It’s easy for outsiders to dismiss picky eating as normal for a child’s age, or to criticize so sharply that you feel ashamed. Normal as it is, it’s a frustrating issue for all parents. My own son was once a wonderful eater ... and then he turned 2. A week after he’d been happily devouring avocado slices and begging for more, one of my husband’s relatives made a comment about how unusual it was for a child so young to like avocado. In front of him.
The next day, his favorite cousin, whom he idolizes, professed her hatred of the fruit.
Say goodbye to the avocado. He hasn’t touched it since. At least, not knowingly.
For me as a foodie, it was crushing. This was the kid who ate boeuf bourguignon and turkey mango curry at 1½. The one who couldn’t get enough cream of mushroom soup. The one who loved to eat everything, albeit in small quantities.
I did find an answer, though. A scientific method to getting my little man to eat with gusto, and it started in the place I least expected.
If you’re facing similar frustration with your own kids, you might be desperate to fix the situation before your best friend or sister with the perfect eater starts to grate on your nerves by bragging about how much better little Eva eats than your Aiden does. All that does is increase your stress level, and high mealtime stress is tied to picky eating, so it’s a little counterproductive to say the least.
Before we crack into this, you need to be committed. Are you ready to find out what’s really behind picky eating, even if it’s so counterintuitive you could cry? Good. You might need to make some major changes to the way meals happen in your household, what you serve, and when. I won’t promise it’s going to be easy, but trust me. It’s worth it.
First, A Few Reassuring Facts About Picky Eaters
Ivan’s Picky Eating
My husband and I picked our son up from his daycare program at 4:30 in the afternoon. The kids eat lunch at 1:30, and have a little nap until 2:30 or 3, then play until their parents arrive. It was an ordinary afternoon, and he and I were going to go to the park for a bit while daddy went back to work. As I buckled him into his safety seat, I asked him how his day was.
“Bklaga. We knalblahaiorja…”
“Bklaga. We knablahaiorja…”
It sounded like he was talking through a mouth full of food. My first thought was an allergic reaction – as a toddler he had reacted very badly to bananas, cinnamon, and oatmeal. His face had swollen, and he’d had trouble breathing. It was terrifying, and the experience is etched into my memory.
I looked at his mouth, and there, fully chewed, was a carrot. He’d been gnawing on it since lunch.
We’d entered a new stage of finicky eating, and this time, it was dangerous. What if he chokes? I thought to myself.
I asked him to spit the carrot into my hand, and resolved to fix this, once and for all. No more picky eating allowed. But how?
Over the next few weeks, my son and I engaged in battles of willpower that taught me how strong his character is (as tough as my own, and I’m stubborn to a fault), but I did nothing to lower our stress or improve his bad habits.
I was losing. The more I fought him, the less he was willing to eat. Even foods that had been his favorites weren’t tempting him.
My husband and I resorted to bribing him with sweets or fruit, something we knew wasn’t a good strategy or a long-term one, but we were desperate. We ate out, thinking a change of setting might help. It didn’t.
Asking him what he wanted to eat and making it from scratch didn’t help, either.
Near tears and at our wits’ end, I did what we should have done from the start. We took him into the kitchen.
We made cookies, which of course he had to taste. And he made omelets with daddy, which needed a quality check by him before we could have them for breakfast. He stirred pancakes, cracked eggs, and helped me slice carrots.
And he ate, and ate, and ate.
We’d been feeding his physical hunger, but not his hunger for knowledge.
The Facts about Picky Eating
One mom’s anecdotal tale of fixing her son’s picky eating by getting him to cook with her is great, but not all picky eaters are the same. I listed a few facts about picky eating earlier, but let’s revisit the idea in general.
Medicine and science have identified a few different types of picky eating. I’ve done what I can to pool that info for you here, but keep in mind that I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. I’m just a mom, and before you make any changes to your child’s diet, talk with their pediatrician.
Stress-based Picky Eating
Stress is hard for a kid to deal with, and many don’t even know where to begin. When you are still in diapers, there’s very little about your life that you can actually control. Even getting others to understand what you want or need can be a taxing endeavor.
