here are my top tips to help kids overcome picky eating + enjoy a wider variety of foods:
1. Sit down and have a meal together as a family every weeknight (if possible)
Sitting down with your kids and eating with them as a family as frequently as you can is the most important and often most overlooked contributing factor to overcoming picky eating.
There are hundreds of studies proving the positive correlation between regular family dinners and increased vocabulary, academic performance and even the increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and micronutrients in children.
Since kids learn best through modeled behavior, they need to watch you eat and enjoy different foods to learn how to do the same. Through modeling, they learn how to chew and eat different food types and textures and how to use utensils.
A meal together implies everyone has the same meal, no short order chef action. Kids eat the same, healthy and balanced meals as their parents. It’s best to have a sense of shared control over mealtime, meaning some nights you cook adult favorites and other nights you ask for a little input from the kids on what they would like. This way, they know, while you’re in charge of what’s for dinner, they can have a say in it too.
2. Make a mealtime schedule + stick to it
Set designated times for meals and snacks and stick to the plan. This helps regulate kids’ appetites and sets a peaceful rhythm in the home around meals.
Kids like to know what to expect.
Be sure to set a time when mealtime is over and the food is gone. This does wonders for kids who take hours on end to eat one serving of peas.Set a timer if you have to (it can be visible to you or both you and the kids) and let them know when the meal will end, the food will also end but don’t hold it over them, just state it as a fact.
A good time for a meal is anywhere from 20-30 minutes. There is no reason a meal should last for hours on end (I have been there!). In many social situations (think school, etc) mealtimes are usually around this amount of time.
3. Exposure to a wide variety of foods is key
Exposure to a large variety of food tastes and textures is crucial for future food acceptance, especially within the first year of life. Think of it this way; if your goal is to have your child eat more foods and be okay with trying new ones, how else do you expect them to get there without providing opportunities to try, see and learn about a larger variety of foods?
Every day, try to expose them to a new food type, vegetable or texture.
For textures, think finely chopped, fork mashed, soft table foods, meltable solids (crackers), crispy foods, mixed textures (more than one food texture mixed together), difficulty chewy foods.
Remember mixed textures (like lasagna or tacos) are overwhelming (this is why toddlers can find an onion in any food imaginable) Try deconstructing these types of meals.
For flavors, think spicy, sweet, bland, savory, sour, creamy, etc.spices too
To increase acceptance of more foods, you need to consider ALL sensory components of foods presented.
First, think of sight, does the food look presentable? If not, how can you make it visually more appealing? (i.e. cheese atop taco meat, noodles atop of soup)
Then think of the touch/tactile component, does the food have a new texture and is your child okay with touching it?If they won’t even touch and explore it with their hands, they probably won’t put it in their mouth.
Next, think of the smell, does it smell appetizing? Don’t be afraid of the spice! Kids can have fun exploring with their sense of smell just by opening up the spice cabinet. The olfactory system (smell) is strongly linked to gustation (taste). This means if a child enjoys the way something smells, they are more likely to try a bite. Hold their hand in this process by helping them determine their scent preferences.
Finally, if your child has accepted all the other food sensory components up to this point, they are now more likely to be ready to taste it!
It can take around 15 trials of a new food for a toddler to accept it. Most parents assume their child doesn’t like a certain food because they rejected it the first or second time and subsequently don’t present that food to their child again. Instead, keep presenting the food and wait patiently for when they’re ready to accept it.
Remember, even if your child doesn’t actually try a bite or the food presented, just interacting with it (by sight, touch, or smell) is still increasing their exposure to the food type. Maybe a few more exposures and they might take a bite!
4. Create an atmosphere of joy around the table
Be deliberate about making mealtime a fun and positive experience. Mealtime can be stressful and overwhelming for some children, especially when they spy something completely new on their plate.
Feeling overwhelmed or stressed when you sit down to eat? Take a deep breath and smile! Then just enjoy your kids and your meal. Take this time to connect and talk to your family. It will help everyone feel more relaxed and calm and maybe mealtime will even be something to look forward to with your child!Remember to turn off all electronics so you can make eye contact with each other and focus on conversation as a family.
Here are some fun and playful mealtime icebreakers!
- Painting with purees: Grab some baby foods and let kids paint with them on any surface (high chair topper, paper plates, etc) This will increase their tolerance to mushy textures and they might try a few bites and expose themselves to new vegetable tastes.
- Talking about the colors on the plate: “It’s important to eat ALL the colors of the rainbow to make our bodies strong. What colors of the rainbow are on our plate today?”
- Asking: On a scale of 0-10 how everyone’s day was (take turns)
- Food math + counting: “How many carrots are on your plate?” “Who has the most peas?”
- Using a dip tray: Dips are great for encouraging vegetable consumption and they are a fun, modeled behavior you can do as a family. (Dip crackers or apple slices into peanut/almond butter, dip carrots into ranch, celery into hummus)
- Use training chopsticks for kids
- Use bento forks for trying new foods
- Singing a silly song or saying a short blessing together as a family. This is simple and easy fun, and kids really enjoy taking part. Here is the one my son says at school and we also uses at home, it’s so cute! “Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you Lord for EVERYTHING!”
- My personal favorite is truthfully teaching them about the food that they are eating. Tell them where it comes from and what it does for the body (I.e. “Carrots make your eyes super strong, Salmon comes from a fish in the sea and it makes your brain grow, etc”)
5. Describe what’s on the plate: texture + color + size + flavor + size + temperature
Food descriptors can work wonders for kids who have difficulty trying new foods. Instead of thinking “She doesn’t like sweet potatoes,” think of how she may just be nervous to try it because she doesn’t know what to expect.
Children like things to be predictable and often the unknown becomes scary and can cause anxiety.Maybe the last time she tried sweet potatoes, it surprised her how smushy they were.
Instead of, “These are so yummy!” Be more descriptive. You can say, “These sweet potatoes are orange like the sun! Did you know you don’t have to chew them very much because they are so mushy? Watch how I eat them. Oh, I can taste the butter too!” Or instead of “I love carrots!” say, “This carrot is so crunchy! Watch how I make a super loud crunchy sound when I eat it!”