Kari Burghardt, a Chandler, Arizona-based mother of two young children and author of “Diet Makeover for Moms,” realized early on that her son was a very picky eater. She recalls when he was young that she could count on one hand the number of foods he would eat. “We realized that we were going to need to put some effort into helping him explore new foods. We had to make it fun and take the pressure off of him,” she says. Once she and her husband learned to embrace the fact that he was a picky eater, it became less stressful for all of them. She encourages parents with picky eaters to be patient and stay committed.
Here are five strategies to help kids become more adventurous eaters:
1. Introduce New Foods Several Times
Kids naturally reject many foods the first time they are exposed to them. It’s important to give them time and space to try food on their own. “Research shows pressuring kids to eat has the opposite effect in that it decreases appetite and makes kids less interested in the target food,” says Maryann Jacobson, a San Diego, California-based Dietician and author of What to Cook for Dinner with Kids and From Picky to Powerful. According to Jacobson, a 2002 study titled “You Will Eat All of That” published in “Appetite” showed that 70 percent of college students who remembered being forced to eat certain foods as children report that they now avoid those very same foods. When kids grow up and finally have some choice in the matter, they are more likely to make the choice in the opposite direction. Jacobson recommends staying consistent with introducing foods often and allowing kids to move along food acceptance as they feel comfortable.
2. Make it Fun
Kids love to have fun, and eating meals and snacks is no exception. To better enjoy meals, Melanie Potock, a Boulder, Colorado-based pediatric speech language pathologist, feeding specialist, and co-author of Raising a Happy Healthy Eater suggests beginning meals with a song. Preschools do this all the time when transitioning to a new activity, such a snack or circle time. Try playing “On Top of Spaghetti” as you sit down at the table for pasta night, for example. Set a positive tone for the rest of the meal with music.
3. Don’t Cook to Order
Parents can easily fall into the trap of making several different meals for each family member every night and that’s something to try and avoid. Cook one meal that everyone can enjoy. Make an effort to include at least one thing that is liked by the children and encourage them to try the others.
4. Grow Your Own
According to Stephanie Merchant, a food and lifestyle expert and founder of The Nutrition Mom (TheNutritionMom.com), parents can empower and encourage kids to become more adventurous eaters by having them grow or pick their own. “You don’t have to have a garden, although that’s fantastic if you do, to grow your own food,” says Merchant. “For children to actually witness the growth of new food simply from seeds or food scraps is amazing and something that they will remember. It is a huge bonus for kids to understand where real food comes from and to experience the tender love and care that goes into growing food.”
5. Serve It Up Family Style
Dr. Katherine Hiller, an associate professor of emergency medicine at The University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, shares that, “Allowing children to serve themselves increases the percentage of food consumed (i.e. if they put it on their own plate, they’re more likely to eat it).” As a mom, she uses the strategy of serving things family style and allowing her children to dish up their own food to encourage them to eat and try different foods.
Remember that children are little and they are growing and learning every day. It may take some time, but consistent efforts to encourage children to try new things pays off in the end. Additionally, don’t forget to role-model healthy adventurous eating habits. Kids are likely to take cues from their parents and other influential adults in their lives and mimic those as they grow up.