Macaroni and cheese. Chicken nuggets. French fries. Spaghetti with butter. Does this menu sound familiar? Is this list of foods in constant rotation in your house? Do you find yourself constantly cooking 2 different meals each mealtime? One for your “normal” family members and the other for your alien child who only eats the aforementioned plain foods? Why am I still asking you questions?
If you’ve read this far, you clearly have a picky child in your midst and are looking for answers, solutions, or just a place where you can pull out your hair in peace. Well, I can promise you the latter two, but the answers I’ll leave to the experts.
First things first, your child being a picky eater is NOT your fault. Let’s get that out of the way. If your toddler won’t eat a variety of foods, you are not to blame. You may have inadvertently exacerbated the situation, but kids’ palates are tough to change. You may think that your kid is the pickiest eater in a sea of picky eaters, but you could be wrong.
What a picky eater looks like
My kid was recently named by a committee consisting of only my wife and me as “The World’s Pickiest Kid in The World” (yes, we know the award’s name is redundant). We didn’t achieve the desired effect of shaming our child into eating broccoli. If anything, this award just further encouraged him in his quest and he really couldn’t be prouder of himself. Maybe just winning something that wasn’t a participation trophy went to his head.
When my son was a baby, I focused hard on picky eating and finding healthy food for picky eaters. I had been a picky eater when I was young and still avoid certain gross foods (mushrooms of any kind) to this day. While I came around later in life on most vegetables and other good-for-me foods, I decided to get him off on the right foot.
So I gave my son everything: salmon, broccoli, tilapia, spinach, rice, kiwi. No matter what it was or how much it made me nauseous to watch it get liquified, I gave it to him. And he loved it! I was a great dad, and we were well on our way to a life of good, varietal eating.
But then, when he turned 2, something changed. And it changed quickly. One bite of salmon went down as the next one came right back up, along with everything else that he had swallowed in our 3 minute session. That was it. Since that day (8 years ago), my wife and I have been struggling with our son’s diet.
In the early days of his newfound picky habits, trying new foods just wasn’t an option. His gag reflex was on point. We would get a piece of a pear within an inch of his mouth and he would gag instantly.
One time my wife had carried a flask of squash soup in the car while on the way to a birthday party. She opened the container and before my son could even utter, “What’s that sm…” he vomited all over the backseat. This, my friends, is what extreme pickiness looks like. And it isn’t pretty.
The psychology of picky eaters
Let’s unpack why picking eating happens in the first place here. According to psychologist Vanessa LoBue, Ph.D., you can influence your child’s fussy eating habits through your own eating patterns and the foods you have available in your house. She also mentions that having older siblings can influence what your picky eater might decide to eat.
Most adult picky eaters start as child picky eaters. Pickiness can persist from childhood. Unfortunately for such eaters, engaging in social situations where they have to mingle and dine with other people can cause anxiety.
Experts insist that punishing your child for not eating is not the way to go. All that parental control at mealtime can make your child develop aversions to foods they once liked. We’re not big on punishments in general unless it’s for something huge. I think its impact diminishes over time when it becomes too frequent, especially when it comes to food. Punishment for not eating the very last bite of pea won’t make them love peas; it will cause them to resent the little green legume.
Rewards seem to be a good path, though. The difference is all in the language. Saying, “If you eat your pickled beets, then you can have dessert” instead of, “If you don’t eat your pickled beets, you won’t get dessert.” See what I’m saying?
Try it Tuesdays for picky eaters
We were faced with a conundrum. The benefits of trying new foods are obvious. And it’s not just a few specific foods but an unlimited range of foods with different tastes. You have to try foods repeatedly throughout your life to know if you like them truly.
For instance, I was not too fond of tomatoes until I was 22 years old. I would never have known that I actually liked them if I didn’t try them 24 times. Taste buds change as you age. A picky eater should eventually become a less-picky eater someday, right? But how could we get our son not to get grossed out by merely looking at food and hating it without question? Well, we had an idea.
Ok, fine, it wasn’t our idea. Our wonderful pediatrician suggested Try it Tuesday, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. Every Tuesday, at some point during the day, you get your kid to try one food. You call it Try it Tuesday and make it a game. In only 3 weeks, they’ll be eating the finest sushi. Maybe not that quick, but that’s the theory anyway.
