Wondering what you can do to raise kids not to be picky?
When I was 5, I ate a grand total of about six foods including plain pasta (no cheese, sauce, or butter), apples with no skin, and Honey Nut Cheerios. I have very vivid memories of sitting at the kitchen table long after dinner time had passed, staring my cold meat and potatoes and trying to work up the will to choke down a bite.
Today, I watch all four of my kids scarf down their dinner night after night and wonder: what did I do differently than my parents? Did I just get lucky by chance? Or is it possible to raise kids not to be picky eaters?
Of course, it could just be a complete coincidence that my children love eating a wide variety of foods. A sample size of four isn’t exactly statistically significant, I realize.
I’m also not a food expert. I do know quite a bit about child psychology though. Enough to make me think there is something to the way I’ve parented my children and their relationship with food.
On the chance that my hunch is correct, I’ll share with you what I’ve done (and haven’t done). It might not work for anyone else, but I certainly don’t think it will hurt.
1: Don’t care
I truly do not care if my kids eat their dinner. I’m not pretending not to care, I TRULY DO NOT CARE.
(Kids are smart, and they know us well. They will know if you’re pretending. So try your best to really just LET.IT.GO.)
My children are all a healthy, average weight. As much as I enjoy seeing them eat whatever I’ve cooked, I also know that eating a meal or skipping a meal won’t have any impact on their overall health. Even if it seems like they’ve eaten nothing all day, they will make up the calories tomorrow.
If they tell me they don’t want to eat what’s on their plate, I say “ok”. And that rarely happens.
The risk of caring too much about your child’s food consumption is that it will turn food into a control battle. It is empowering for a kid to realize they can get their parents worked up simply by not eating. Don’t give them that kind of power.
2: No special meals
In general, I make dinners that are kid-friendly. All varieties of pasta, chicken, steak, pork, hamburgers, and tacos are in our regular rotation. I’m not serving them liver and onions, so I expect them to eat what I’ve made.
They can choose to eat it or not eat it (see #1), but I’m not taking orders if they don’t like what I’ve made.
The reason I don’t do this is for several reasons. First of all, I’m a slacker. It’s enough effort to make one meal, there is no way I’m making four.
Also, I’ve seen far too many kids who go months eating mac and cheese or PBJ EVERY.NIGHT. Truth be told, mac and cheese is my kids’ favorite meal. So if they knew that was an option, they’d be eating it every night too! But I want them to eat meat and vegetables sometimes, so nightly mac and cheese is not an option available to them.
3: Every meal includes a “preferred” food
In our family, fruit is a preferred food. I know it’s one thing they will always eat, so I include it with every meal.
There is usually one other food on their plate I know they will eat too, like rice or pasta, along with the meat and vegetable. This way, if I make something new or something I’m not sure they like, they won’t take one look and cry or run away. They will sit at the table and eat whatever it is off their plate that they like.
We don’t have to worry about the non-preferred food touching and “contaminating” the preferred food, because we use plates with sections likes these:
The other benefit to always including a food they’ll eat with dinner is that you don’t have to worry that they’ll be starving going to bed with nothing in their stomachs. Between the fruit and milk, they are eating something even if they hate the rest of the meal.
4: Use child behaviors to your advantage
Know how kids always want what someone else has? Use this to get them to try new foods!
My kids have eaten pesto, Thai food, sushi, salads, and more by watching me eat it for dinner while they are served something regular and boring, like grilled chicken and rice. They like chicken and rice, but they are VERY interested in what I’m eating.
I purposely act like I’m really not interested in sharing with them (“oh sorry, this is Mommy’s dinner, you have your dinner right there!”). Often times this leads to them BEGGING for a bite. Eventually I give in and allow them a small bite.
I’ve now gotten in their heads and made this an extremely desirable food.
5:Make condiments work for you
My second child isn’t always thrilled about eating meat. But he will eat just about anything that’s covered with ketchup or barbecue sauce.
Yes, they are full of sugar, but think about it this way: it’s easier to get your child accustomed to eating something with their favorite condiment than to try to get them to eat it plain. Then you can always pull back on the amount of sauce they put on it and gradually get them used to the taste of the actual food.
All of these combinations work for us with my four:
- eggs with cheese
- pork with applesauce
- chicken with barbecue sauce
- carrots with ranch dressing
- just about anything with ketchup
As they get older, we can cut down on the condiments and they won’t be afraid of eating the pork or chicken alone since they’ve been exposed to that food for so long.
6: Keep putting the veggies on the plate
Studies show that some kids need to see a food more than ten times before they will decide to try it.
Many parents give up trying after their child refuses a new food once or twice, assuming they just don’t like it. In reality, they need to expose their child to it 8 more times!
I put vegetables on my children’s plate every time I’m serving that vegetable, whether they have previously said they don’t like it or not. They are welcome to leave it on their plate and not touch it. Or, they may choose to give it a little taste. The choice is theirs.
I also make a point to let the kids see me eating that same food, looking happy and talking about how much I like it. Parental influence is real and modeling works.
7: Start at the beginning
If you have older children, it’s obviously too late to go back and re-do the way you introduced your kids to eating. But if you have a baby, this applies to you.
Introducing your baby to solids should be an explorative process that allows the baby to form their own positive relationship with food. Parents need to have patience with the process, and allow the baby to lead the way as much as possible.
While I didn’t fully practice baby-lead weaning, I did introduce food to my babies in a way that was mostly hands-off on my part. I allowed the baby to explore food with their hands and decide how much (if any) they wanted to put in their mouths.
I sometimes spoon-fed my babies purees, but this was mostly when we were out and about and I just needed to give them something quickly without the mess. At home, I would choose 3 baby-appropriate foods and just put them on the tray. The baby would experiment and eat what he or she wanted.
This approach to feeding makes the child the one in control. They aren’t forced to eat something they don’t want to. They think of eating time as a time to discover new textures and tastes.
The approach I would not recommend? Spoon feeding the baby whether they show pleasure in what they’re being fed or not. “Tricking” the baby by showing them one food and then shoveling a different food into their open mouth.
Those types of feeding tactics are short-sighted: they might get the baby to eat a few bites of vegetables today, but they are fostering a negative relationship with food for years to come.
What have you done to raise kids not to be picky?
I’d love to hear your best tips!
Of course some children are incredibly stubborn or have sensory issues that create serious eating issues. For others, these tips might be helpful, or at least take some of pressure off of stressed out parents.
Looking for some great recipes for picky eaters?