Most parents would like to establish healthy eating habits for their children. We all know that feeding them pizza and chicken nuggets is not good for them. But we often hear, “He is such a picky eater, he won’t eat anything else!” Scary, right?
Every child has a potential to become a picky eater.
The good news is you can prevent this from happening in your family.
Today I am going to show you how.
1. It takes 9 times for a baby to try and like new food
Familiarity promotes acceptance.
In a study in which moms offered a disliked vegetable to their infant every other day, over 70% ate it happily by the time they had been presented with the vegetable eight times. And the effect lasted over time.¹
When a baby tries a brand new vegetable or fruit, she is most likely not going to enjoy it at all. And that’s normal! It doesn’t mean she can’t learn to like it. Regular exposure is the key.
Start slowly. For instance, the first time your little one is about to try kale, give her a spoon or two. She might not eat any more than that and that’s OK. Keep offering it over the next couple of days and weeks. I can almost guarantee that she will eat it without a whim after a while.
The taste buds need to adjust to new flavors, even in adults! When my friend traveled to Indonesia, she couldn’t taste any flavor (besides spicy) in their typical food. After a few weeks, however, she was enjoying the local dishes with great delight.
2. Postpone giving sugary foods as long as possible
We all heard the advice to start feeding babies vegetables first. And it is a good advice. I absolutely followed it with my twins too!
But that’s not all. Many people will tell you to give your 10-month-old juice or you might want to try those yogurt bites for snacks. Don’t do it!
When I searched for baby yogurt for my boys I was absolutely stunned by the fact that #2 ingredient is actually added sugar (on top of the naturally occurring sugar in milk). You can always try plain white yogurt instead and add your own fruit. An investigative blogger Food babe wrote a super informative article on additives and “natural” flavors in yogurts. For more info read here.
And don’t get me started with the juice. I have seen too many pre-schoolers with rotten or missing teeth which makes me run from the juice aisle in the supermarket!
The consequences of too much sugar too soon are too complex to discuss them all here. But to make the point, baby’s taste buds will adjust to this overload of sweet flavor and she will seek it in everything else she eats. No wonder kids learn to refuse the healthy foods early on.
You may also like to read more about:
- Toddler Eating Schedule: A Straightforward Guide to How Often And How Much
- Toddler Language Development: A Comprehensive Guide
- 12 Life Skills for Toddlers: What to Teach Them While They’re Young
- Toddler Books: The Ultimate List Based On Typical Toddlers’ Interests
3. Avoid calling your child a “picky eater”
Giving a child a label “picky eater” is almost certainly going to backfire.
As Dina Rose Ph.D. in her article Why You Should Never Call Your Picky Eater a “Picky Eater” points out, it is easy for thoughts to become reality. The child adopts the identity of a picky eater and a life-long struggle with eating habits is born.
Plus, she probably enjoys the special attention which only reinforces her in doing so.
If your little one seems to prefer certain foods over others, recognize it and stay patient.
For instance, one of my boys doesn’t like to eat cheese. He won’t even touch it, let alone put it in his mouth! Am I worried he is never going to like it? Not at all. It might simply be a phase and he will most likely grow out of it. I just don’t bring unnecessary attention to it.
Want to read a success story of turning picky eaters around? Check out a book called French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters!
4. Stay away from processed foods
When babies celebrate their first birthday they are pretty much allowed to eat everything. It is a great milestone.
What happens, however, is that many parents will turn to foods commonly advertised as “kids food“. Foods like Spaghettios, Mac & Cheese, Pizza or Chicken Nuggets are all widely accepted as children-appropriate food.
Adam McDowell from National Post very precisely explains how we created an entire generation of unsophisticated, picky eaters by serving them such simple, nutrient-lacking foods.
Just like with yogurt, these foods are loaded with preservatives, sugar, salt, and additives which have no business of being in our children’s diet. Again they burst with artificial flavors which make the natural and healthy foods taste bland (which they don’t).
I actually don’t understand the need to immediately switch our babies’ diet when they turn one. What is wrong with sweet potatoes or butternut squash? Instead of making purees, simply serve them sliced. They are a great finger food!
