5 Effortless Tricks for Inspiring your Picky Eater

Photo Credit @juliaannlien

I’m sure you’ve been there. Standing in front of the fridge, doors wide open, scanning feverishly for something – anything – to put in their mouths and keep the peace. But OH MY GOSH. Chicken nuggets, again? How could they possibly want to ingest another one of those Louisiana-shaped pieces of meat?

You decide to let the kids in on the decision. “What do you guys want for dinner?” In joyous unison you hear them chant back “MAC AND CHEESE!!” You close the fridge, open the pantry, and one of 16 boxes of Mac and Cheese smiles back at you. You shrug your shoulders and sigh, “I guess we’re doing this again.”

If your kids only like to eat a few different things, and they are happy to eat them repeatedly, they’re not alone – and neither are you!

Fussy or picky eating is normal in young kids and toddlers. New colors, new textures, new smells … they are discovering many things for the first time, and that can be intimidating and create some uncertainty. But beyond that, young children and toddlers are very much into repetition. It’s how they make sense of the world at their age, and repetition in their food preferences is not abnormal.

1. Exposure is everything.

Nutrition science research suggests that it takes kids up to 12 exposures to any given food to put it in the category of food they “like”. Exposure literally means any time a kid gets exposed to food. An exposure might be looking at a food in the serving dish, listening to a parent talk about eating it, helping prepare the food, feeling the food or trying a nibble of the food. 

I don’t know about you, but when I read that, I was surprised by the number 12! I was also reminded of all the things I’ve probably offered my kids once or twice, and then gave up on because their first interaction wasn’t a positive one. Have you given up on something too soon as well? What foods can you work back into the rotation to give your kids some more exposure?

In addition to exposure, what else can we do to make sure our kids are getting a variety of foods and nutrients in their diet?

2. Serve right-sized portions.

We often overestimate how much food our kids should eat. If you’re seeing piles of food in the garbage after dinner every night, it may be time to reduce those portion sizes! When it comes to new food, a tablespoon or two is plenty.

 One creative idea I’ve seen out there is using a muffin tin, or something similar, to house snacks or meals. You can put small amounts of various types of food in each slot, giving your kid exposure, options, and a fun device to eat from. Include new and familiar foods in a variety of colors, textures and smells. This will make the sensory experience even more satisfying for your little ones.

picky eater

Photo credit: @keepingup_withemme

3. No negotiating.

For some kiddos, mealtime becomes a negotiation session from the start, and parents have been using dessert as an incentive for decades. The problem with this approach, is that it doesn’t encourage healthy eating. Instead, it can create the impression that treats and dessert are the endgame, and more valuable than the meal itself. Prepare and serve healthy meals, and then let them decide whether they’ll eat, what they’ll eat, and how much to eat.

 And what happens if they don’t eat anything you’ve offered? It will be hard, but don’t make them a separate meal. When we cater to a child’s picky preferences, we don’t give them a reason to try a new food. They won’t starve! If they’re hungry, they’ll eat something.

4. Prioritize family meals.

It can be a challenge for many families with busy schedules to make eating together, at the table, a consistent thing. But studies show that it’s good for kids to see their parents and siblings eating together, and they’re more likely to consume healthier options with regular family meals. Remember to be positive when putting new foods on the table and show your kids how much you like and enjoy the foods you’re asking them to eat.

picky eater

Photo credit: @stephamberlynn

5. Try new foods with friends!

It might seem strange, but you wouldn’t believe how many kids I’ve gotten to eat their veggies when they come over for a playdate. In general, kids like to mimic what they observe around them. If Bobby is eating his broccoli like it’s no big thing, little Billy will probably try his, too.

In summary, exposure is key at this age! Getting the foods in front of them is the first step.

And the truth is, the average person has about 10,000 taste buds, and they’re replaced about every two weeks. So, don’t give up on those brussels sprouts. Little Johnny maybe didn’t like them last month when you tried them – but who knows what this month could hold!

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