I know, I’m in the same boat as you, with a houseful of picky eaters just the like. But we can get our kids to expand their palate–even if just a bit–and this is how.
My resolve was tested that night. “I don’t want schnitzel,” my 3-year-old screamed as she flung a piece of chicken into the next room. “I want pasta!” “Chicken soup is yucky,” my five-year-old, who loves soup, chimed in. “I’m eating yogurt for dinner.”
I had just finished a weeklong intensive course in feeding therapy and I was feeling inspired and empowered to use my new skills to start making changes in my own home. My picky kids would be my guinea pigs and then I would take my newfound knowledge into the world of early intervention and save young kids from a life of poor feeding skills and picky eating.
But things were not off to a good start. I needed to regain control of the situation and quickly. I drew on my last vestiges of calm, stated my expectations, and focused on the enjoyable meal I wanted to have.
To my three-year-old, I said, “I know you are our “Pasta Noa” (her name is Talia Noa) because you love pasta (note to self: maybe it’s time for a new nickname). Pasta is tasty and easy to eat. We will have pasta tomorrow. Today we have schnitzel and soup. You can choose what you like to have on your plate and anything else can go on the side of your plate.” Once her feelings were validated and the promise of pasta was in the air, my daughter settled for her bowl of soup albeit grudgingly. My eldest daughter loves animals so I focused on being playful with the food. “Look, I’m putting chicken fishies in the water and I’m going to catch them on my fishing rod.” I snagged a “fishie” on my fork, reeled it out of the soup, and popped it in my mouth. Well, my girls were not going to miss out on a chance to catch fish for dinner so they tucked right in. Ten minutes later, soup bowls were almost empty and the “fishies” were safely tucked in their tummies.
Mealtimes in my home don’t always look like this. And I don’t expect them to. I do expect mealtimes to be pleasant and enjoyable for everyone. The following are the top five ways to expose children to a new food, which I use in my home and with my clients; so that mealtimes can become a family time that everyone wants to participate in.
- The parent chooses what is being served. As long as you include a food that each child is likely to eat, and offer that food for everyone, you can relax and enjoy your meal. Kid only ate one slice of bread? That’s ok! Move on and talk about your day. Don’t turn your children into mini dictators by inviting power struggles over alternative dinner options. You may be a CEO or a very busy at-home mom. You may be a business owner or have a PhD. But you are not a short-order chef and your children will learn to accept this.
- Serve a variety of food and serve it often. If your children don’t see the food, they won’t touch it, smell it, or taste it. Present the food neutrally. Just say, “this is what I’m serving for supper” or “here you go!” If my children make faces or negative comments, I like to say, “Don’t yuck my yum!”, and then just move along. My kids love this line so much that they say it to each other. Scientists have discovered that children need to taste a food ten times to know if they like it. That’s where the line “an acquired taste” comes from. So give your kids time and ample exposure.
- Take food out of the package it comes in. Children become attracted to packaging and this is how they identify their favorite brands. This is an easy change that will help children be more flexible with the exact food products they will eat. Put it in a bowl, cup, or clear plastic bag. Then, when you buy a different brand or different version of their preferred food it will be easier for them to accept it.
- Offer an accepted food side by side with a new food that is very similar. Say your son only eats strawberry yogurt, place a small portion of his preferred yogurt on one side of his plate and a teaspoon of banana-strawberry yogurt on the other side. When children look at the new food and see its similarities to an accepted food, it helps them move past their fear of the new food and they are more likely to try it.
- Try the bridging technique. Parents tend to focus on what their child is not eating (hello vegetables and meat!) or what they wish their picky children would eat, like avocado and chia seeds. When parents practice bridging, they take note of what their child already enjoys and think of similar food to introduce. This way children can move on from Snacker crackers to whole wheat crackers, to toasted bread circles, to soft bread circles, and then to trying sandwiches.
Most important of all is to keep mealtimes pleasant and pressure-free. Offer new food with a dash of calm, a side of compassion, and a large serving of consistency.