Picky eaters can be difficult to cope with. The average American eats two meals and three snacks per day. A picky child may be faced with very limited choices, particularly when going to school or traveling, for foods they like. And picky kids grow into picky adults.
- Our senses give information about food. Unfamiliar smells can trigger a cautionary response to avoid eating spoiled or poisonous food. Similarly, many vegetables contain bitter taste compounds, but bitterness can also signal poison to our instinctive brains. Picky kids may instinctively avoid bitter tastes simply as a defense against poison.
- All children have a heightened instinct to avoid danger. This can be fun for jump scares at Halloween, but it also means that kids are inherently risk-averse until they learn how to manage risk. New foods pose a risk and, for these kids, are to be avoided.
- Humans are naturally drawn to certain types of foods based on biology. Sweet and fatty foods were prized by prehistoric humans because they are high in energy. Salty foods are sought-after because they contain the trace minerals we need to be healthy. Foods with umami tastes contain proteins and amino acids humans need for growth. Picky kids will naturally gravitate to these foods.
Encourage Without Being Overbearing
You have to separate a natural instinct about trying new — and potentially dangerous — things, from defiance. Most kids are not defying you by refusing to eat broccoli. Rather, they have some unarticulated fear about eating it.
Maybe it is giving off a sulfurous smell and has a mushy texture because you overcooked it. Or maybe it is undercooked and still tastes bitter. If you were a prehistoric human and you came across an unfamiliar bitter, sulfurous, mushy mess, you would probably not want to eat it either.
Rather than pushing kids to eat something new, try to find out why they do not like it. Many parents are starting to perform a taste experiment so they have a vocabulary to describe the tastes they do not like.
If the texture is a problem, cook it differently the next time. Or if the appearance turns them off, dress it up. For example, mushy boiled broccoli might go uneaten, but broccoli baked with a little bit of grated cheese and breadcrumbs might become a picky kid’s favorite vegetable dish.
Dessert is a controversial issue. Dessert usually satisfies those basic human instincts for fatty, sugary foods that provided our ancestors the energy they needed to escape from lions. With our sedentary lifestyle, dessert can be a pathway to weight problems and malnutrition.
If you choose to serve traditional desserts like cookies and ice cream, make sure to combine it with physical activity to burn off those calories. Research shows that even light gardening can burn off 330 calories every hour.
An alternative is to redefine dessert. Dessert can also include fresh fruit, yogurt, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, whole-grain crackers, or other healthy snacks. Kids may even prefer a layered yogurt parfait with granola and fresh fruit to other desserts since it has a mix of flavors they like, textures, and just looks fun.
Set a Good Example
Kids will imitate your behaviors. If you eat out at an ethnic restaurant and you throw a fit over the “weird” food, you will probably have that same language and attitude thrown right back at you the next time you serve kids something they do not want to try.
Being open to new foods is just as important for adults as it is for kids. Exploring the world and learning about different foods, people, and cultures makes us more connected and less isolated. Travel and food go hand-in-hand. When you travel somewhere new, try a local restaurant rather than going back to the same fast-food chain you visit at home.
Encouraging kids to try new food begins with trying new food yourself. Kids respond to a shared experience where you are in the same boat as them. They also respond to positive language like, “this looks fun” or “this will be interesting to try.” Once they see you take a bite of the alligator burger, they may be willing to try it too.
Make it Fun
There is an old saying that we eat with our eyes first. In other words, if the food does not look appetizing, our brain tells us it will not taste good. The converse is that if the food looks fun and interesting, even picky kids will be open to trying it.
Fun dinnerware, like colored spoons and plates, can be a start. Then look at what you can do with the food you prepare. A kid that does not eat vegetables might respond to carrot coins instead of an intimidating pile of mush. Likewise, planting broccoli trees in a kid’s mashed potatoes might encourage a kid to at least sample what a tree tastes like.
You can also mix lessons in with your eating habits. Teach kids which foods are healthy and unhealthy and that they need to eat foods of different colors. You can even add in counting the 50 licks it takes to finish an ice cream cone.
Kids are more likely to try foods they helped prepare. Part of this is instinctual: there is less anxiety about trying new food when kids know what went into it. And part of this is customization. If kids like bacon, having them add bacon to the salad can make them want to try the salad.
Moreover, recipe websites always have beautiful food pictures to make your mouth water. When you are deciding what to make for dinner, let kids look at the pictures and pick a recipe. Some websites even help you build a shopping list and order ingredients. U.S. e-commerce revenue is about $423.3 billion and groceries are a growing part of that revenue.
Having a kid who is a picky eater does not need to turn every meal into a power struggle. What we eat is one of the few things we have 100% control over. Encouraging, rather than fighting or bribing, will help kids develop healthy habits and learn that food can be more than just fuel. It can be the pathway to learning about people, places, and cultures.