So what happens to turn adventurous little eaters into demanding and difficult diners? Often, parents do.
Almost every youngster goes through a picky eating stage at some point. Many are testing the boundaries of their independence; some are going through a schedule change and are tired and cranky at mealtime. Others have issues with the smell, color or texture of a food, while some truly don’t like what is being served. All of that is normal and okay. It’s how parents react to these situations that determines the overall habits being formed.
By offering too many choices, exposing kids to processed and fast foods too often and too early, and having low expectations of what they’ll like, many well-meaning parents actually encourage picky eating.
With the intention of making sure kids are appropriately full when leaving the table, eager moms often offer so many meal time options—even preparing separate “kids meals” for dinner time or shortly after—that little diners have no real incentive to try what’s on their plate. Why eat that weird looking asparagus stuff now when they’ll be a PB&J or bowl of cereal right around the corner?
Patrick Krupka, DC, a practicing chiropractor who runs a functional nutrition-based practice in the Houston area, says when you offer kids too many choices, they often choose things that don’t make parents happy.
“When I was growing up, my parents rarely made dinner for my sister and me that was different from what they were eating,” he says. “I know for a fact that their parents never gave them a menu to choose from at dinnertime. If you were hungry, you ate. While this wasn’t the most gentle way to introduce new foods, it was moderately successful.”
It’s a matter of curiosity why parents are so eager to introduce kids to cookies and French fries and chicken nuggets, because it’s no surprise that they’ll like them. These foods are sweet, salty, crunchy, and almost guaranteed to spoil the palate for healthier items.
According to Krupka, young taste buds are very quickly trained to prefer certain flavors and textures.
“Almost any food designed or marketed to children these days has a significant amount of sugar in it,” Krupka says, and when exposed regularly, “these foods keep the palate calibrated toward the sweet end of the flavor spectrum. Eating something ‘earthy’ or mineral tasting like vegetables just can’t compete with the seductively addictive properties of sugar.” It’s the same with salt.
“Consider the difference in texture between a chicken nugget, and a bite from a whole chicken breast,” he adds. “The mouth feel is significantly different. Even children who started out on good wholesome foods—those kids that would snack on raw carrots or broccoli—can change their preferences very quickly when exposed to commercial foods.”
Many parents assume their kids won’t like something because they don’t like it, or because it’s not something kids typically like. Present foods to your little ones as if you expect them to like them, and you might be surprised. When you see other people’s kids devouring surprising foods like avocados, olives, or fish, it’s usually because they were offered to them regularly and without hesitation.
But what if you’ve already inadvertently created a difficult diner and are craving a dinnertime do-over? There are some things you can do to help transform that picky palate.
Involve kids in the process. Whether it’s buying, planting or preparing the ingredients for a meal, allowing kids to participate in the process of food selection and preparation makes them more likely to try it. Krupka has seen this work with his own 9-year-old son.
“When we prepare meals, we’ll have him help cut, peel, or cook the ingredients he helped choose in the garden or the store. Once the meal is prepared he is much more willing, sometimes even eager, to try the food containing his ingredient or that was produced through his effort,” Krupka says.
Don’t force it, but don’t give up. We’ve all heard stories of kids being made to stay at the table until they eat a dinner they don’t want. But whether the offensive foods eventually get eaten or tossed in the trash, something about “winning the battle, but not the war” comes to mind.
“Forcing variety on children can lead to fights, resentment, and bad mealtime memories,” Krupka says, “but repeated exposure is necessary to acceptance.”
Research has shown that you may need to present a “new” food as many as 15 times before youngsters will accept it. Just because kids don’t like a food now, doesn’t mean they never will.
“Have them try one bite of the new or ‘undesirable’ food before moving on to tried-and-true favorites,” Krupka says.
Even if the verdict is negative, encourage kids to try the dish again the next time you serve it. Extremely stubborn eaters may flat-out refuse. The item should still go on their plate.
It’s often helpful to make sure there is always something on their plate that you know they like, so the entire meal doesn’t appear offensive. Then, they have to at least try everything else.
Remember, the goal is not to get them to clean their plates by eating all foods now, but to encourage a diverse palate as well as an appreciation for trying new foods. By repeatedly exposing them to a wide variety of dishes and flavors, the palate will often transform itself.
By // Stacy Barry