Picky eaters are common. Most kids go through a picky eating phase from age 2– 4, and many continue to be picky eaters well into their teens. That doesn’t make it any less stressful for parents. It’s hard to come up with balanced, healthy meals for kids who refuse to eat more than a few foods.
Luckily, there’s much you can do broaden your kids’ palates and, in the process, turn them into adventurous eaters. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Make a variety of foods available
The first and most important thing is to make a variety of foods available.
Clinical child psychologist Dr. Britt Evans said,“Continuing to offer and serve a variety of foods to your child (without demanding that they eat them) will increase your child’s familiarity with the food and make it more likely that they eat it over time.”
Simply put, the more often your kids see certain foods at mealtime, the more likely they are to give those foods a try one day.
Making foods available doesn’t just mean serving them at mealtime. You can also keep a variety of cut-up fruits and vegetables in clear containers in the front of the refrigerator, or keep fruits in a bowl on the kitchen counter so that the kids see them and may reach for them.
“It’s much easier to encourage a varied diet when options are visible and easily accessible,” Evans said
Mix up your weekly meal plan
It’s also a good idea to mix up your weekly meal plan, said Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, a major parenting site.
“Challenge yourself to plan a different lunch and dinner for every day during the week,” McCready said. “By doing this, children won’t automatically assume, ‘It’s lunchtime. That means I have a PB&J,’ or ‘It’s dinner time. We always have Mac & Cheese.’”
The point is that when you mix up the meals, you challenge your kids’ habits of expecting certain foods. In turn, this will make them more likely to try some new ones. Ideally, McCready said, “by showing your children your kitchen produces a wide variety of dishes, they’ll learn to enjoy whatever food has been prepared.”
Structure meal and snack times
It’s important to make a variety of foods available and accessible, but so is having structured meal and snack times. If you allow your kids to snack whenever they feel like it, chances are that they’re not going to be that hungry at meal time and won’t try any new foods. They may even wait out the meal and start snacking again as soon as the meal is over.
“Establishing a regular schedule of meals and snacks is an effective way to help your child feel hungry at mealtimes and increase the likelihood that they accept more foods,” Evans said.
Registered Dietician Jennifer Anderson puts it even more pointedly, “open the kitchen at certain times. Then close the kitchen when snack time or mealtime is over.”
Encourage tasting over eating
Encourage your kids to taste a variety of foods but don’t force them to finish those foods down to the last bite. Our taste buds evolve over time, but this happens slowly, so it can easily backfire if you expect too much too soon. In fact, tasting is an important skill in itself.
“As long as kids learn the skill of tasting their food repertoire will increase over time. The more tastes, the more they learn to like certain foods,” Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in kids and nutrition, said.
Evans agrees. She advises parents to ask their kids open-questions like “what do you think?” when they try new foods to get them to reflect on the new experiences instead of making statements like “see, that wasn’t bad” which pressures kids to make a judgment. The point is to help your kids slowly get used to new foods instead of forcing them to decide right away whether they like them or not.
Praise them for trying new foods
Whenever your kids try a new food, heap a lot of praise on them and reward them for their efforts. Research shows that verbal praise and rewards are successful at getting picky eaters to venture beyond their comfort zone.
“In general, immediate and frequent rewards work best, so think about things you could award your child for trying a new food or eating something that isn’t their favorite, such as 10 minutes of screen time immediately after dinner or a sticker on a chart right away for a younger child,” Evans said.
… Ignore it when they don’t
When the kids refuse to try a new food, ignore it rather than chastise them which is only going to make them feel bad and less likely to try those foods again in the future.
“For example, if your child is complaining about having to eat broccoli but is sitting nicely at the table, you can ignore their comments and instead let your child know that they’re doing a great job staying seated at the dinner table. Over time, behaviors that you praise should increase and behaviors that you ignore should diminish,” Evans said.
Involve the kids in meal preparation
Kids are so busy with school, extra-curricular activities, and homework that it can be difficult to find the time for them to help you out in the kitchen. Nevertheless, try to involve them in meal preparation, even if it’s just one day during the week, or on weekends. Experts agree that few things entice a picky eater to try new foods more than having been involved in making those foods themselves.
As Rachel Ehmke of the Child Mind Institute puts it, “most kids are more eager to take a bite if they picked the ingredients and stirred the sauce themselves.”
Helping to prepare the meal creates a sense of ownership that makes it more tempting to at least try the fruits of their labor.
Model non-picky eating
It should go without saying but, if you want your kids to eat a variety of foods, you need to be an adventurous eater yourself.
“If you model enjoying a variety of foods, your children are more likely to learn to eat and enjoy those foods as well,” Evans said.
Also talk to your kids about what makes those foods appealing to you.
“Describing the sensory qualities of the food (look, texture, smell, taste) can be helpful in teaching kids about new, healthy foods and making them more interested in trying them,” Evans said.
You can also be a role model for your kids by trying food that you didn’t use to enjoy. “Try a food you haven’t liked in the past and explain that you’re giving it another chance because your tastes may have changed,” Ehmke suggests.
This will make your kids wonder whether their taste buds have changed, too.
Try, try – and try again
No picky eater becomes an adventures one overnight but it can happen if you’re patient and persistent. Research shows that for picky eaters, a new food must be presented and tasted an average of 6-15 times before they fully accept it. Unfortunately, many parents give up much earlier – after only 2 or 3 tries.
“So, if your child doesn’t like a new food on the first try, don’t give up,” Evans said. “That just means it’s important to keep trying it. Keep serving it and encourage your child to keep trying because they’re still getting used to it.”