Dealing with peer pressure and a junk-food wonderland
Toddlers start paying attention to what other kids eat. Suppose your son becomes friends with a boy who only munches on pizza and chips every day. This new pal may call your son's sandwich and melon cubes "yucky." According to Dr. Jana, that might cause him to abruptly change his preferences.
TURN THE TABLES
Consider hooking him up with a great eater. In two studies in the United Kingdom, 3- to 7-year-olds were more likely to try an unfamiliar food when a slightly older child was also eating it. And the benefit persisted even when the child was alone. If most of your kid's friends are as picky as he is, consider using a teenage babysitter or a tween cousin as a positive influence. However, you need to make sure that they keep it casual. If he senses that something is up, he'll be as receptive to them as he is to you.
Almost all children are born with a taste preference for sweet foods, says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. Castle notes that as your toddler gets out of the house more often and sees all the treats at birthday parties, playdates, and even the mall, as well as the "kids' meals" at restaurants, she'll be increasingly interested in these and may protest what you serve at home.
TURN THE TABLES
Introduce the concept of "sometimes" or "special" or "fun" foods. It's important for your toddler to know that you have nothing against cake, ice cream, and french fries, but in order to be healthy and strong she needs to eat what you serve at home, says Castle. In fact, in a recent study at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, researchers looked at the strategies parents used to encourage their preschooler to eat. Nearly 40 percent reported that they make meals look appealing or tell kids that food will make them strong.
Some experts believe that children are genetically programmed to be picky. "Around age 2 is the time that cave babies were weaned and began to choose their own food," explains Dr. Pelchat. "This meant that they had to be choosy about what they put in their mouth." Plants, she notes, are more likely to be poisonous than animal products.
TURN THE TABLES
You can't reprogram their genes, but you may be able to override them. First step: Remain calm. "Kids who grow up to be good eaters typically go through this phase," says Dr. Pelchat. She also notes that most picky eaters aren't underweight, so there's no reason to freak out if your child skips a meal here and there. Plus, don't forget that, in general, kids need less food than adults do so a few bites of this and that can add up to a balanced meal, says Karen Cullen, Dr.P.H., R.D., professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Being persistent also pays off. "It may take 15 to 20 exposures or more for a child to like a food," says Castle. "But research shows that parents typically give up after four." What counts as an exposure? "Your child doesn't even really have to taste it," she says. "I used to tell my kids, 'You can kiss it or lick it.'"
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.