My son was an amazing eater. His eyes would light up at broccoli and he’d hoard peas. I love to cook, and to my delight, he’d eat almost anything I gave him that wasn’t spicy. Our dinners were gourmet delights and I aimed to please.
And then he turned three.
It’s hard to remember exactly how the change happened, but slowly he began refusing foods or responding to them with disgust. His preferences changed from a rainbow of choices to all foods of beige. Slowly I’ve been transformed from a chef trying any new recipe I loved to just trying to find meals we can all agree on. And even when I find healthy meals we all love, his tastes can change and turn on me again.
What happened to my wonderful eater? How can a parent address this nutritional quandary??
First, it helps to understand what’s really happening with the picky eater. Often times, we parents feel that society will frown upon our picky eater and label us as enablers. Plenty of books and articles out there will tell you what other cultures do, emphasizing that it’s the choices you have made that contribute to your picky eater. They might tell you that you’ve turned yourself into a short order cook, and nothing short of making your kid eat what he’s given or go to dinner hungry will remedy the situation. And while that may work for some people, it can quickly turn dinner into a war zone and ignore your child’s very real experiences.
The truth is, picky eating has a much more complex origin and science has been discovering why. A number of scientific studies have shown us that there is a very real genetic link to picky eating. To complicate matters, the development of taste changes throughout childhood. Young children have almost three times the number of taste buds that adults have. Their experiences with food are dramatically different than the adult’s due to the natural heightened sensory experiences of childhood. Certain flavors, like bitter and sour, can be far more profound to your child, limiting their ability to like a number of vegetables and fruits.
Children may be “pre-wired” in order to avoid bitter flavors (which can occasionally mean “toxic” in the plant world) and focus on energy rich foods (like starches) for a better chance of survival. So, while parental behaviors can influence these natural factors, we cannot forget that while nurture is important, nature plays a vital role as well.
So, how can we gently and respectfully guide our picky eaters to make the healthiest choices, get enough nutrition, and eat enough of the best foods when they are so often programmed to work against us?
Talk about nutrition
Giving children vocabulary and information about healthy eating habits can help them make better choices. In our house, we talk about which foods are proteins, carbohydrates, sugars, fruits, vegetables, and all the roles those different foods play in our bodies. We talk about how much of those different kinds of foods are vital to our day and when during the day it’s best to choose which foods. This helps children think about food in a more holistic way rather than simply focusing on what tastes best.
Encourage limited variety
While picky eaters may limit what they are willing to eat, they can learn about the importance of variety. They may not like everything, they can be encouraged to choose enough things they like and can change each day. So while you may allow your child limitations, you can encourage variety.
One example of this in our home is vegetables. My son must have five vegetables that he likes and rotates throughout the week so that he’s not eating the same thing every day. If his tastes change and he wants to remove one from the list, he must make the effort to choose another vegetable to put on the list. This can be applied to the number of meals that your child chooses for the week that can be rotated, number of proteins, etc. etc.
Consider your child’s needs as part of the larger meal
You don’t have to cook a different meal for everyone in your family. You also don’t have to make a meal without considering your child’s likes and force him to eat it. Rather, you can work with your child to come up with meals everyone likes, or consider how a single meal can be presented differently to each family member.
In our house, for example, my children prefer vegetables raw. So, when I cook vegetables, I leave some out of the pan. I give my children both the raw and cooked vegetables. If I am making wraps for my husband and I, I might give my children a deconstructed version of the wrap, protein in the wrap but all the other stuff on the side.
If your children prefer simple over complex, consider that when you are cooking. Maybe Mom and Dad prefer Broccoli Mac and Cheese while the little ones prefer mac and cheese with a side of broccoli. Mixing in the broccoli after dishing out the mac and cheese to your picky eater can make one meal work for everyone. Little ways to consider your child’s preferences can go a long way to helping them be comfortable with meal choices.
Expose them to new food choices (and model trying)
While your child may have limitations to their eating habits, it does not mean that you cannot encourage new choices. The more frequent exposure children have to new foods and actually taste those foods, the more likely they will come to enjoy that food. During every meal, you can make sure your child has a certain food you know they like, but then add in ONE new food.
Without force, request that your child try one bite of that food before deciding how he feels about it. Introduce it several times throughout the month, in different ways. Continue to encourage the trying of one bite. Model trying as well. If you are out and about, look for foods or recipes you have not had before, and emphasize to your child that you are going to try it.
Let children participate in meal planning and cooking
Children are much more inclined to eat things when they help prepare them. Sit down with your child and let them help you meal plan for the week. Let them choose what they might want to try that week. Look through recipes with them and look at appetizing pictures. Let your children participate in cooking the evening meal as well. You might find them much more willing to try something while they are cooking than when they sit down at the table. Let their quest for independence drive their willingness to explore.
Keep it fun
Force and punishment can make meal time anxious and ultimately contribute negative emotions to your child’s relationship with food. Fun food names (like X Ray Vision Carrots or Dinosaur Broccoli Trees) or making food pictures on the plate can go a long way to making things more fun. In our house, convincing my son of a food’s “toot-improving” ability can go a long way to getting him to eat certain foods!
You don’t have to fight with your picky eater! You don’t have to send them to bed without supper! A little encouragement, and a little rethinking, can go a long way to help encourage your picky eater to try new things and broaden his list of likes.
This is a guest post written by Anjali from More Than Just Montessori.
Anjali is an American Montessori Society certified educator working closely with primary aged children (2 to 6 years) and their families since 2003 and substitute teaches at her children’s Montessori school. As a faculty member of the Northern Virginia Montessori Institute, she educates future teachers in the language development of young children. Now a mostly stay-at-home mother to her son and her daughter, her approach to parenting credits Montessori philosophy, positive discipline, attachment parenting, gentle parenting, and staying apprised of current research in child development. But, most of all, she’s all about snuggles, modeling kindness, and a warm cup of tea.