Q: My 6-year-old is a picky eater and it seems like my family is drowning in a sea of mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and French fries. A tantrum is at the waiting if we even attempt to put a new food on her plate. What can we do to expand her palette?
A: Unfortunately, picky eating is a normal part of child development albeit a cruel reality for many parents. Statistics suggest it can take between 10 to 20 presentations of a food before the child will begin to like it. Mealtimes can wreak havoc on your family when you have a picky eater because it can feel like an all-out control battle. Not to the mention the ever-growing concerns your child may not be meeting nutritional needs. You will find some strategies below to alleviate some of these problems. If extreme picky-eating is present (e.g., child likes less than 20 foods), contact your pediatrician.
- Gradual exposure: Begin by introducing one, tiny bit of a new food. A crumb-like size of a carrot may be a good starting point. Verbalize positive coping statements while presenting the food by stating, “You’re going to do well with this.” For the pickiest of eaters, the child may first need to tolerate the crumb being on her plate for a few days before attempting to eat it. Reward your child with a food she does like after trying the novel food. Through gradual exposure, you can increase the amount of food you expose to your child (moving from pea-size to grape size) while decreasing rewards.
- Preference: Give your child options of one food they would like to taste at some point. This allows your child to have some control in the situation. You can present two foods and ask which one they would eventually like to eat.
- Snack time: Snack time introduction is a fantastic way to introduce new foods without disrupting your typical mealtime patterns. Snack time removes the pressure a child would typically experience at mealtime (feeling as if they are on stage) as well as you worrying about having an undisrupted meal with your family.
- Make meals a long-term goal: It is easy to fall into the habit of providing constant snacks to your child since they are eating and you are avoiding any mealtime tantrums. In addition to introducing new foods, we also want your child to learn mealtime socialization. Mealtime is an opportunity to learn further social skills by having conversation with her siblings, passing food around, and discussing your day around the table.
- Remain calm: As much as we love our children, they can engage in lots of behaviors to get attention from others. Refusing foods may be one of those methods because they are gaining significant attention, even though it is negative, and control of mealtime. Therefore, it is crucial for you to remain composed, calm, and in-control of the situation.
- Preparation: Many parents have found including their child in food preparation helps decrease resistance and refusal. Having your child assist with mixing a sauce or making a pizza may spark some interest in new foods. She might enjoy licking a small sample off the mixing spoon.
Remember, kids have taste buds too, and some foods they truly do not like the taste of; do not force a child to eat foods they say they dislike. Taste buds change over time. Time and patience is the friend of parents of a picky eater. Many children move in and out of liking and disliking various foods as their own taste buds change, tolerance for flavors evolves, and they try foods prepared different ways. This is a process for most that goes into at least early adulthood, and even adults find at times they like a food they previously disliked for many years.