Expanding Your Family’s Palate By Placating Picky Eaters

picky eaters

Women filed into TheMotherhood to share tips and tricks for “Expanding Your Family’s Palate by Placating Picky Eaters,” the latest installment in the Cooking Connections series, held in partnership with ConAgra Foods. The class focused on methods for getting picky eaters out of their food ruts – along with offering up plain old encouragement for worried moms.

One myth that I’d personally like to dispel is that picky eaters are somehow the result of something the parents have done. Sure, there are parents out there who feed their kids McDonald’s five times a week and whose kitchens have never once seen a vegetable. But for the majority of parents who are doing their best to serve well-balanced meals on a regular basis, a good number will still end up with picky eaters. So let’s just take the guilt off the table right now. ;-)

I have two daughters, ages 4 & 6. Both have been raised in the same house by the same parents with the same rules – yet the two could not be more different with regard to food. My 4-year-old eats everything that’s put in front of her. Seriously. She decides she’s going to like something before she even sees it! But my 6-year-old? She’s my picky eater. She was a fantastic eater as a toddler and would eat pretty much anything I’d put in front of her. And then, almost overnight, that all changed. And I quote: “Mommy, I don’t eat anything that’s brown or green or yellow or red.”   UGH.

But I’ve started to see some positive changes. Nothing drastic or earth-shattering, but small changes that I predict mean big things to come. She’ll try things now where she would have flat-out refused before. There’s less suspicion with every new item that’s put on her plate. And there are more foods that she’ll eat. No, the game has not yet been won, but our team is finally taking the lead.

So I was really pleased to be asked to co-host this virtual class on Placating Picky Eater’s since I have first-hand experience on the topic! Here’s the summary from the class with some great tips for your own picky eaters:

As co-host Brooke McLay, Cheeky Kitchen, put it, “When all is said and done, the fact of the matter is some kids just need time … A combination of clever ideas, never giving up, and lots of patience always tends to win out in my book.  Good luck!”

Picky Eating is Normal – Don’t Stress!

“From my experience as a dietitian, if a child is going to become picky, it will probably kick in around age two.  Picky eating is normal,” said participant Liz Weiss. “Best to downplay it and keep offering a healthy variety of foods over and over again. Presentation is key. Eye and texture appeal can make a big and positive difference.”

Stacie Billis at One Hungry Mama had an interesting series of points about picky eating:

- There’s an evolutionary explanation for some picky phases. (some phases come at times of increased mobility, when baby might be exploring places without mama or papa immediately nearby to protect them. Pickiness, natural skepticism of new foods, prevented the cave baby from putting just about anything – like a poisonous berry – in baby’s mouth)

- Some kids have limited palates because of the way they are fed for the first few years of life (kids who are raised on bland and overly sweet processed cereals and packaged baby food can’t be expected to suddenly have a taste for fresh broccoli and cauliflower!)

- Sometimes it’s a developmentally appropriate power struggle (food is one of the few things over which baby can exert control and it’s important that they experiment with this)

“These are not things that can be turned around quickly,” she said. “Rather, it’s a slow process with the goal of helping kids develop healthy eating habits that will sustain them a lifetime.”

Just Try It

Many participants use the “one-bite rule” to get their kids to try a food before simply refusing it.

“Our rule is you just need to take a full size bite, chew, swallow and then say, ‘Yes, please’ or ‘No, thank you,’” said host Jennifer Leal, Savor the Thyme.

Co-host Dara Michalski, Cookin’ Canuck, agreed, but said, “We actually have the 3-bite rule. I think kids are likely to refuse the food on the first bite if it’s something new. If they take a few extra bites, they often end up liking it.”

And Keep Trying It

“Always introduce food several times in several forms,” said host Kelsey Banfield, The Naptime Chef. “Kids will pick up on it eventually.”

“It can take upwards of 6-10 tries for a child to accept a new food – so it’s super important to the course by repeatedly serving healthy foods (openly!) and modeling eating them, too,” added Stacie Billis. “Even when they say they don’t like them!”

Liz Weiss added, “And sometimes it’s the texture that makes all the difference. As tastebuds change and mature, so may tolerance to certain textures.”

Interesting Food Everyone will Love

Host Kimberly Coleman, Mom in the City, asked participants to share some of the healthy, interesting foods their picky eaters enjoyed.

“My kids are big fans of eggs,” said Dara Michalski. “We make a lot of frittatas for dinner (quick and easy). We’re able to include a variety of proteins and veggies into them.”

And for those with kids who won’t touch fruit, “My 12 year old son wouldn’t eat fruit until he discovered smoothies,” said co-host Amy Johnson, She Wears Many Hats. “He now enjoys preparing one or more daily! Even combining several kinds of fruit!”

“My kids always respond to the fun shaped fruits and veggies,” added Brooke McLay. “Last week, we tried starfruit, kiwi, and berry skewers. Keep introducing new colors and flavors of fresh fruits and veggies and you never know what might stick!”

