“My child is SO PICKY!!” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that in the office! If your child is not picky at some point then you are the exception, NOT the rule. Most of us parents struggle with our picky eaters, trying to get them to try something that’s out of their narrow comfort zone. Is this normal? YES!!!!!!!!!!
Let’s first talk about why kids are picky. The theory is that “pickiness” is an evolutionary trait that kept our babies and children safe. As hunters and gatherers we stumbled upon lots of nuts, berries and plants, some of which were safe for us and some of which were not. In general foods in nature that are safe for us tend to be sweet and bland. This is exactly what kids like. In our evolutionary history, children who stuck with these tastes tended to stay safe (and alive!) in their choices.
It so happens that many successfully marketed processed foods have those same bland, sweet tastes, so of course, kids love them. However, many of these foods are also full of preservatives, artificial ingredients and unnecessary calories. Meanwhile, they are also lacking in nutrients that are offered in real whole foods.
In the first year of life infants primarily have a milk-based diet. Babies are either taking breastmilk or formula which have a balanced combination of fat, protein, carbohydrates and nutrients. Formula companies are now even trying to replicate the other properties of breastmilk like prebiotics, probiotics and omega-3′s. Some researchers suggest that a mother who eats a varied diet while pregnant may change her baby’s food preferences in utero. They also suggest that mothers who have a varied diet while breastfeeding introduce infants to a changing flavor profile of breastmilk which can influence their food preferences. At around 6 months babies are first introduced to solid foods, and some children may start showing their food preferences very early. This introduction of food can be a critical time in expanding the palate. Research shows that exposing a food to a child multiple times, even food they don’t like, may influence their willingness to try those foods later on. Supplementing bland jar baby foods with baby foods made at home using real whole foods is a great way to expose kids to different ways that foods taste.
After babies graduate to a food-based diet, things can get even more interesting. Toddlers are much more strong-willed and voice their food preferences more colorfully. They may like certain foods for a while, and then go through phases where they are more picky. We as parents can get caught up in a struggle and often feel like giving up when kids don’t want to eat what we want them to. This struggle can continue well into childhood and the teen years, and can influence a child’s overall health. What’s a parent to do?
1) First of all DON’T give up! Keep preparing and serving natural whole foods that are healthy. Your kids will eventually eat them. Kids grow up and so do their tastes if the food is made available to them. In order to get “Yums” you will need to get a bunch of “Yucks” along the way!
2) Get creative! Kids are influenced by texture almost as much as by tastes. Make foods they like in different ways. Disguise foods they don’t like yet with foods that they do. Combine tastes so that they are more palatable.
3) Get kids involved! In my experience kids who help choose meals and participate in cooking them are more likely to try new foods. When shopping I sometimes let my kids choose a new fruit or vegetable that we have never tried before. I have noticed that since my kids have been part of the team of “Tiny Tasters” that they are even more willing to try new foods and offer their feedback. Ask your kids to use the “Yum Score” to tell you if they like your food and ask them what they liked and didn’t like about each food. Use this information to prepare future meals.
4) Have fun!! Cooking for your family can be fun and satisfying activity. Make it a priority to cook and eat together, several times a week. Challenge your kids to eat new foods and give them praise when they do. Share recipes with friends, and try some of the ones in this site. We would love to hear your feedback. Remember, “FOOD IS FUN!!”
See my post on how my kids’ tastes changed after a summer of good eating.
To learn more about overcoming picky eating, I recommend this great, easy read for parents, by Melanie Potuck, MA,CCC-SLP, a speech language pathologist.