How to encourage picky eaters to explore food
Is picky eating your new parent’s challenge?
You’ve survived the first months and fed baby all night and day.
You’ve introduced solid foods and survived the mess.
But parenthood has a new surprise for you: your toddler turned into a picky eater!
Are you up for the challenge?
But my kid used to love this!
Even foods that s/he always enjoyed are now a big no-no. The “safe” food you know were accepted and loved are now thrown on the floor…
Maybe your toddler had a bad experience with that food.
Maybe his/her tastes have developed and s/he is more sensitive to subtle flavours… and s/he doesn’t like the new taste.
Maybe his/her perception of certain textures doesn’t feel right anymore.
Or maybe s/he heard some comments that got him/her to reconsider the food in a bad way.
No matter the reason, it’s normal and part of your toddler’s development. Children are born with a preference for salty and sweet foods. They are also born with a bias to reject new foods and flavours, probably as a way to protect themselves from potentially poisonous foods. But in today’s world, these reflects are not as useful and can foster unhealthy diets.
It is also normal that your toddler is developing some preferences (and aversions!) for specific foods. We all have our favourites! The good news is that your family environment is where your toddler will experience the most impactful eating opportunities. Eating behaviours acquired early in life tend to persist in time, and will shape your child’s dietary habits for the rest of his/her life.
Picky eating is somehow part of the normal development of any toddler’s eating behaviours.
Is there hope for my picky eater?
Yes, there is hope that your picky eater will open up to new tastes and foods.
Here are some tricks you can try at home to help your toddler overcome his reluctance for some food.
And since the aversion often arises with “healthy” food like vegetables, fruits and protein sources (right? Never with French fries!), and it happens to be exactly the food items that you stressed about (right? Because they’re good and necessary for good health), our top 10 is applicable for exactly these foods.
1- Serve a balanced plate, at every meal, but don’t comment or pressure your kids to eat any of the components.
Pressure will only create more desire to refuse. Don’t worry about them not eating anything. You cook it and serve it, and that’s it. Your toddler might not touch it at first, but give it time…a lot of time. Repeated exposure (that can be 10-20 times) will lead to make this food “normal” and to eventually get him/her to try it.
Serve a balanced plate, with no pressure to eat all (or any) components.
2- Eat a variety of food yourself.
Make sure you prepare it in a way that you like, and express how good you think they are. Don’t over exaggerate, but be vocal about how good this taste, or how nice is this recipe, or how pleasant this texture is. Peer modelling is a powerful thing! Social influence affects young kids (just like teenagers), and evidence show that toddlers are particularly more likely to try new foods if they see it eaten by a familiar adult. You are that familiar adult who can exerts a positive influence on your child’s eating habit!
Positively influence your toddler to imitate you: eat a variety of food with pleasure
3- Allow yourself to not like all food, but still cook and serve them to your family.
It is okay for anyone to not like ALL the food ALL the time. You can also model that to your toddler. Food preferences are not universal and should be respected. How do we behave when we don’t like a food that is served to us? What do we say? Do we have to force ourselves to eat it ? (no.) This is an important part of learning to eat that you also want to teach your kids:they don’t have to love every foods and that is ok.
It is okay to not love all food, and no one has to eat something s/he doesn’t like.
4- Offer a variety of food and cook them in different ways.
We all tend to buy the same food and to cook them in the same way, following our favourite recipes. Offering new food or old ones cooked in a different way just keep things interesting! It is a good strategy to encourage your child’s to discover and try food s/he has never seen before. On top of that, the cooking method can change everything: boiled vs roasted chicken, sautéed vs steamed veggies, etc.
Challenge yourself to cook new food and to use new cooking techniques
5- Pair the new/disliked food with a favourite.
This can be reassuring for young eaters, as it provides a reference point, something they recognize and love. A good trick is a dip for cut veggies. If you include some new veggies in the mix, the dip is something they know and something that is fun (and tasty – who doesn’t like dip!). Carrots, cucumber, zucchini, kohlrabi, cauliflower, peppers, bite size tomatoes, broccoli, celery, radishes, or anything you’ve got handy, with a dip made of plain yogurt, lime juice, fresh basil or parsley, salt and pepper. Put that on the table while you cook dinner, and before you know the plate will be empty!
Pairing a new food with an old favourite is a reassuring approach for young eaters.
6-Involve your kids in the choosing what to eat.
Whether it is at the grocery store or during meal prep at home, ask them for recipes, ideas, and what they feel like eating or buying this week. Make them feel needed and in charge. They are more likely to try something that they chose.
Get these kids involved! No decision is too small for your toddlers. What to buy, what to cook, which plate to serve it on – get them to decide.
7- Make it a game.
Suggest that everyone in your family comes up with a new recipe. Guide them to a website for inspiration (Ours would be Ricardo! Ricardocuisine.com). This one is a big hit every time: chicken and cauliflower mac’n’cheese.
Keeping it light and fun can encourage your kids to be more adventurous at the family table.
8- Do not trick them to eat something they don’t want to.
Do not hide or lie. That would be a bad experience for them. Because they will eventually know. But furthermore, that sends the message that eating healthy food (think vegetables) needs to be lied about… You want your toddller to love to eat food! You don’t want to have to hide and lie for the next 15 years, don’t you?
Don’t hide food and trick your kids into eating stuff they don’t want to. It is not serving anyone well: that simply reinforces that healthy food are not worth being enjoyed for what they are.
9- Be patient.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. They’re young. Don’t worry too much about every meal. You are teaching them that healthy eating is delicious, pleasant, and normal. You are teaching them to respect their bodies, to eat what they want and to eat when they are hungry.
It is all about teaching them to love to eat. It cannot be done in one single meal.
10- Acknowledge the good, ignore the bad. We want to associate meal time with pleasant time. Enforce your family rules and let go of the rest.
Emphasis should go on making family meals pleasant for everyone.
One extra tip!
11- Involve your kid in cooking.
That is a little bit more work for you (so choose your moment!), but it works EVERY TIME! Depending on their age and cooking skills, get them to either pick up stuff from the fridge, mix and stir, or cut ingredients following a recipe. Kids who have been involved in preparing a recipe are more likely to eat it. And it teaches them some essential cooking skills that are useful for the rest of their life.
Getting kids cooking is a good way to get them to try new flavours
Birch LL. Learning to eat: behavioral and psychological aspects. In Preventive Aspects of Early Nutrition 2016 (Vol. 85, pp. 125-134). Karger Publishers.
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