Is your child a picky eater? Well, there’s some comforting news. According to Dr. Leann Birch, Professor and Head of the Human Development and Family Studies Department at Penn State University, “Most children who are perceived as picky eaters probably have adequate diets. What parents often perceive as picky eating simply reflects their children’s normal response to new foods.” Children are naturally “neophobic,” which means they have an innate fear of trying anything new or foreign, and this includes food. It is normal for children between the ages of 2 and 5 years to resist eating new foods, and may have about four to five favorite foods that they readily accept. Learning that this is a natural part of their children’s development can help you relax a bit about what your child chooses to eat or reject.
So if your child is a picky eater, what can you do? While it can be frustrating when your child will only want to eat French fries for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, be patient. You should know that there are some effective ways you can help make healthy foods like fruits and vegetables all-time favorite choices in your home. Birch claims, “Children should be allowed to decide what and how much they eat, but it’s the parents’ responsibility to make healthy foods available to their children to choose from and eat.”
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Earlier is better.
It’s important to expose your child to healthy fruits and vegetables at a young age. Food preferences that children develop in their early years remain fairly stable and are reflected by the food choices they make in later childhood.
Be patient and keep trying.
Parents who get discouraged by children who are picky eaters often stop trying to give them new foods, which could lead to future health problems. Research has shown that in most cases, parents can help their children learn to like new foods through multiple exposures (between 5 and 10) to new foods and opportunities to learn about food and eating. Just offer new foods often, asking your child to try a bite in a positive and supportive way. Although it doesn’t always happen, studies have shown that children will eventually learn to like the new food.
Be a role model.
A recent study found that 2 and 3-year-old children’s food preferences are significantly related to foods that their mothers liked, disliked, and never tasted. So, the more excitement and enjoyment you express about fruits and vegetables, the more likely your child will want to eat them too!
Don’t restrict certain foods.
Research also shows that not allowing children to eat certain foods only raises their desirability for that food. So help children learn that healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are “all the time foods” that they can eat anytime, and that foods like candy and desserts are “sometimes foods” that they can eat once in a while.
Make healthy foods available.
As long as you keep healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables around, your child can learn to like and choose them!
Prepare foods in healthy ways.
Small modifications in the way you prepare meals and snacks can make a big difference in improving your child’s diet: Bake instead of fry, choose foods with whole grain or whole wheat instead of refined grains, give your child water or low-fat or skim milk instead of juice or soda, etc.
Make it fun!
Snack and meal-time activities should be introduced and reinforced in creative, colorful and playful ways. There are suggestions below for some fun and easy ways you can make fruits and vegetables an all-time favorite with your child. While you do these activities, allow your child to explore the various properties of fruits and vegetables by touching, tasting, smelling and hearing. Don’t forget to talk about how they are good for the body, too!
- Try something new. Allow your child to try a new fruit or vegetable. Jicama! Zucchini! Bok choy! Mango! Papaya! These foods may sound silly, but they taste great and they’re good for you.
- Do a taste test or a crunch test! Dip carrots into three different flavors of low-fat dressing or try a crunch test with three different kinds of vegetables to see which vegetable crunches the loudest!
- Play a guessing game! Prepare several foods for your child to taste while he or she is blindfolded. See if your child can identify each food. Help your child use words to describe what he or she tastes, such as salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth, warm, cold, etc.
- Play “What can we make with this?” Talk about how a certain fruit or vegetable, such an apple, is good for the body. Then, talk about the various foods they can make with an apple.
- Bake carrot or zucchini muffins together. Discuss how carrots have special vitamins that are really good for eyes.
- Where do foods come from? With your child, visit a farm to explore where foods come from and how they grow. Can you try planting your own fruit and vegetable? How about a tomato?
- Make a healthy snack. Have your child pick a variety of fruits to make a fruit salad. As he/she adds each new fruit to the bowl, talk about the colors of each fruit and how they help the body stay healthy in different ways.
- After grocery shopping, play a sorting game by grouping various fruits and vegetables by different categories – color, taste, texture, food group, etc.