Some children react to high stress in the home and at the dining table by becoming picky eaters. In a way, it makes sense. You can bring your son a plate, but you can’t make him eat. Even if you get the food into your daughter’s mouth, you can’t really make her swallow.
This is one space where kids are in control.
Dealing with stress-related picky eating might be as simple as keeping stress levels low at the table, and letting your little one get his or her way from time to time.
Can We Blame Some Picky Eating on Evolution?
Around 2 years of age, many tots stop wanting to try new foods. This is the same time period when most breastfed babies worldwide are weaned and diet becomes more complex. Some parents note that their kids develop a preference for white or pale foods at this stage, and others report that their little ones are happy to eat foods they’ve known for months, but won’t touch anything new.
If your little one seems eager to avoid new foods or textures, it could be a self-protective mechanism. Part of evolution’s way to keep your little one alive and safe. Don’t fret over it, and introduce new foods slowly.
Try pairing new flavors with something sweet. A few studies have demonstrated that children are more likely to develop a lasting fondness for fruits and vegetables that they first try paired with sweeter flavors, even when they ate them unsweetened!
Maybe it’s the addictive nature of sugar, or maybe it’s just that all kids have an innate sweet tooth, but the research says it works. It could explain things like the near universal love of ketchup, despite the fact that it’s made from tomatoes, which aren’t always well received.
Can You Force a Picky Eater to Eat?
Ok, let’s be honest. Almost all of us have tried to force our little ones to eat at some point, from the “Just one bite and you can get up!” to the more aggressive “You’re not getting up from this table until you’ve finished all your food!”
Maybe you won. But did you keep track of what your son or daughter did the next time you served that food? A few researchers have, and the outcome isn’t pretty.
When you force a child to eat, you can actually teach them to resent the food you’re feeding them. Talk about backfiring.
Palate in Progress: Immature Taste Buds Might be to Blame
Ever wonder why kids hate certain vegetables and love others, almost as a universal rule? Case in point: spinach and carrots. Carrots are usually loved; spinach not so much.
Imagine the flavors of each vegetable. What undertones catch your tongue? For carrots, the sweet flavor is one of their brightest features. Spinach, on the other hand, is notoriously bitter if you don’t doctor it up a bit. And there’s the rub: It turns out that little kids have super-sensitive taste buds. The flavors that to you and me are subtle undertones are overwhelming for young palates.
That’s one of the reasons we grow into liking strongly-flavored foods. How many little kids do you know who love gorgonzola, can’t get enough of spinach, and couldn’t imagine a better dish than a spicy teriyaki salmon?
Yeah. That many.
Foods like macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, hot dogs, and the other banes of our nutritional existence as parents are wildly popular due to their mild flavors. So how do you deal with picky eaters who refuse new foods because they find the strong flavors overwhelming?
Blend the new food with older, familiar flavors. If that doesn’t work – sometimes just the smell of a new food can be too intimidating – find a way to diminish the strength of the new food’s flavor. Dairy foods, breads and grains, and dilution in broths can work for many foods.
Of course, if you shy away from dairy and grains for health reasons, you can always try with dairy substitutes like almond milk, rice milk, tofu and the like. In other words, bland foods that can kill the flavor of spicy foods will dull the flavor of most other foods, as well.
When preparing new foods, don’t add salt – it enhances flavors. Consider using a pinch of sugar, honey or some other sweetener when you introduce new foods.
When It’s More Than Just Picky Eating
Sometimes, picky eating is a bit more serious. The cause for worry is real, and your little one might be facing some serious challenges. Two conditions that are rare but worth mentioning are Failure to Thrive and Avoidant / Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Speak with your pediatrician or family doctor if you have serious concerns about your kid’s eating habits.
Getting Your Picky Eater to Love Food
What’s your experience with picky eating? Tell me about it here. We’re all parents, which means we’re all in this together. When our kid isn’t eating right, it can be a very stressful experience – my son’s pediatrician told me once that he knows when a child isn’t eating well because the parents look stressed out. Talking about it, writing about it, and venting about it can be seriously cathartic. That’s the final tip, dads: Don’t forget self-care. You’re right to fret about your little one, but don’t forget that your health matters, too. Kids look up to you, and copy what they see.