This post was originally published on New York Kids Club blog. 

Many parents are struggling to get their little ones to try a new food. Their concern over children’s limited food choices is understandable: kids often end up “liking” only a handful of foods. So what works when it comes to raising adventurous eaters?

Here are 6 strategies that will help your children to expand their food repertoire:

1/ Make sure you eat new foods from time to time. When your child sees you trying a new food and reacting to it in a positive way, it helps her relax and understand that tasting something new is a normal part of everyone’s life.

Try something new together with your child. Explore ethnic restaurants in your neighborhood or prepare together a new recipe. Shopping together at a grocery store or farmers market creates plenty of opportunities to choose a fruit, vegetable or another food your family has never tried before.

2/ Make mealtimes positive. Follow the Division of Responsibility in feeding. Read The Division of Responsibility works. Serve a variety of foods that you enjoy and that you want your children to eat, limit snacking, eliminate grazing, and eat together with your children instead of feeding them.

During the meal, relax and allow your children to serve themselves what and how much they want.  Most importantly, focus on your own meal. When your children see you having so much fun eating delicious foods they will join you enjoying them sooner. Forget about the short-term goal of getting nutrition into our child and focus of a long term goal of fostering healthy relationship with food and teaching your child about balanced eating habits. Read Your food parenting style matters.

If mealtimes are more relaxed and pleasant for everyone, the whole family eats better.  Expect good mealtime behavior from your children and do not tolerate rudeness or whining just like in any other situations.

3/ Start developing their palates when they are very young. Steer clear of “toddler foods”. They slow down the development of acquired taste for “grown-up” foods that you want your child to start eating as soon as it is developmentally appropriate. 

A 12 month-old baby is ready for a vast majority of table foods. Switching from baby purees to “toddler” staples like cookies, juice, gold fish crackers, pasta, sweet yogurt and squeezable pouches is a typical mistake that parents of one-year olds make. Getting children to believe that they need special foods may lead to picky eating behavior when children start refusing most of the foods outside of the “toddler-friendly” group. Read Why goldfish crackers are not a snack food.

Instead, focus on introducing as many foods as possible before your child starts showing signs of picky eating behavior at around 2 years of age. Vary foods you serve to child on a daily basis and strive to introduce her to all the flavors and textures you are enjoying yourself. At a risk of sounding like a broken record I repeat “Your child does not need special foods”.

3/ Strive for an overall variety in diet. A new food does not have to be a vegetable. Getting kids to try a new type of bread, yogurt or sausage can become a stepping stone to a wider range of all accepted foods, including veggies. If your child likes spaghetti, serve bow-shaped pasta on every other day to get her to eat something new. Switching to whole grain bread, brown rice and pasta is yet another way to increase variety within the foods that your child is already happily eating.

If your child eats only a few foods it is especially important to create variety within what she is eating already. Too many unfamiliar foods may be overwhelming. Serving a different brand of fish sticks first, then preparing your own fish sticks at home and, finally, “upgrading” it to grilled fish may be the steps that will help you get your child eat the fish the way you like it.

4/ Make it fun but do not overinvest in getting your child to eat. Cutting fruit and veggies in fun shapes is a great technique that may get some reluctant eaters to sample a piece or two but it does not work for everyone. It is a wonderful way to present healthy foods in an attractive way for special events. Read Birthday party menu.

However, if you play the “meal circus” all the time, your efforts to get your child to eat will become  so obvious that she may end up eating less. Instead, prepare a variety of tasty food and present it to the child in a positive mealtime environment. After that, it is up to the child to pick and choose what and how much to eat. Make dinner table the happiest place in the house by being available to your children and having fun reconnecting to you kids after a busy day.

5/ Beware of the “just one bite” rule. While this approach may work with more open and compliant children, it may make things worse for those with intense fear of new foods and textural sensitivities. I usually recommend parents to start following the Division of Responsibility in feeding in order to create a pleasant environment during mealtimes and eliminate pressure.

With no pressure to eat or try new foods, children usually relax and start exploring more. Read It does not matter what your child ate at dinner. For example, they may start asking you about ingredients in foods you prepared or even request a bite of something they have been rejecting before. When you see these signs of innate curiously in foods, you may start gently encouraging your child to taste a little bit of everything you serve. But be prepared to take “no” for an answer and back off immediately if the food is refused.

Pressuring, bribing and threatening your child to try a new food will backfire.  Moreover, these techniques may create a strong link between food and emotions, especially when a child has to eat less liked foods in order to get a dessert. If you follow a Division of Responsibility in feeding and offer a variety of wholesome foods to your child, she will get plenty of opportunities to see, touch,  sample and learn to like the challenging foods.

6/Be matter of fact about your child’s reaction. Instead of asking if she liked it,  get your child to describe it and compare to something she knows. Read Five ways to talk with your children about food like the French. 

For example, if you child tasted a spoon of butternut squash soup for the first time, ask if it was more similar to carrots or broccoli. Talk about the color, texture and flavor of the food. This kind of conversation fuels the natural tendency in children to explore. If the child is very negative about the new food, state in a matter-of-fact manner that she may start liking it next time and that she will get many more opportunities to try it.

Do not scold your child for grimacing and spitting the food out. Table napkins are there for a reason. Stay as neutral as possible, do not take it personally and teach them to spit the food in the napkin discreetly. It may take up to 20 neutral exposures to a food before your child starts accepting it. 

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Resources:

Ellyn Satter. Child of Mine: Feeding with love and good sense.

Gregory J., Paxton S., Brozovic A.  Pressure to eat and restriction are associated with child eating behaviours and maternal concern about child weight, but not child body mass index, in 2- to 4-year-old children. Appetite 54 (2010) 550–556

Orrel-Valentea J, Hillb L., Brechwaldc W., Dodged K, Pettite G, Batesf  G.‘‘Just three more bites’’: An observational analysis of parents’ socialization of children’s eating at mealtime. Appetite 48 (2007) 37–45

Webber L, Cooke L, Hill C, Wardle J. Associations between children’s appetitive traits and maternal feeding practices. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(11):1718-1722.

Elliott C. “It’s junk food and chicken nuggets”: Children perspective on “kids’ foods “and the question of food classification. J Consumer Behav.2011. 10;133-140

Nicklaus S. Development of food variety in children. Appetite.2009, 52: 253–255

Skinner, J. D., Carruth, B. R., Bounds, W., Ziegler, P., & Reidy, K. (2002). Do food-related experiences in the first 2 years of life predict dietary variety in school-aged children? Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 34(6), 310–315.

Birch, L. L. & Marlin, D. W. I don’t like it; I never tried it: Effects of exposure on two-year-old children’s food preferences. Appetite, 1982, 3, 353-360.

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