In the beginning, we let him choose. We’d give him 3 healthy meal options to pick which one he wanted to try on that particular Tuesday. This was great, but it backfired a little because all we accomplished was finding his newfound love for pulp-free orange juice. As he got older, we came up with more of a plan: A green vegetable one week, a new fruit the next, and a piece of fish down the line.
We only made fish twice because neither my wife nor I can stomach seafood of any kind. We’re both from New England and our families don’t understand us at all either. This is what has led us down the path of creating our very own picky child. In our defense, we gave him fish and seaweed and everything ocean-related when he was a baby to try and help him avoid our fish-hating fate. But he found his way there all on his own, as previously illustrated by the salmon story.
His eating improved slightly over time, but his inability to even get certain foods near his mouth without gagging has been a real issue. However, I’m happy to report that avocado is now a part of his regular diet, he eats spinach salad 3 days a week, and he likes grapes now. Sure they have to be rock solid with no squishy texture, but he likes them. And I owe it all to Try it Tuesday.
Now, is it important that Tuesday is the day to get your kids to try new foods? Well, not at all. It was just the arbitrary day his doctor picked, probably due to it having the most sensical alliteration.
When we forget to enforce Try it Tuesdays, we’ve enacted: What if Wednesdays, Think about it Thursdays, Finicky Fridays, Sample it Saturdays, Switch it up Sundays, and Maybe Mondays depending on when we remember. The point is, it doesn’t matter when you do it. But if your picky eater won’t eat an unrestricted variety of foods, make it a point to schedule a time each week when you can introduce healthy foods.
3 strategies for picky eaters
What if you’ve tried the days of the week thing and still your child won’t eat anything healthy? What else can you do to make eating fun? I have some ideas and strategies for conquering the minds of your picky eaters during meal times:
1. Make your picky eater part of the cooking process
Here’s how to make healthy eating fun for kids; teach them to make their own meals. Seriously, this is a great way to get kids to try new foods. Make the little helpers part of the cooking process when making kid-friendly recipes. The more they handle the ingredients, cut the foods and cook them, the more familiar they become. You can teach them yourself or enroll them in an online cooking class.
2. Make eating a competition
Why not? Let your child earn points for the number of new foods they try in a week or for the number of times they try one food in a month. I came up with a fun game that I like to call the “Color Game.” Pick a different color each weekend. Let’s take red, for example.
Bring them with you when you go shopping and have them pick out 5 red foods they’ve never tried or have tried but didn’t like. When you get home, prepare them and line them up. They get 1 point for a tiny bite of each food, 2 points for a decent-sized bite, and 3 points for finishing the entire portion. You can even add in extra points for eating the whole set of foods.
For any food they’ve already tried and didn’t like but are willing to retry now, they get double points. You can pit them against you or a sibling or even a friend. The points are up to you, as is the reward. Sometimes just winning the game is enough for them. You know that what they’re really winning is nutrition.
By making shopping fun, with toddlers you might be able to avoid the typical supermarket meltdown.
3. Add “gross foods” to your daily meal plan
Have a steady rotation of “gross foods” that they “hate” be a part of dinner time every night. That’s right. An unhappy kid every night. Make it consistent so that they’re never surprised. Every Monday is broccoli. Every Tuesday is squash, and so forth.
But here’s the catch. Let them decide how to prepare the food. If they hated last Thursday night’s boiled carrots, let them choose how the “orange menace” gets prepared this week. They might hate roasted carrots with toasted sesame seeds, but they might love carrot soup.
The goal is to eventually find a recipe that they actually like and then make that recipe part of the dinner rotation. You make them feel like they are in control and eventually lull them into submission.
These are only a few ways to get your kids to try new foods. While some may not work for you, they are guaranteed to make eating a bit more fun. Most importantly, they’ll help you demystify some of these “exotic” foods for your picky kid.
Take the stigma out of vegetables. Make them something more common. The more they get used to having them around, the better they will adapt their thinking from “I will never eat that” to “I don’t love it, but it’s fine.” That’s a win in my book.
I think of picky eating as an evolutionary reaction to overcorrection. Your finicky eater’s body is naturally trying to avoid eating something it perceives will do it harm. In this case, their instinct has somehow gone from trepidation to complete paranoia.
You just have to convince their brains that parsnip is not a deadly weapon by having them hang around for a while. They might never see eye to eye, but they just might end up understanding each other, even if only a little bit.