“Picky eating” is widespread: studies indicate that 80 percent of parents report this as an issue. Fear of new foods and rejection of previously accepted foods (“neophobia”) often appears at around 24 months. Once you have consulted with your medical practitioner and verified that there are no underlying medical issues, here are some helpful tips:
Your child is a “learning eater.” Children need to taste a new food between 7 and 12 times before they’ll accept to eat it. Tell this to your child! Your job is to make these foods available; your child’s job is to gradually learn to like them.
Introduce your child to new foods before you serve them. Just like they feel shy around new people, kids often feel shy around new vegetables. Showing them the food prior to eating it helps increase familiarity and thus acceptance. Buy foods with you child and prepare (wash, peel, cook, serve) them together.
Serve veggies first. Research shows this increases acceptance of vegetables and the overall amount eaten at the main course.
Smaller is better. Tiny slices and small servings work best. For younger kids, it makes new foods easier to chew. For kids of all ages, a small serving is less daunting.
Avoid asking “do you like this new food?”. Rather, ask your child to describe it. This helps children develop their vocabulary and encourages them to appreciate the sensations (taste, smell, touch) they’re experiencing—eventually increasing acceptance.
Avoid saying “eat this, it’s good for you.” Rather, tell your child “Try this, it’s delicious.” Also make sure to eat that flavorful food yourself. It helps when parents follow the “one family, one meal” rule: no substitutes and no separate kids’ food.
Reduce snacking. Snacking within an hour of meals reduces appetite and thus interest in trying new foods. School-age children may need as little as one snack per day.
Remember: you’re not alone! For most children, picky eating is a phase rather than a personality trait. Change won’t happen overnight, but your patient persistence will be rewarded.
Karen Le Billon is the author of Getting to Yum and French Kids Eat Everything and a professor at the University of British Columbia. She’s been curing and preventing kids’ picky eating by dealing with these issues firsthand as a mom whose children now love everything from fish to Thai curry and stinky blue cheese. Free resources and helpful tips can be found on her websites: www.gettingtoyum.com and www.frenchkidseateverything.com.