For kids who are hesitant about fruit, try this great Peanut Butter Apple Wrap recipe from ConAgra’s recipe website Ready Set Eat.

You can also try “playing” with your food to encourage kids to try new things.  Participant Stephanie said her son loves “sugar snap peas – since we made it a game of the peas peeking out of the pod, he now calls them peek-a-boo peas!”

“I got my son to eat his first sandwich by cutting it into a letter shape because he loves the alphabet,” commented Shari Simpson-Cabelin, who writes at Earth Mom just means I’m dusty.

Kim also shared a link from CBS about great lunch ideas for kids.

Making Meals Work for Everyone

“One of the things I love to do is make one meal work for everyone,” said Kelsey Banfield. “I usually take one or two elements of a meal and adjust them for the adults and children. For example, we all love pesto (daughter included). So for her I do cheese tortellini with pesto and for us I do salmon with pesto. I hope someday she’ll be curious about the salmon part since it includes one of her favorite condiments … Starting off with a common ingredient and branching out from there is a great way to introduce new food.”

Brooke McLay added, “My pediatrician is fond of saying that no well-loved kid has ever starved themselves to death. At some point, they get hungry enough to taste the food that is available. So, in our house, it’s one meal for everyone. And if they don’t like it, they can brush their teeth, go to bed, and wait until breakfast.”

You can also ask your kids to help you prepare the meal to encourage them to eat the same thing you’re eating.

“Sometimes I’ll cook with both of my girls and I’ll intentionally choose something that is new,” said Kristy Bernardo, The Wicked Noodle. “They’ve never turned down something they’ve made themselves – they’re too proud of it!”

Educating the Littlest Consumer

Kelsey noted that taking your kids to the farmer’s market or grocery store when you stock up for meals “can be a great way to get kids curious about food and maybe give them a choice of healthy snacks.”

Co-host Shaina Olmanson, Food for My Family, added, “My husband and I do our grocery shopping and our cooking with all four of our children … We have seen how important this is to getting them to eat healthy and develop a good relationship with food.”

“I love showing my kids where food comes from – we visit farms and farm markets all the time,” said co-host Jo-Lynne Shane, Musings of a Housewife.

Co-host Jen Rabulan-Bertram, Next Kid Thing, suggested “going strawberry, apple and pumpkin picking–or whatever is in season,” which can be “fun and educational, too.”

You can take that a step further and start your own backyard garden with your kids – “My daughter loved realizing that the tomatoes we grew made tomato sauce!” Kelsey noted.  And kids who grow their own veggies “can’t wait to wash them and bite right in,” said Jennifer Leal.

“Sneaking” Foods into Meals?

Opinions varied widely on whether moms should sneak healthy foods into other foods their kids like to help them vary their diets.

“I don’t see anything WRONG with it, but I don’t go out of my way to be ‘sneaky’ either,” said Jo-Lynne Shane. “I just keep a variety of nourishing food around. They eat what they like and leave the rest. I don’t stress over it.”

“I think sneaking is okay as long as it doesn’t replace trying to teach children how to eat healthy,” said Kristy Bernardo. “The goal is to get them to develop lifelong healthy habits, not just get the foods down their throats.”

“My Mom would say it was chicken when it was really tofu,” added Charlene. “Later she would tell us. I guess because she knew us and that for us it was mental. So like most said, it depends on who and how picky your child is.”

“I sometimes ‘hide the truth’ about what’s in a meal, said Kelsey. “Don’t delve into it too much. I think keeping things low-key is ok. I don’t lie, but I keep it low-key.”

Similarly, Dara Michalski and her husband “don’t actually lie about what is in a dish, but we do have certain names for a couple of foods. For example, for awhile we called couscous ‘mini rice’ because both of my boys liked rice, but were hesitant about the couscous.”

“I think that exposing kids to the real, actual foods is most important without a doubt,” concluded Kimberly Coleman. “However, every kid is different and I think that moms should do what they need to do in order for their kids to get their (real, not imagined) nutrient needs met.”

No Snacking

Co-host Dara Michalski, Cookin’ Canuck, had additional advice for parents of picky eaters based on experience.  “I have worked with many children who have significant eating issues, and one of the most basic and helpful changes the parents make is to insist on a regular meal and snack schedule so that kids are not grazing on food throughout the day (and are then not that hungry at mealtime),” she said.  “Also, requiring that the child sits at the table to eat, rather than taking a couple of bites between playing, can make a big difference.”

Stacie Billis agreed, noting that the policy in her home is “no snacks at all after 3:30 pm. Being hungry at dinner time is key to helping dinner go as smoothly as possible.”

And if they won’t eat dinner anyway?  “If my son won’t eat his dinner, I save it for him,” said Shari Simpson-Cabelin. “If he says, ‘I’m hungry’ at bedtime, he gets… the same dinner. It’s helped quite a bit.”

I hope you can use some of these tips to help you with your own picky eaters! Please leave a comment with your own tips, too!