Getting a child who is a picky or selective eater to try new foods can turn the dinner table into a battleground. This is especially true when introducing new foods. Of course, kids need to eat a variety of foods from all food groups (fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy/dairy alternatives, and healthy fats) to grow healthy and strong. But introducing foods like broccoli, tangerines, and meat to a picky eater can be a stressful experience. Both children and parents often find themselves caught in a cycle of failure and frustration, but it doesn't have to be that way. Here are five ways to get healthy foods into your picky eater's diet, without having to hide carrots in their mac and cheese.
Give Them Choices
Most of a child's decisions are made by adults. From what they wear to school to what time they go to bed, children usually don't get much say in what happens. Some cases of picky eating come when a child wants to take control over some of their own decisions. One way to reduce picky eating is to let kids make choices about the foods they eat. Let kids control snack time by serving both carrot sticks and cucumber slices. Or let them pick between strawberries and blueberries for dessert. Consider pairing their choices with a food that you know that they already love. For example, offer a favorite crunchy food like goldfish or pretzels with their choice of vegetable, or a dollop of whipped cream or some chocolate chips with their fruit.
Let Them Help
Giving kids choices is a good way to develop their decision-making and independence. Older children can develop these skills further - and ease their pickiness even more - if they are allowed to help with meal prep. Let them read out recipes while you cook. Let them see the ingredients before you mix them up. Let them chop vegetables (with adult supervision, of course). Any way of getting involved in cooking dinner can get children interested in new foods and more likely to eat them when they're put on their plate.
Be A Role Model
Parents are very familiar with the phrase 'do as I say, not as I do.' But one of the best ways to help a picky eater expand their horizons is to model good eating habits. Include a wide variety of healthy foods in your own diet. Fill your dinner plate with vegetables. Slice up an apple for snack time. Kids look to adults to understand the world around them. If your picky eater sees you chowing down on that broccoli, they'll be more likely to do the same.
Make It Look Good
No one wants to eat food that looks bad. There's a reason people say that the way food looks matters as much as it tastes. Meal presentation plays a major role in how a picky eater reacts to it. Try including a variety of colors on your child's dinner plate. Fruits and vegetables come in a full rainbow of colors which can entice picky eaters to give new foods a try. You can also change up the way you present your child's snacks. Cut fruits and vegetables into fun shapes. Make skewers that mix the foods they like with foods you want them to try. Have fun and get creative. Make mealtimes fun and enjoyable to help please the pickiest of eaters.
Research shows that picky eaters need to be exposed to new foods multiple times before finally learning to love them. If your child doesn't jump for joy the first time you put Brussels sprouts on their plate, don't freak out. Try another strategy, or a new combination of strategies, next time. The most important thing to remember is to keep it positive. Forcing a child to eat food they don't want can reinforce a picky eater's fears and lead them to be even more upset by new foods. If your picky eater just isn't interested in those Brussels sprouts today, keep in mind that there are hundreds of more chances to try again later.
It takes time and patience to help your picky eater learn to try new foods and increase their diet variety. But it is possible! Pick 1-2 of the strategies above to try over the next few weeks. Once you feel like they have been implemented, pick 1-2 more. All children and families are different, so what works for one child may not always work for yours. Keep trying different strategies until you find ones that do work (and you will!). In the mean time, take a deep breath. Have patience. And know that you are doing the best that you can. You’ve got this.
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Hi! I’m Beth Conlon, PhD, MS, RDN
I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a PhD in Clinical Investigation, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Mom of 3 little ones. As a pediatric and family dietitian, I use a gentle approach to help children, adolescents, and adults overcome feeding disorders, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Through individualized care, I help clients optimize their health and improve mealtime enjoyment, while healing their relationship with food and body. Get in touch! Contact | Welcome to FTSN!
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