I admit to being picky eater. Recovering picky eater. (I try). Between my own pickiness and my time counseling parents of little kids, I see that picky habits are easy to start early in life. All kids are different and have different needs. Luckily, there are a few things that I tend to see over and over again. Given that, here are my very best tips for picky little ones:
- Keep all foods on the menu
I see parents often remove items from the menu once a child says no to it. Please keep a few things in mind. First, “I don’t like it” may mean something else. Little kids are still learning to communicate. They may mean “I don’t want that today.” Or possibly “I was expecting this to be something else.” Have you ever taken a big gulp of a drink that was something other than what you thought it was? Just the other day I took a big ole swig of what I thought was water. Turns out, it was tea. I love tea, but it tasted like garbage because I was expecting water. Little kids don’t know how to properly express these feelings. Second, it can take several tries of introducing a new food before kids really accept them. Don’t give up too soon. Finally, they may not like how it was prepared. Which brings me to tip #2.
- Vary your cooking
I grew up hating broccoli. Turns out, I just hate the way my mom makes it. She steams it super soft, then puts lemon juice on it. I now love broccoli. I just need it tender crisp (sautéed or roasted) with some garlic. Yum! Little kids don’t understand that cooking methods and seasoning choices change the taste and mouthfeel of food. Help them learn that cooking is a creative outlet and foods can taste new by changing how you prepare them.
- Get them involved
When you involve your kids in the process, they own it. Then they are more likely to eat it. I know what you’re thinking. “But Stacy, I can barely scrape dinner together. You want me to add my kids to that hot mess?” Make it work for you. Maybe it’s taking them to the store and asking them to pick out one item for dinner. Maybe it’s naming the dish after them. Depending on their age and skill level, maybe it means having them wash it or put it in a bowl for you. Try making a game out of it. Take them to the produce section and ask them to pick out something red for dinner. Or maybe give them the choice of two side items. Make a big deal of it. Announce you bought carrots because your little one picked it out.
- Offer only one new food at a time
And serve it with something familiar. It can be overwhelming for little ones if they don’t recognize anything at the meal. If their current favorite is apples, serve that with a new veggie. They are more likely to accept new foods this way.
- Utilize resources
There are a ton out there. Ellyn Satter is the gold standard for pediatric feeding. Her website is a great place to visit. Fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org has a section just for getting kids to eat more fruits and veggies. Kidshealth.org is MyPlate for kids, and it has great information also.
- Resign as short order cook
Your family eats what is on the menu. Maybe you have days that you clean out the fridge and the plan is for everyone to choose their favorite leftover, or something similar. Otherwise, everyone has the same choice. When you short order cook for your kids, they learn to only want what sounds good in that moment. I don’t know about you, but that is a major struggle in my life. Sometimes, you can’t really tell what sounds good in that moment. Cue the what’s for dinner argument. “I don’t know, what do you want?” This phrase makes me feel frustrated just typing it. Let them know what’s on the menu so they are ready for it. What do you do when they ask for something else? You can tell them that sounds good, but it’s not on the menu today. Maybe you can add it another day.
- Be a good example
If the kids see you turn your nose up at a food, they will too. Monkey see, monkey do. Just like they will repeat every word you say, they will pick up on what they observe about food. When I was a kid, I thought diet coke was for girls and regular coke was for boys. My mom only drank diet and my dad only drank regular. Smile big when you eat those veggies, little eyes are watching.
- Forget preconceived ideas about food
When my niece was a baby, her favorite food was tofu. Yes, tofu. Her parents often ate at a nearby sushi restaurant. When she started eating solids, they needed something she could eat. The cook would prepare the tofu used for the miso soup for her. No one told her tofu was gross, so she didn’t know it was weird or yucky. She liked it coated in crushed up Gerber Puffs. (We figured that out after a baggie got smooshed in the diaper bag. She loved it.)
- Allow food to be experienced
It’s okay to let kids experience foods without eating, especially new foods. Forcing food down the throat of a screaming kid is traumatic for everyone involved. Instead, talk about it. Tell them the name and point out things about it. For example, name the color, discuss the texture, and so forth. Let them feel it, smell it, look at it. You can even have them touch the food to their mouths. This allows them to get acquainted with it. Keep the portions small to avoid waste and keep them from getting overwhelmed.
- Know you are doing your best
If you can say you are doing your best, then rock on. Every day will not be perfect. Sometimes you will have to pick your battles. And that’s okay. Cut yourself some slack on the days you have PB & J for dinner. We are all human. We all need a little grace.