5. Cook and serve the same meal for the whole family
Once a baby is transitioning to regular table food, there is not need to cook different dinner for kids and adults. It is such a common practice, but absolutely unnecessary.
When I cook lunch or dinner, I simply avoid adding too much salt and only add more to my own plate.
A family dinner is meant to be a bonding experience, not separating. Plus cooking just one main dish saves us time and lots of extra work.
6. Simple foods first
At times, we might feel sorry for our baby. We think her food is so plain and flavorless. Always feeding her vegetables, fruits, cereal, plain meats, no salt or sugar added. We want to make her happy by offering a little extra flavor. But remember, babies don’t know what ice-cream or strawberry cream cheese taste like!
We judge their needs from our own perspective and sometimes our judgment gets clouded. After 30 or 40 years of eating all kinds of foods, we consider plain cottage cheese or white yogurt tasteless. But our babies don’t. Let them have a chance to explore and get used to these simple flavors first.
7. Avoid giving too many options
Avoid asking toddlers “What do you want to eat?” I know, this might sound unfair. But babies and toddlers really aren’t equipped to recognize what is good for them and what is not. We might run into trouble when our two-year-old answers “Ice cream!” We all know how persistent toddlers can be.
We are responsible for our children’s nutrition. Let’s not put it on their shoulders. If you really want your child to pick her snack or lunch, give her two options. “Would you like an apple or a banana?”
8. Never force your baby to eat
Babies and young children are very good at recognizing when they are full. Forcing them to eat more only creates a negative association with eating.
Sometimes we might feel as if our kids don’t eat enough and think they are going to vanish with hunger! But unless your baby is losing weight, there is no need to worry.
If a baby refuses to eat and we think she really needs to eat some more, it is a good practice to wait a half-hour before offering anything else. Otherwise, she will slip into a habit of refusing lunch or dinner just so she can get a snack.
One time, my little guy absolutely refused to eat his dinner two nights in a row. As a toddler, I felt like he was testing the boundaries more than anything. So I kindly excused him from the table and told him he would have to wait until breakfast to eat again. I also gave him an option to return to the table if he changed his mind. We peacefully continued eating with his brother. After about five minutes of crying, the little guy was right back up in his high chair eating. He hasn’t done it ever since.
9. Stay away from highly emotional statements while feeding
For some reason, we take it so personally when our babies refuse foods. We think, “But I slaved over this meal for an hour and she won’t even touch it?!” I promise you, she is not doing it to make you feel mad or unhappy.
There is no need for drama, mama.
She might simply not be hungry at that moment, teething, having a belly ache, or ten other reasons why she doesn’t want to eat. But when we throw a show every time she refuses to eat, she will learn to expect it, even like it.
When serving lunch or dinner to your little one, do it as a matter of fact. What does that mean you ask?
We all need to eat, it is a matter of survival and our basic need. At the beginning, let’s keep it at that.
There is no need to bring SO much attention to the food we are serving. No need to say how good, healthy, yummy etc. it is. There is plenty of time to do that once our child is a bit older and actually able to have a conversation with you.
Instead, we like to talk about our day, activities we did, places and people we visited. No need for a “convince-me-to-like-this-food” speech!
10. Lead by example
When eating together with our children, not only we grow as a family, but we also teach them table manners. It is an opportunity for us parents to reinforce good eating habits and lead by example.
When we eat balanced and healthy meals, our children can only follow.
Having children absolutely motivates me to cook and feed my family healthy meals. I learned to make simpler meals with lots of vegetables, organic meat and as little processed foods as possible.
It will do us all good in the long run.
Raising kids is hard work. Sometimes we need to make decisions they might not like. But these hard choices are going to prevent a whole lot of struggle in the future.
Make sure you check out Toddler Eating Schedule: A Straightforward Guide to How Often and How Much.
For five extra tips & suggestions, check out my graphic below! Feel free to share it or download it!
Happy eating to you and your little one!
¹Jenn Berman: Superbaby. Sterling. 2010.
David Walsh: Smart Parenting, Smart Kids. Free Press 2011.