggies into anyone’s diet is to add them into favorite meals. This adds low-calorie volume and fiber to a meal and can satisfy your nagging parental desire to ensure your kid is getting the nutrients they need.
Slice veggies small and slip them in. For example, try removing some of the pasta in your kid’s mac and cheese and replacing it with cauliflower. This will actually give the dish a nice, fluffy texture. Small bits of apples, grapes, celery red peppers or carrots are delicious in tuna or chicken salad. Also, you can lower calories in tuna salad by swapping out half of that mayo for a low-calorie tzatziki sauce, available in the produce aisle next to the hummus.
Try slipping a tomato slice into your kid’s grilled cheese sandwich, or hiding thinly sliced mushrooms, onions, spinach or broccoli under the cheese of your child’s pizza (make sure to saute them first so they’re not crunchy). Whatever’s on the menu, with a little creativity you can sneak those fruits and veggies in so they’re undetected. And the more veggies they eat, the more they will become accustomed to their taste and texture.
Tip #4: Offer new foods first, and in smaller portions.
Kids are often the most hungry at the start of a meal. And the hungrier they feel, the less fussy they are likely to be. So try and offer them a bite of broccoli or Brussels sprouts early. Try mixing a bite with mashed potatoes or a meat dish. When offering a new food, give your kid a small portion. Small bites can help them become accustomed to a different flavor or texture, and then they can quickly move on to the more familiar foods on their plate.
Tip #5: Keep trying.
If your kid rejects a food today, they may still eat it later. Offer a new but rejected food again in the future. It can take a kid’s taste buds awhile to get used to something new, but at some point, they may accept it. Even adults have foods that are acquired tastes. And when re-offering a rejected food, don’t give your kid snacks before meal time. Make sure they are good and hungry and try again.
Tip #6: Don’t sweat it if your kid refuses to eat something.
In the end, refusing a certain food isn’t that big a deal. Most parents get scared when their kid refuses to eat because they fear their kid will develop poor nutrition. However, this fear may be the opposite of what’s really going on. Your kid has natural hunger and satiation queues, regulated by the hypothalamus. Sometimes if the body has a deficiency they may crave certain foods. For example, people who crave citrus fruit may need more vitamin C, or those who crave red meat may need more iron in their diets.
So when it comes to eating, bodies have their own mysterious logic hidden from our conscious minds. And research shows that picky eating does not affect a young child’s growth. So relax. This behavior is not uncommon, and your picky eater is going to be fine.