Anxious Toddlers invited Pediatrician, Dr. Orlena Kerek to shed some light on how to help picky eaters:
What is the most frustrating thing about parenting? I’m sure you can think of lots of things but children refusing to try new foods has to be high up the list.
You lovingly prepare a new and exciting meal, made up of all of their favorite foods. Triumphantly you place your master piece on the table waiting for a round of applause. Instead, you’re met with groans of “yuck!” and “disgusting.” If you have toddlers, there’s a high chance they’ll fling the offending item across the room.
My oldest son has a long long list of things that he “doesn’t like.” Eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes. We live in Spain. We eat tomatoes every single day. He refuses to even try yucky slimy tomatoes.
It is beyond frustrating. You want to scream and shout, cajole and bribe.
But it won’t do any good.
So what went wrong? Are you a bad parent for trying to offer healthy variety to your kid’s diet?
No. Actually, it’s great to offer your kids variety. The more different things you offer them, the more different things they’ll eat.
Nothing went wrong. You’re not a bad parent and your child isn’t suffering from anything more than being a normal child.
Children do not like new things. New things are scary and strange and not to be trusted. (There’s a theory that fear of unknown foods is a survival instinct that stopped cave men toddlers from eating the wrong sort of red berries.) In fact, most adults don’t like new things. What would you do if someone offered you a plate of grass hoppers for lunch?
Of course, all children are different. Some children are happy to try new things and some are very very resistant. There are many factors that come into play, your child’s personality, their intrinsic likes and dislikes, including whether they find texture an issue.
Most children DO find textures an important aspect of their food. Very young children find woody textures such as cabbage uncomfortable and difficult to chew. Lots of children struggle with “slimy,” such as eggplant and mushroom.
Also kids confuse the word “like” with “I don’t know it.” They say “yuck, I don’t like it!” when they actually mean “I’m not familiar with it.”
So what can you do to restore mealtime happiness to your family?
1. Be Patient and Persistent.
Don’t give up on healthy foods just because your kids aren’t keen. It is our job to teach our children to love healthy food. It is our kids’ job to stamp their feet and demand ice cream and chocolate all day. That doesn’t mean they get ice cream and chocolate all day.
2. Don’t Expect them to Like New Food.
Once you understand that they will not like new food, life become much easier. They probably won’t even touch it. That’s normal. Just don’t rely on it for everything they’re going to eat. Present it on the side, or have a healthy dessert to fill up their tummies. Lower your expectations and you’ll find your blood pressure coming down as well.
3. Don’t Pressure Them.
You want to create a “safe eating environment.” The idea is that they try the new food of their own free will and learn to love it. If you pressure them into trying it, there is a high chance that you’ll push them further away. Allow them to spit it out if they don’t like it.
4. It Takes Time.
Your aim is to get food onto the “accepted list.” It can take up to 15 times of actually trying a food to get on to the accepted list. It may take even longer if they’ve had a bad experience. You may also have to present it several times before they actually try it.
5. When it is Familiar they May not Like it.
It can be difficult to untangle those cries of “I don’t like it.” To begin with, it means they aren’t familiar with it. Once they are familiar with it, they may like it, but they may not. That’s fine, there are plenty of healthy vegetables to choose from, they don’t have to like all of them.
6. “You Don’t Have to Eat It!”
I think I must say it about 20 times every meal. Food seems to offend my children just by being in close proximity to them (sometimes it’s not even on their plates). Reassure them that they don’t have to eat it and teach them to leave it politely on the side of their plate. (This will also take time.)
7. Small Portions.
Big and scary is more intimidating than small and scary. Start with a tiny tiny bit. If they don’t touch it, you haven’t wasted much. If they do like it, they can always have more. I use this trick for making soup. (In my children’s eyes, all soup is different as I never follow an exact recipe.) I serve it in a small cappuccino cup, which is actually a reasonable portion for a small child.
8. Be Persistent and Patient.
It’s worth saying twice! It really is the key to helping your children love healthy food. It may not happen overnight. You can’t wave a wand and get your kids to love tomatoes in a weekend. But you can keep presenting them, without pressuring your child to eat them.
One day, they might just decide to try them. They might just decide that they aren’t as slimy or unpleasant as they thought. They might just decide that they are really tasty.
You might just find yourself with an 8 year old who picks out the tomatoes from the salad because he actually likes them. They are now on his “accepted list” and he enjoys eating them.
Eggplant and mushrooms are not on the accepted list and I suspect they never will be but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop cooking them. He is welcome to leave them without even trying them. But he enjoys enough of the other fruit and vegetables and I know that he eats a healthy diet.
Once you realize that presenting new foods to children is a process rather than a one off occasion, you’ll find it much less stressful. Your children may still be frustrating but you won’t expect them to try the new food. But you will keep presenting it so that eventually they’ll make up their minds whether they truly like it or not.
Do you know someone who can benefit from Dr. Kerek’s suggestions? Share this article with them!
About the Guest Author
Dr Orlena Kerek is a pediatric doctor and mother of 4 young children. She writes about child health and is passionate about teaching children to eat a healthy diet as she knows it is one of the keys to a long and healthy life. Her first book, Crunch! Put a Stop to Picky Eating and Help Your Kids Love Veggies explains more about healthy eating and the “how to” get your kids to actually eat their veggies. She also runs an on line video course to help parents help their kids love healthy foods.