Are you stressed by your kids’ refusal to eat your famous meatloaf? Have meals become battles you can’t win? You’re not alone. A recent study by Nancy Zucker of Duke University suggests that at least 20% of parents of young children struggle with picky eaters (1). In addition, new research in Britain finds that heredity is to blame for 46% of occurrences of pickiness and 58% of refusals to experience new food (2).
Picky eaters can fall into 2 different groups: one not willing to try new or unfamiliar foods (neophobic) and the other unwilling to eat a variety of familiar foods (picky eating). Below are some tips for both types, in order to help you all enjoy family meals again:
- Start with savory, not sweet foods. A child’s palate adapts to the first foods offered. Provide a variety of different tastes and textures when introducing solid food.
- Keep meal time positive. Kids can sense anxiety, so try to remain calm and positive when serving meals.
- Don’t coerce or force your child into eating. This may make your child tense or upset and fussy traits may be exacerbated.
- Be encouraging. Try not to say things like, “you probably won’t like this”. This may set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Offer one bite of a new food, but don’t force your child to eat the whole plate. A child may refuse a new food due to fear of disliking texture, taste, or smell. Just start with one bite.
- Be a role model. Make meals fun with a variety of foods. Smile when you eat different foods and your child’s curiosity may overcome his/her anxiety about possibly disliking the food.
- Offer nutrient-dense foods cut into interesting shapes and sizes. Kids may be more likely to try a crinkle carrot or melon ball over traditional shapes of fruits and vegetables.
- Give some praise for trying new foods. Kids need positive reinforcement to build confidence in overcoming neophobia.
- Don’t reward eating with more eating (i.e. desserts). Kids will see eating foods they dislike as a means to an end when dessert is offered. They may not even taste or experience the food. Offering treats as reinforcement may also influence emotional eating.
- Be patient. It can take 10-15 trials of a new food before a child prefers it. Don’t give up!
- Zucker, Nancy, et. al. Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating. Pediatrics September 2015, VOLUME 136 / ISSUE 3
- Andrea D. Smith, et. al. Food fussiness and food neophobia share a common etiology in early childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. October 14, 2016. 10.1111/jcpp.12647
By Lisa C. Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
And here's a handout!
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.