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Is Your Kiddo a Picky Eater?

Meal times can be a struggle, especially if your little one refuses to eat certain foods or is reluctant to try something new. It’s difficult not to be concerned that your child is missing out on nutrients essential to development because they want macaroni and cheese for every meal. And no one wants to prepare multiple meals three times a day! How do you navigate mealtime when your child is a picky eater? First, let’s consider what they may be experiencing.

Asserting Their Autonomy

Parents generally determine mealtimes, what is being served, and where meals are being taken. Food is one of the few things your child feels a sense of power and control over. Getting angry or forcing a child to eat something they find unpleasant only discourages them from trying new foods in the future. Similarly, praising a child for finishing the food on their plate, or “rewarding” them with a dessert or treat, incentivizes food, rather than allowing your child to assess if they truly enjoyed their meal or if their hunger is sated. To encourage a healthy relationship with food, make mealtimes more about time together, rather than focusing on the food itself.

A Sensitive Palate

Did you know that children have about 10,000 taste buds, twice the amount adults do? Their palates take in strong flavors and sensations more intensely, so it stands to reason that they practice caution when encountering new foods. Your adult tongue may not perceive a slightly bitter taste or an unpleasant texture your child dislikes. As they get older, and their appetites change, so will their willingness to try different foods.

Food Allergies

Some allergies manifest in obvious physical reactions: stomachaches, hives, bowel issues, itching & swelling. If these effects are apparent immediately after your child ingests something new to their systems, you can accordingly remove the offending food from their diet. Of course, involve a healthcare professional if they experience a severe food allergy! But what if your child does not verbalize minor discomfort, and they simply express dislike instead? Mild symptoms could be attributed to something unrelated, or they could simply go unnoticed. Observe your child’s reactions more closely when introducing them to any new food, especially eggs, milk, and peanuts (the most common food allergies in children), and foods with wheat, soy, tree nuts, or fish.

So how do you support your picky eater’s sense of agency when it comes to food?

  • Get Them Involved: Take your child grocery shopping. Discuss meal plans with them. Invite them to help in the kitchen or set the table. Being a part of food preparation allows them to engage practical life skills and feel a sense of ownership for the meal. They may find it exhilarating to see an ingredient in raw form, as it is combined with other products, then in a finished dish!

  • Give Details: When introducing a new dish, provide positive information about ingredients, like how spinach is good for the eyes and bones. Compare the taste, smell, or texture of a new dish to other foods they have had. It’s less challenging to overcome their negative first impression of a food when you relate it to something recognizable to them.

  • Let Them Play With Their Food: Children with sensory issues can dismiss certain foods out of hand because of their appearance. Sometimes interacting with a new food, simply touching it with a finger or smelling it from a distance before tasting, can demystify it enough to be “safe” to try.

  • Be Inviting: Ask your child to try a small amount of a food, even if they previously refused to eat it. If they say no, or if they take a bite and decide to not have more, respect their autonomy with a “Maybe next time.” You needn’t remove the food from future meal plans; it may take repeated exposure for your child to develop a taste for a certain ingredient or dish.

  • Self-Serve: Being served a large portion of something unfamiliar can be intimidating or overwhelming. Offer dishes on a platter, or in a large bowl, with serving utensils. Empowering your child to take only as much as they are willing to try increases the chances they will consume what is on their plate. And that’s one way to avoid food waste! If your child ends up liking the dish enough to have more, they can always serve themselves another portion.

  • Provide Choices: When you introduce a new food, serve it in its own dish, but offer it alongside at least one familiar food you know your child likes. If they reject the unknown item altogether, they still have something to fill their tummies until the next mealtime.

  • Ask For Input: If your child rejects a dish after tasting it, bring it up in conversation at a later time. Ask if they might like to try the new food in a different way that holds more appeal, perhaps without a sauce, with a different condiment, or baked instead of boiled. One change to how a food is prepared or presented could be the key!

  • Schedule Special Meals: Children are familiar with the concept of having cake on their birthday or celebrating a special occasion with a favorite meal. Why not introduce new foods in the same way? Designate a specific dinner “Dad’s Pasta Night” or “Mom’s Surprise Meal” to generate excitement about what could land on their plate. They may come up with something unexpected when it’s their turn to pick!

Like all habits, developing a healthy relationship with food takes time. Occasionally adding a new type of cuisine to your shared meals will go a long way towards expanding your child’s culinary interests. With some patience, compassion, and consistent support, your picky eater will eventually become more open to trying new things. If you are concerned about possible nutritional deficiencies, seek help from a pediatrician or healthcare professional.

Rest assured, even the pickiest eaters can become culinary adventurers! In the meantime, supplement your child’s diet with age-appropriate vitamins, and make sure they have easy access to healthy snack alternatives at all times. Good luck and bon appétit!


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