Five Ways to Get Your Picky Eater Trying New Foods
By: Sarah Lambersky
“I don’t like that.” “I want it on the side.” “It’s too spicy!” (read: salty, sour, bitter, hot, cold, mushy, hard, smelly, gooey, crunchy or chewy). Meal time complaints are disharmony to a chef’s ears. Parents of picky eaters, rejoice! The behavior lovingly referred to as ‘picky,’ can be curbed.
While a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals genetics explains why some kids fear new foods, social and cultural forces also impact how kids learn about eating. Before you throw in the dishtowel and blame picky eating entirely on genetics, here are a few points to consider on the nurture side.
Culture, geography and family values impact your tyke’s willingness to try new food. So, if you are sick of hearing “I don’t like that”, why not adopt a different set of food rules around your table and re-write the narrative of what your children eat? In her engagingly funny book “French Kids Eat Everything”, Karen Le Billon shares her family’s experiences in adopting local food rules when they move to France. While in France, Karen’s two young daughters change from picky to adventurous eaters. What is the secret to raising kids to eat strong cheeses or any cheese over and above the shiny, orange, plastic-y squares or small red waxed wheels? If people in Thailand learn to snack on grasshoppers and crickets, people in Mexico learn to eat chocolate covered bugs and people in China learn to eat, roasted, skewered scorpions, then kids must start somewhere if they eventually learn to eat such protein sources. Of course, not everyone in Thailand, Mexico or China eats insects. Neither is it necessary to raise kids to eat like chef Andrew Zimmern in his show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. However, awareness of diverse cultural practices when it comes to socializing kids to eat, may offer new ideas as a starting point at home.
1. Baby-Led Weaning
If you are getting ready to embark on the food teaching journey and have a baby at home, Baby-Led Weaning is an excellent approach. BLW suggests introducing solid foods where baby is encouraged to self-feed finger foods (batons) instead of being spoon feed purées. Nothing is blended and passively fed to baby. Instead baby eats what the family eats from day one, which means no secondary or special meal preparation. A major bonus!
2. Little Chefs
If your children are beyond the stages of Baby-Led Weaning involve them in all aspects of dining: shopping, cooking and presenting food. When kids are offered the chance to be contributors to a meal instead of ‘guests’, they are more likely to eat. Food preparation with children involves more effort and planning but it pays off in dining dividends. Tasting the fruit of one’s labor, is satisfying at any age. For example, my daughter (under 4 years old) is responsible for making the salad for dinner. She peels and cuts what she can, and I prep the rest of the ingredients. With her shallow salad bowl, she then composes the salad taking handfuls of vegetables we organized together. My daughter takes pride in her creations and happily serves and consumes what she makes.
3. Farm to Table
In addition to getting your little chefs busy in the kitchen, energize their food curiosity by demonstrating where food comes from. Visit farms, farmers’ markets or grow your own food in containers. A visit to the supermarket is certainly convenient and exciting for little ones but sadly, it teaches little with regards to how food gets to your plate. Visually exploring the food trail builds an appreciation toward food.
4. Food-Positive Talk
Another simple yet super important tactic to try at home is to be mindful about how food is referred to in the presence of children. Kids take cues from parents, siblings and peers and model their behavior. If you habitually share your opinion and negatively speak about specific food, tastes or genres of cooking, your kids will mimic and follow your cue. Keeping comments to a minimum is particularly important around young children who look to their parents to help navigate new experiences; food included. When my daughter was learning how to eat, there was a rule at our table: keep negative food opinions to yourself (complain to the chef, not the table if you don’t like something). Otherwise, the minute someone says, “I don’t like….” my daughter would repeat what she heard and refuse to eat, even if it was an item she regularly consumed.
5. Taste Game
Finally, play the taste test game with your picky eater if an ingredient is on the hit list. To play, locate three or four varieties of the taboo item and taste each one. Outside of meal time, put on your detective hats and spend time describing the differences and similarities of each food. Surprise your little one that not all radishes taste the same. Swish and spit if necessary!
To expand your child’s willingness to try new foods and reduce pickiness, don’t give up and keep tasting new things. Each new morsel is a small success and a step in the right direction. Whether dining at home, at someone’s house or at a restaurant, give your child space to own his or her own food experience. Keep your commentary to a minimum. When all else fails, you can always attempt to reason, “at least I am not asking you to eat bugs!”