If you’re a parent of small children (or, let’s face it, any children), you know the posture well: the arms cross, the nose crinkles, the mouth clamps furiously shut, and the distrustful stare begins. This is a common reaction from kids who don’t want to eat the food placed in front of them. Whether it’s Brussels sprouts, broccoli, fish, or fowl, some kids have a very particular palate.
Picky eaters resist many familiar foods, while others may completely reject new foods. The rejection of unknown foods, known as food neophobia, is often associated with poor dietary quality.
Not every picky eater has a poor diet, but it’s still important to help your kids consume the nutrients necessary to function and thrive. Children (as well as adults) may become deficient in key nutrients if they avoid many of the foods that provide vitamins and minerals.
If you want to help your little ones expand their food horizons, here are some ways to encourage them.
1. Set a good example.
If you won’t eat spinach, it’s unlikely your 5-year-old will even touch it. Be a good role model! Serve and eat a healthy variety of foods. If you have good eating habits, such as enjoying nutritious snacks, eating together at the table, and not skipping meals, your kids are more likely to follow suit.
2. Try some variety.
Though it can be tough between busy schedules and endless to-do lists, Try not to get caught in a food rut with only your family favorites on repeat. Add to your list of favorites to make things less repetitive. Get creative with new recipes, or replace ingredients with something different, like quinoa instead of rice. You could introduce “new food Friday” or a similar tradition that celebrates experimentation with a new vegetable or ethnic cuisine once a week.
3. Make it fun.
One of the best ways to get kids to try something new is to make it fun! Jazz up plain veggies by offering them with hummus, salsa, or yogurt-based dressings. Let kids make their own personal pizzas with fresh tomatoes and peppers or add toppings to baked potatoes, such as broccoli and asparagus.
4. Plant a garden.
Getting in the dirt, watering seeds, watching plants grow, and harvesting the bounty are great learning experiences for kids. When they see where their food is coming from, they may be more interested in eating the tasty results of their hard work and nurturing.
5. Get them involved.
Encourage children to create their own healthy menu. Then, take them to the store to help pick groceries, and let them help cook the meal. If children become involved in choosing or preparing meals, they may be more interested in eating what they’ve created. Bonus: they’ll gain important new skills in the process!
If you are dealing with a picky eater, you may need to serve a new food many times before it is accepted. Offering new or disliked foods in a positive, supportive environment may lead to acceptance, and eventually your child may even like them. If kids are pressured to eat something, it may result in the opposite effect. Never force children to eat something, but ask them to at least try one bite.
When you’re introducing new food habits in your family, keep a couple things in mind:
- Set expectations ahead of time. When kids know what’s going to happen, they will often try to push the boundaries less than when they didn’t expect it. Instead of a battle of wills around food, now it’s a battle of wills around the expectations you set – a generally better outcome.
- Be consistent. When you say you’re going to do or enforce something, follow through! They may not jump right in to asparagus and quinoa, but follow through with what you’ve set the expectations at. Some example include:
- "You need to try a “no thank you” bite of everything on your plate before you have seconds."
- "You don’t have to eat anything on your plate, but you’re not getting something else instead."
- "You don’t get dessert unless you’ve had 2 bites of this new dish."
- Keep it up! Don’t give up if your kiddos aren’t loving the new foods in week one. You know what’s best for them – and healthy foods are important. Keep up the great work and they’ll learn quickly.
When you go grocery shopping, be mindful of what you are buying. Keep junk food out of the house (or out of easy reach), and instead keep it stocked with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.
If you are still concerned about your child’s limited diet and nutrient intake, consider chewable supplements to fill nutritional gaps.*
Be patient and stick with it! Nutrition is a lifelong practice that we all need to work on every day.