By: Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Young children may reject foods, refuse to try new foods or repeatedly ask to eat the same select foods. These behaviors are common among children across the globe and are not isolated to one country, culture or family. Parents and caregivers are not alone as they navigate this developmental phase. Patience, predictability and positivity during meals and snacks will help adults and children through picky eating.
Focus on providing healthy foods from the five food groups. Children may only accept a few nutritious foods, so incorporate these accepted nutritious foods into meals and snacks. Experts agree that continued exposure to new foods is important for eventual food acceptance. This process is slow, but over time children will learn to enjoy a wider variety of foods. Try pairing new foods with accepted nutritious foods for meals and snacks.
Prioritize predictable meal and snack times every day. Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, meals are a great time to model healthy eating and expose children to new foods. They may choose not to eat all the foods provided, but they will get a chance to see, smell, touch and talk about them. When providing meals and snacks, allow children to choose what and how much food they eat. This method is the division of responsibility in feeding. Parents provide predictability with what foods and when and where eating occurs. Children determine how much and whether or not to eat. It is important for children to learn to listen to their bodies and hunger cues by deciding how much they need to eat to feel satisfied.
Let children help with shopping, preparing meals and serving food. Make it fun. Encourage and support autonomy by allowing children to pick or build the menu for a themed meal. Planning and preparing food is a life skill that takes practice; the more that children are involved, the more likely they will be to try new foods. Engaging children in these activities will help them learn, apply and master these skills into adulthood. Since early elementary is also a great time to teach children about how food grows, try planting vegetables or herbs. Children are more enthusiastic to taste foods they have seen grow or that they pick themselves. Provide positive reinforcement when children do decide to try a new food. For example, say “Let me feel those muscles”, “Yogurt helps your teeth and bones” or “Thank you for being brave and trying a blueberry.”
Encouraging children to expand their palate will not happen overnight. Children may need to see, smell, touch and taste a food 10 to 15 times or more before they try or enjoy a new food. Using the division of responsibility method and being patient, predictable and positive can help navigate picky eating in childhood and motivate adventurous, open-minded eating. Bring up concerns with a pediatrician about children’s eating behavior if large weight fluctuations occur. The pediatrician can answer questions and offer ways to provide all the necessary nutrients to grow and develop optimally. Find more nutrition resources to support healthy eating at HealthyEating.org/FoodTasting.
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.
Sharing positive cooking + eating experiences with children will inspire healthy eating habits + contribute to good health in childhood + adulthood.
Optimal nutrition during the time period from conception through age 24 months has positive health benefits during childhood and adulthood.