If feeding your family is driving you crazy — perhaps you have a picky eater who is less than enthusiastic about trying your healthy homemade meals — it’s time to jump into the mealtime driver’s seat and take control of the wheel. On this week’s Cooking with the Moms podcast, we explore the science of picky eating with dietitian Maryann Jacobsen from the blog, Raise Healthy Eaters. Maryann recently wrote a comprehensive 5-part series on Picky Eaters (it’s a great read!) and she joins us this week to discuss why kids are picky (it can be perfectly normal), common mealtime mistakes parents make, and picky eater solutions. As you read this post, you’ll notice some adorable photos of little kids eating, cooking, and enjoying an array of healthy foods. The photos were taken by some of the volunteer families who tested recipes for our new cookbook, No Whine with Dinner.
Who knew fruit could be so much fun to eat. Three-year old Faith tries the Fruity Chicken Kebabs from No Whine with Dinner as her mom, Kelly (a professional photographer … if you hadn’t already noticed) takes the shot.
Why are Children Picky?
- They are not as hungry as they were when they were babies. Growth slows down after the age of two. From age two to puberty, children gain an average of 4.5 – 6.5 pounds per year. Compare that to year one when their body weight triples.
- Food neophobia: Fear of new foods peaks between the ages of two and four. Children are biologically skeptical of new foods.
- Quest for control: When children start to establish a sense of autonomy, they want some say in the matter … and mealtime can be the perfect time to have their say.
- Supertasters: About 25% of children are especially sensitive to flavors and textures. As a result, certain vegetables taste downright terrible (most outgrow this … so don’t worry).
The teriyaki sauce in our Teriyaki Snow Peas and Carrots adds a nice sweet flavor which clearly makes two-year old Kyle happy!
Common Mistakes Parents Make
- Short-order cooking: What it says to the child is, “I don’t expect you to learn to eat a variety of new foods and meals.”
- Pushing vegetables: The goal should be to get kids to “like” their veggies … not just “eat” them.
- Labeling kids as picky.
- Asking kids “what” they want to eat.
Picky Eater Solutions
First and foremost, you’re not alone. When we first decided to do this show and blog post, we posted a question to our Facebook page asking fans to share their experience feeding picky eaters. Here’s what Amy M. had to say: “Boy, I’m glad to see with these posts I am not alone! After reading about all of the kids who liked quinoa in a previous question (mine won’t touch it) I was afraid my kids were odd. Now I see that some pickiness is normal. My 7-year old is my picky eater who is afraid of trying new things, though I can see this getting a little bit better as he has gotten older.”
There are several ways to take the battle out of mealtime. The first is to stick with the following “division of responsibility” framework: As a parent or caregiver, it’s your job to decide what the family will eat, when they will eat, and where they will eat. The child’s job is easy because all he/she has to do is decide how much of the food to eat. Having clear roles and expectations sets the stage for a more manageable mealtime. It’s also important to give children ample opportunity and time to like new foods. It’s best to avoid pressuring kids to try new foods (children will eat less when pressured) or conversely, withhold foods (kids eat more when they feel food is scarce). Other strategies …
- Make healthy foods highly accessible and attractive.
- Serve fruits and veggies at the start of the meal when kids are the most hungry.
- Pair new items with old standbys.
- Eat together as a family and role model good eating habits.
- Don’t nag kids to eat their fruits and veggies.
- Have the children help with meal planning and preparation.
One of our tiny taste testers adds cinnamon topping to our blueberry muffins.
Facebook Fans Weigh in on Picky Eater Challenges AND Solutions
“The biggest trigger in our house is the reaction of the other siblings. If one of the older ones makes a negative comment, the others follow. But, progress is being made! I served Cobb Salad for dinner last night and my 14-year old decided to try (and liked) the blue cheese, and the 11-year old tried putting tomatoes on his salad, and did not die! I just keep offering foods that the kids think they hate, and eventually they come around. They KNOW I’m a good cook, so when they see the husband and me enjoying our food, they want to try it as well.”
“Sometimes I think my 6-year old does it for no other reason than to exert her power to choose. There are so many things in her life that she has no control over. I say that because her likes/dislikes fluctuate so widely day to day that I think a lot of it is situational. It helps so much to ask for her opinion … having her help plan the meals, letting her assemble her own salad … things like that.”
“We had a picky eater for about two and a half years in our house. Our second son (out of four kids) refused many foods between the ages of five and eight (we just recently got out of it). The way I dealt with it? I just pretended he wasn’t picky. He was served the same food as everyone else. I reassured myself that eventually he would eat (and he did – in small amounts). Now, he is older and more in control of his destiny. He has more responsibilities at home and at school and I’ve noticed that he just doesn’t refuse food like he used to. Even though he still takes only one to two bites of strong flavored food (as required), he pretty much eats what our family eats. Just live in denial of a picky eater — pretend that he/she is the same — and most of the time they outgrow it!”
“For my daughter, who is 20-months old, if she’s trying something new I’ll put it near her, maybe not necessarily on her plate, but within her reach. I tell her something positive about it (‘so and so really likes this’ or ‘it’s delicious’), and then I walk away and not obviously watch her. She often reaches for it and tries it. She may not like it but I don’t feel comfortable forcing her to eat it (who wants someone shoving a fork full of food in their face?). I let her make her own decision about when to eat it and if she wants it near her.”
“I let my kids taste anything they want (safety considered of course) while I’m cooking. I wish I had photos of the baking soda taste. Anyway, they are more likely to taste it at meal time if they have tasted the ingredients and seen it come together. I also tell them they can’t have certain things at the table because I don’t like to share (like broccoli). Funny how much more they want when they can’t have it! Since your interview with Tyler Florence I have also started roasting veggies more. I add a little cheese to make it crunch. Yum for everyone.”
> Raise Healthy Eaters 5-Part Picky Eaters Series.
> Picky Eater Makeover tips from The Meal Makeover Moms.
> Easy Meals to Cook with Kids by Julie Negrin, MS.
> Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter, MS, RD.
> What’s Cooking with Kids blog post on Training Toddlers to Become Better Eaters.
> Adult pickiness: No Age Limit on Picky Eating, Wall Street Journal
> Duke University, The Food F.A.D. Study (Finicky Eating in Adults)
** Some children are extremely picky, and they only accept a very limited number of foods (often white-colored foods). This “selective eating” may require intervention from a team of feeding specialists. To read more about “selective eating,” check out Part-1 of Maryann’s series.
If you have a picky eater solution that’s worked wonders in your household, please share it here!