If you're the parent of a picky eater, you know all too well the frustration of preparing a healthy meal, then watching your child stare at the plate like you've just presented them with grilled bird beaks. There's plenty of advice out there on how to handle picky eating, but much of it is super old school. It can be hard to determine what outdated advice parents of picky eaters should ignore, and what tricks are actually worth trying.
For starters, the first thing parents need to remember is that most kids aren't picky eaters just because they want to make you crazy. There are a variety of reasons children might balk at broccoli rabe. Some kids don't like specific textures, while for others, picky eating could be a control issue.
But there is also an actual biological reason why kids would much rather scarf an Oreo than sample that paella you so lovingly prepared: Their tastes buds are distributed very differently than those of an adult. As reported by The New York Times, kids have "more sweet buds over a greater percentage of their tongue. This is a life-saving adaptation for children who often put non-food items in their mouth. We want them to reject things that taste sour or bitter because it is likely to be dangerous. That’s why kids tend to be really resistant to things with sour or bitter notes and really drawn to sweets." Yep. Some things really do just taste yuck to kids.
In the same way, some tactics for dealing with picky eating just don't work. "Bribing, making kids finish their plates before leaving the table, rewarding eating healthy foods with sweets... none of those methods are effective, and in fact usually lead to more tension at mealtimes," pediatric nutritionist Nicole Silber, R.D., tells Romper.
Got that, parents? No Mommy Dearest-ing. (Remember that scene, where a terrifying Faye Dunaway makes her kid sit at the table all night long with those cold hunks of steak? I think as a kid I found that scene more disturbing than the wire hanger...)
Silber says half of the battle with picky eating is to not let it turn into a battle in the first place. "Parents need to recognize and expect that this is a normal phase that most toddlers go through and will outgrow — unless they are constantly forced and bribed to eat."
She also emphasizes the importance of understanding portions, saying parents tend to expect kids to eat a lot more than is necessary: "Portions are over-estimated, and when kids don't eat their too-large portions, parents get frustrated, and that leads to a cycle of tension."
And you do not want stress at the dinner table. Silber says if children feel under pressure, they aren't going to eat well or learn to try new foods on their own.
OK, so no bribes or stress or expecting your kid to put away an entire T-bone. Got it. As for other outdated picky-eating advice you should ignore, the following tips should also be tossed:
1. Serving A Steady Stream Of Snacks. It's not uncommon for parents of picky eaters to fall back on snacks when their kids leave most of their meals untouched, but this is counterproductive. "Limit all day snacking and juice so kids are hungrier at meal times," says Silber. "Hunger is actually helpful in the process of getting children to eat new foods."
2. Giving Up On Certain Foods. "Getting kids to eat new foods does not happen overnight as many parents already know. It can take weeks, even months," says Silber. Kids need repeated exposure before they learn to like new tastes, and they shouldn't be pressured. "Offer a very small portion of the new food (i.e. one stalk of broccoli, one spoonful of chicken) many times by simply putting it on their plates and not talking about it," Silber suggests.
3. Making A Big Deal Out Of Food. Instead of making a huge deal about why they need to eat a certain food, introduce it with a brief positive statement and then just take a step back. "Just leave the food there, and don't say anything." So no need to go on with the "Yummy!" And the "Wow, this is so delicious!"
4. Making Kids A Separate Meal. If you find yourself preparing one meal for your picky eater and another for the rest of the family later on in the evening, you might be doing more harm than good. "Kids learn by mimicking behavior, and will be more likely to eat what you eat if they see you eat it," says Silber. "This is also a good way to de-stress the mealtime environment." Whenever possible, make one meal and sit everyone down together to eat it.
5. Taking All The Spice Out Of Your Child's Food. Just because your little one turns up their nose at some spicy foods doesn't mean you have to go too far in the opposite direction. "Bland foods are not always exciting to kids," says Silber. "Use herbs, spices, flavorful sauces... I know it sounds funny, but it works!
6. Stick To The Same "Safe" Foods. It's understandable: When you finally find the four or five foods your kid will actually eat, you might stop trying to persuade them to try anything else. But you don't have to get stuck in a rut. Try offering new things in the same category as a favorite food for a start. "For example, if they eat a lot of bread, rotate the types of bread from whole wheat sandwich bread to pita bread to English muffins," says Silber. "Or, even changing up the yogurt flavors and the way foods are cut so that they begin to learn food will be different... and that's OK."
Over time, most kids outgrow their picky eating habits. The more patience you can manage, the sooner you'll help that process along.
Nicole Silber, R.D., pediatric nutritionist