3 Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters
From the age of five to seven, my brother survived almost exclusively on plain bagels with cream cheese. Every night he’d look at dinner, wrinkle his nose, and climb out of his chair to go put a bagel in the toaster. (My mom’s rule was: if you wanted something else, you had to make it yourself.) He eventually grew out of it, and grew up (to an impressive 6’2”) and is now a professional cook.
Why am I sharing this? Because dealing with a picky eater is an almost universal experience for parents. It is simultaneously frustrating and worrisome. A combination of “why the h*** won’t my kid just eat the broccoli?!” with “will my child be healthy if they only eat toast?”
Toddlers naturally become pickier around age 2, so there is a window from first-food to first-no to cultivate an interest in a wide variety of foods. In a recent survey of 1,500 US parents with infants or toddlers, we found that nearly 60% of parents prefer to give their child unique or unexpected ingredients to help prevent future picky eating and to get them accustomed to the foods their family is already eating. It’s clear that open, adventurous eating is important to parents.
Here are three research-backed tips to guide your new eater into (hopefully) a less picky future:
Phase in new textures
Infants and toddlers are born with the capacity to accept a wide variety of foods. Studies suggest that the earlier a new food is introduced into the diet, the more likely that infants and toddlers will accept it. Research also suggests that texture plays an important role. Introducing children to a variety of textures (lumpy, crunchy, smooth) before 6 months has the potential to lead to less picky eating later on. For example, if your infant likes pureed carrot baby food, try incorporating some cooked “lumps” of carrot into the baby food first, and you may find the transition to carrot sticks (and other forms) much easier down the line. Of course, whatever you are feeding your child should be age and developmentally appropriate– if your child isn’t ready yet, don’t stress.
Eat the way you want your kid to eat
One of the most important things a parent can do when dealing with a picky eater is model healthy eating behavior. If you want your child to try sweet potatoes that night, make sure to have sweet potatoes on your plate as well. Don’t worry if your little one is still mostly eating purees, just try a little of the food in front of your child, showing that you also eat and like it. And, if your child really doesn’t want to try it, don’t force them. Research shows that kids that are pressured to try new foods are more likely to be picky eaters. Switch to a familiar favorite and try that new food again the next day (or, try mixing in a small amount of the new food).
Try, Try, Again
As infants and toddlers try new foods, it important to introduce new foods one at a time. As children get older, some of these introductions will be met with the familiar “No!” However, you should not be discouraged. Research studies have shown that toddlers are more likely to eat a new food if it is offered repeatedly. One study conducted in the United Kingdom found that children (ages 2-6) who were offered the same food item up to 14 days in a row were 30% more likely to accept the new food. Another study, conducted in the US, revealed that most parents stop offering the offending food after three to five tries. If fourteen is the magic number, most of us are not getting close. So try, try again. And again. And again.
Contributed by: Erin C, Masters Candidate in Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change at Tufts University