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Ways to Expand Your Picky Eater's Taste Buds

Messy Kid in Highchair

As an 8-month-old, your child ate mashed peas and carrots by the mouthful. But now that she's a toddler, she's staging a vegetable strike -- and would happily eat grilled cheese at every meal. How did mealtime go from a cute mess to an epic battle?

"Pickiness usually starts around 18 months and can last well into the school years," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a Parents advisor and coauthor of Food Fights. "It's a time when kids tend to form their own likes and especially dislikes."

The best way to expand your child's palate? "Get her involved in meal decisions -- at the market, in the kitchen, at the dinner table," says Amy Hendel, author of Fat Families, Thin Families. You can also be more playful with your food prep, hide veggies in foods she likes, and more. Since there are many types of pickiness, you'll need to figure out what works for your child. The key: Keep trying.

Strategies for Picky Eaters
Strategies for Picky Eaters

Don't label him "picky." This is waving the white flag, and it reinforces his stubborn, attention-getting behavior.

Give your child choices. Asking "Would you like raw or cooked carrots?" makes him feel more invested in the meal.

Avoid substitutions. Serving your child something else will make her hold out longer next time to get what she wants.

Make this deal with your child. He must take one bite, but after that he may say, "No, thank you" to more.

Steer clear of bribes. If you offer chips or a sweet for trying a food, your child will expect a reward every time.

Go the stealth route. Add pureed veggies to spaghetti sauce your child likes. Then let her know she's eaten them and "survived." Gradually make the puree chunkier.

Practice what you preach. You've got to set a good eating example. After all, you can't snack on corn chips and expect your child to munch on baby carrots.

Treat "no" as a temporary answer. "It may take 15 times before she'll try a food and maybe even like it," says Dr. Shu.

Fruit Parfait Spoon: layers of fat-free yogurt, fruit, and crushed cereal into a nonbreakable ice-cream dish.

Blind Taste Test: Cut up veggies, blindfold your child, and have him taste them. See if he can guess what each one is

Smoothie: Mix fruit with juice or fat-free yogurt or milk, Your kid will get a kick out of watching the color change.

Quickie Pizza: Let your child put tomato sauce and shredded cheese on a tortilla. Add veggies. Then toast and serve.

Extraordinary Eggs: Lay cookie cutters on a frying pan, fill with egg mixture, then sprinkle in veggies with your child.

Homemade Fruit Pops: Pour juice into ice-pop trays. Drop in chopped-up berries and oranges. Add a stick, then freeze.

Veggie Tic-Tac-Toe: Play this three-across game on a paper plate (so you can draw the grid) with cut-up veggies. Then munch away.

Waffle Face: Have your child create a silly face (or pattern) with strawberry or banana slices. It works with pancakes too.

Pepper Bowl: Fill a hollowed bell pepper with chicken salad or hummus. Slice up some carrot sticks for dipping.

Frozen Fruit: Icy grapes and blueberries are more fun than fresh ones because they seem like Popsicles, not fruit.

  1. Tearing lettuce.
  2. Steadying a mixing bowl while you pour.
  3. Washing fruit.
  4. Handing you a nonbreakable measuring cup.
  5. Stirring the ingredients (with your help).

  1. Talk up tastes At family gatherings, mention how much you like the food (and have an older sibling or cousin do the same). "Hearing your enthusiasm may encourage your child to take a bite of something unfamiliar," says Hendel.
  2. Work with your kid, not against her At every meal, include one dish you know your child will eat. She's more likely to try collard greens if she knows she can fall back on sliced turkey.
  3. Give him a say Let each family member pick a preferred entree (or side dish) once a week. Ask your child: "Do you want chicken tomorrow? Should we use the slow cooker?" If he can't decide, ask if he'd like to search online together for a new recipe you can try.
  4. Be creative about nutritious treats Dessert doesn't have to consist of empty calories. The next time your child asks for ice cream, set up a DIY banana-split bar with low-fat frozen yogurt, fresh fruit, and a little cereal sprinkled on top.
  5. Eat breakfast for dinner Even picky kids tend to like whole-wheat toast with low-fat cream cheese, fortified cereal, and scrambled eggs. So let yours end the day with "brinner" now and then -- as long as he'll eat the peach slices on his waffle.
  6. Make veggies sound cool One study from Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, found that when carrots were called "X-ray vision carrots," 4-year-olds on average ate nearly twice as many of them. So serve up some "power peas" and "zany zucchini."

  1. Focus on touch. Have your child hold a big, dimply orange or a fuzzy little kiwi. Ask her to describe how it feels, looks, and smells.
  2. Let your child make some noise. Give him a box of pasta to shake, and then point out the difference between regular and whole-wheat pasta ("See, this one is darker and has more good stuff in it").
  3. Look at labels. Once your preschooler recognizes numbers up to ten, have her pick the cereal with the most fiber (you'll need to point at the label for her). Say, "Fiber helps you poop better."
  4. Be a tour guide. Point out all the food aisles, then say, "I like the produce area best, because fruits and veggies help you grow big and strong."
  5. Offer choices. Ask if you should buy apples or mangoes for a snack. Also let him pick some new veggies for the family to try.
  6. Play the color game. See if your child can find three kinds of purple produce (such as grapes, eggplant, cabbage, or potatoes).
  7. Try a sample table. Your child is more likely to eat something if he sees other people lining up for a bite.
  8. Check out a local farmers' market. Most vendors will be happy to talk to kids about their harvest.
  9. Take a whiff. Vegetable stands are great places to have your child sniff garlic, green onions, cilantro, and mint. Ask him, "Do you think this would make our tuna salad taste better?"

  1. Sprinkling cheese
  2. Dropping berries into batter
  3. Peeling bananas
  4. Cracking eggs (with help)
  5. Spray-coating a pan
  6. Mashing potatoes
  7. Packing lunches

The Scenario: She eats only white foods, such as bread and pasta.
The Advice: Add some color to the mix. Stir a little pureed spinach into your child's bowl of mac 'n' cheese and say, "We're making it green today. It's like mixing paint." Getting her over the color hump may make her more open-minded about trying other foods in the future.

The Scenario: He wants food prepared only one way, like chicken in nugget form or potatoes as fries.
The Advice: "Adjust how you prepare foods to make them healthier," says Dr. Shu. Cut broiled chicken into a chunk and say, "This is a different type of chicken nugget. Try it." Or switch from regular to baked fries and then transition to baked potatoes.

The Scenario: Your child refuses to eat an entire food group, like fruit.
The Advice: Take inspiration from foods your child likes. If he eats Froot Loops, slice up oranges, blueberries, or strawberries, and add plain yogurt to mimic the colorful bowl of cereal. Instead of setting out his favorite pretzel rods, offer carrot sticks along with a bowl of salsa or ranch dressing.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

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