Not long ago, my husband was on call and I was home alone with my 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son.

Both kids were crying and vying for my attention, so I did the best I could in that moment: I microwaved some chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, and in a matter of minutes, dinner was made.

As I squeezed Velveeta goop onto my kids’ mushy macaroni, I looked at it with a tinge of disgust. Then I added some organic pears to their plates to make myself feel better. It helped, at least a little.

As parents, we’ve all been there before, and maybe more often than we care to admit. The trick is not getting stuck there. My husband and I fell into the trap of feeding our kids lots of frozen food partly because we both work full-time and don’t have much time to cook, and also because our daughter Madelyn is a super picky eater. Feeding her foods we know she will eat has always seemed easier than trying to convince her to eat healthier, home-cooked meals.

After too many guilt-ridden chicken nugget and fish stick dinners, though, we recently decided that we were going to start exposing Madelyn and our son Tucker to different types of healthier foods. Some foods have been surprisingly well-received. Others have ended up on the floor or in balled-up napkins. But hey, at least the kids are trying them. So, how can parents address their kids’ picky eating habits and get them to try new foods?

I’m still learning, but have developed some helpful strategies and tips that I’m testing out and adapting along the way. Here are my top seven…

1.) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

In the past, I had tried making my daughter Madelyn home-cooked meals but was always discouraged by the fact that she never seemed interested in them.

“I don’t want lasagna!” she would defiantly declare. “Get it off my plate. Right now!”

It was a struggle to get her to even try a bite of something new, and on the rare occasions when she did, she would usually spit it out. I felt defeated and decided to dial down my efforts to introduce her to new foods.

But I’ve realized more and more that persistence is the key ingredient in all of this.

My daughter used to refuse to eat vegetables, but I nevertheless kept trying to sneak spinach into her food. Then one day, right after she turned 3, she surprised me and ate one piece of raw spinach, and then two, then three, then four pieces. Now, she eats spinach salad — something I never imagined her eating — once or twice a week. 

Sometimes you may need to expose your child to the same food multiple times before they will feel ready to eat it. Having patience as the parent of a picky eater is key.

2.) Pair new foods with familiar ones. When I want to get my kids to try new foods, I always pair the new food with another one that I know my kids like. This makes trying the new food a little less intimidating, and makes the new food less overpowering.

When they seem especially reluctant to try a new food, I’ll give them a condiment or spread — like hummus, honey, ketchup, or a healthy salad dressing — that they can dip the new food into. More often than not it works, at least for a few bites.

3.) Involve your child in the kitchen. One of the ways I’ve been piquing my kids’ curiosity about food is by inviting them to help me cook.

They love playing with measuring spoons and cups, and helping me measure out different ingredients. In doing so, they’re getting exposed to different types of food and developing a better understanding of how meals are made.

My son can’t talk much yet, but he babbles while helping me stir the ingredients. And my daughter loves asking me about each step in the process.

“What’s that food, mommy? Is of spicy or sweet? Can I try it?”

Co-cooking has become a great way for us to bond, and for her to have a say in (and a taste of) the food we eat.

4.) Give your child a sense of control. If your picky child is used to eating certain foods, she might feel overwhelmed if you give her a full plate of new food.

Instead, show her what you’ve made and ask her what she wants to try first. See if she wants to help you spoon out a serving so that she can help decide how much ends up on her plate.

Giving her some choice in the matter will help her feel more in control over what she’s eating.

5.) Model good eating behaviors yourself. I’ve always been cognizant of how and what I eat in front of my kids because I know how closely kids observe and mimic their parents’ behaviors. 

If I’m not eating a healthy variety of foods, it doesn’t give my kids much of an incentive to do so. I know that the choices I make around food have an impact on my children, so I try to model healthy eating habits when I’m with them.

I also refrain from referring to food in terms of “bad” and “good.” Instead, I refer to it in terms of sweet, savory, spicy. I refer to its texture and taste, its consistency and color.

My overarching goal is to help my kids not just eat healthy foods, but have a healthy relationship with food.

6.) Take a cue from Dr. Seuss. My daughter has recently grown fond of Dr. Seuss books, especially “Horton Hears a Who” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Most of us know the “Green Eggs and Ham” narrative: the main character Sam tries to convince the nameless dude that he should try green eggs and ham. The nameless dude repeatedly says no until the end of the book, when he finally tries green eggs and ham and realizes that he actually likes the taste of them.  

“Say! I like green eggs and ham!

I do! I like them, Sam-I-Am!

And I would eat them in a boat.

And I would eat them with a goat…”

Whenever my daughter says she doesn’t want to try a new food, I recite this passage and remind her that she can’t say she dislikes a dish that she’s never even tried.

More often than not, she’ll then try whatever food I’m encouraging her to eat. “Say, mommy! I do like chicken enchilada bake!”

7. Set realistic expectations. I marvel (and sometimes roll my eyes) at moms who are able to get their kids to eat stuff like buckwheat-infused kabocha squash and quinoa with roasted beets and sauteed mushrooms.

I’d love for my kids to have a more adventurous palette, but they’re not there yet and that’s ok. I’m hopeful that the mere act of exposing my kids to different foods will at least make them curious and open to trying more new foods as they get older.

For now, I’m taking it meal by meal, one bite at a time.

 

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley has two children – Madelyn (2016) and Tucker (2017) -- who are exactly 19 months apart. She adores being a mom and is happiest when she’s spending quality time with her children and her husband Troy. When she’s not lugging around one toddler and chasing the other, she works full-time as Associate Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, and as a lecturer in the School of Journalism, at the University of Texas at Austin. She moved to Round Rock with her family in March 2017 after living in St. Petersburg, Florida, for 10 years. As a Massachusetts native, she misses her family and friends up north but feels at home in the Lone Star State. She loves writing personal essays about motherhood and occasionally publishes them on babytarpley.com. You can find her on Twitter at @mallarytenore.

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