Picky Eaters – How to Engage Children into Healthy Eating
As a parent, I know how challenging feeding your kid can be. On countless occasions, I prepared a meal only to find out that my child refused to taste it with variety of excuses. Or in other times the child will love a meal one day, but dislike it the next.
It is very common for young children to avoid certain foods and have only a few meal choices in their diet. This behavior is called picky eating and can cause deficiencies in protein, iron, zinc and other micronutrients (1).
Here are some ways to help your child try a variety of food:
Exposure to Taste
According to the psychologist Leann L. Birch (2), in order to increase preference for the taste of food, experiencing the actual taste of the food is necessary (3). Birch and her colleagues found that kids between the ages of 2-5 years who were exposed to the same tastes over and over grew to like these tastes. Based on this finding, it is recommended that you keep offering fruits and vegetables (or any healthful food of your choosing) to the child. You can add this food to your child’s plate, and let him try it few times before you concluding that the child dislikes it.
Cover Up Food/Taste or Pair Tastes
Another option to increase eating healthful foods is to cover up its taste. One way of doing this, for example, is by making a smoothie that includes both vegetables and fruits. The sweet taste of fruit might cover up the taste of the vegetables and the child will drink it.
An alternative option would be to pair healthful foods, like vegetables and fruits with a preferred food. This might increase the chance that your child will taste the healthful food.
Give your child a reward, such as a sticker, for each time they try a vegetable or a fruit. After a few times, your child might start eating this food regardless of the reward.
Positive peer modeling and personal example
According to a study on peer modeling effect (4), preference for food increases if the child sees his peers enjoying the same food. If your child has older siblings or other family members like cousins, you can engage them in influencing your child’s food preferences. In addition, the study suggested that kids will be more likely to try food that a familiar adult likes. Personal examples can be very effective when trying to teach a child to try new/healthy foods. That said, it is recommended to fill the child’s plate and yours with healthy food and demonstrate affection to this food. Eventually, your child will be convinced to try the same food.
On that note, you might want to consider eliminating harmful foods, that you wish your child avoid eating. Sugary foods and drinks, processed foods, and junk foods better kept away from dinner table to encourage your child to eat healthier.
Sometimes, letting your child get involve in the food preparation, will simply do the trick. When you plan your weekly or daily meals, take the time to consult your child and ask them what they would like to eat. One method I like to use is to open a cookbook and go over the pictures of meals with them. My kids choose the dish they like the most, and we cook it together. When the child is more involved in the food preparation and choice, they are more likely to enjoy it and perhaps be open to try new foods. At the very least you have created some quality family time. Try it! You might thank me later…
To change a child preference of food, it takes more than one try. It is a mix of many factors such as a calm environment, personal example of peers and family, and the food should be offered at least six times either on the child’s plate or on the table. I encourage you to try some of the options suggested here to help your child enjoy his healthy meals.
1. Taylor CM, Northstone K, Wernimont SM, Emmett PM. Macro- and micronutrient intakes in picky eaters: a cause for concern? Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;104(6):1647-1656.
2. Leann L.Birch, Promoting children’s healthy eating in obesogenic environments: Lessons learned from the rat. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S00319384110026783.
3. Logue AW. The Psychology of Eating and Drinking. Fourth Edition.
4. Greenhalgh J, Dowey AJ, Horne PJ, Fergus Lowe C, Griffiths JH, Whitaker CJ. Positive- and negative peer modelling effects on young children’s consumption of novel blue foods. Appetite. 2009;52(3):646-653. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2009.02.016.