I bet you know what your children ought to eat. It’s no secret that kids should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and lots of variety, and that no one—not even the pickiest person—should subsist on crackers alone. Yes, carrots trump candy. But how do you get a child, whose loyalty to pasta knows no bounds, to even consider eating anything else? That’s the kind of question that trips parents up all the time.
The answer, you may be surprised to learn, is to stop thinking so much about nutrition. Nutrition puts your focus squarely on the food, and that’s not where the problem lies.
You also have to stop looking for the perfect recipe. Trust me, it doesn’t exist. Because even if you could find something your kids would love to eat today, there’s no guarantee that they’ll love—or even eat—it tomorrow. Kids are fickle that way, and that’s the problem.
Picky eating isn’t really about food. It’s about control, or a reluctance to try new things, or sensory sensitivity, a chewing and/or swallowing problem, or some other issue. And that’s good news! It means you can teach your way to healthy eating.
So how do you teach your way to healthy eating? Start by answering this question: What does your child need to learn in order to eat differently? For most kids the answer is some combination of the following lessons. How to:
- Feel safe tasting new foods
- Enjoy new flavors
- Cope with challenging textures
- Value the goal of eating new foods
- Develop the habit of eating different foods on different days.
If you’ve never thought about teaching your children these lessons before, don’t worry. Most parents haven’t. Take heart, though. Once you make the mindshift, the path to success becomes much clearer. Here are six steps to get you started.
- Talk to your children about your goal. It’s crucial to tell your kids the game plan. Otherwise, how will they get onboard? You don’t need an elaborate explanation, however. Say something simple: “I know you don’t like to eat new foods, but I think this is something that is important for you to learn. Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to eat anything new. For now, we’re just going to learn how to taste new foods.”
- Implement the Rotation Rule using foods your children already enjoy. The Rotation Rule is straightforward: Don’t serve any food (except milk) two days in a row. By mixing up the foods your children already eat you are teaching them the habit of eating different foods on different days. This habit lays the foundation for introducing new foods.
- Lower your expectations. Like most parents, you probably tell your children that all you want is for them to taste the chili you prepared for dinner, but deep down, you’re secretly hoping they’ll do more; you’re hoping that they’ll actually eat the chili. That’s a lot of pressure. Celebrate a single, solitary taste.
- Take the surprise out of new foods. No one wants to try a food completely blind, without any reliable cues as to what it will taste like. Yet, this is what parents ask their children to do all the time! Practice giving your children lots of information before they taste something new. Say, “This is crunchy.” Or, “This tastes a little like the chicken you ate yesterday because it has the same teriyaki sauce.” Or, “This is squishy like apple sauce.”
- Make tastings easy for your children. It’s tempting to steer clear of challenging tastes and textures, but that keeps kids stuck in their rut. Make an effort to introduce changes slowly. Start by using an accepted flavor or texture as a bridge to new foods. For instance, if your children likes chicken nuggets because they’re crunchy, offer a taste of a crunchy fish stick. If they enjoy blueberry yogurt, offer a taste of blueberry vanilla yogurt. If texture is a sticking point, then gradually introduce foods that are lumpier and bumpier.
- Offer an alternative to, “I don’t like it.” It’s helpful to remember that young children don’t have what researchers call stable taste preferences. When it comes to liking different foods, their taste preferences are all over the board. Just as importantly, though, “I don’t like it,” boxes kids into an opinion that is hard to change. Resist the urge to ask your kids if they like what they’ve tasted. Ask them to describe what they’ve eaten instead in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance and/or temperature.
I know it’s hard to believe that your children will ever like new foods, but it happens. As they grow less fearful of trying new foods, they end up trying even more new foods. And once your kids are used to tasting new foods you can start showing them how to eat new foods, too.
Want to learn more? Check out my new book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating. It’s filled with practical, research-based tips that are guaranteed to help you stop struggling and start succeeding!
Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert. She is the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee). In addition to writing her blog, It’s Not About Nutrition, Dina also writes for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.