Sounds crazy, but it's true: bribing or begging your child to try new foods can backfire. To really help picky eaters, here's what you should do instead.
If you have a picky eater, you probably spend a lot of time trying to get your kid to eat new foods--even just one little tiny bite! But what if there was another way to help your child that didn't involve so much stress and frustration? Feeding expert Dina Rose, PhD, author of It's Not About the Broccoli, says parents should shift the focus away from eating and onto exploring instead.
"The prospect of having to eat something new can be overwhelming and feel like a lot of pressure," says Rose. "When children take a bite of food under these circumstances, they're too busy coping with the pressure to really taste the food. Indeed, many children are already primed to say they don't like the food before it even hits their lips."
Sound familiar? While you may not think coaxing one little forkful of green beans past your child's lips is a big deal, the effort can totally backfire. "When parents say, 'Just taste it, and if you don't like it you don't have to it eat', children hear, 'If I do like it, I will have to eat it," she says. "Adults don't see a problem with this. After all, if you like something, wouldn't you want to eat it? Not necessarily, especially if you are a cautious or downright picky eater."
Rose says that allowing your kids to simply explore new foods can be a game-changer. Exploring a food can mean looking at it, touching it, smelling it, even listening to it—without any expectation of taking a bite. "Expecting cautious, anxious, selective, or picky eaters to taste new food before they've had a chance to explore using 'safer' senses is like saying to a toddler who has taken her first tentative step, 'What? That's all you're going to do? I thought you would run," says Rose "But we don't do that. Instead, we celebrate each small step, knowing that our job is to build our child's skill, self-confidence, and sense of success. The same is true when it comes to new foods."
You can start by talking to your child about the foods he already eats and likes. Ask your child about the color, aroma, and texture of the foods on his plate. Look at new foods together at the grocery store or in restaurants and talk about them. When you serve new foods, start with a pea-size sample and encourage your child to use all of his senses. "Think of this process as a science experiment or a treasure hunt," says Rose.
Rose has also created a food exploration kit for children called the Super Food Explorer Kit. It comes with kid-sized tools like a magnifying glass, tweezers, droppers, and tiny tasting spoons, plus a book of activities and a progress chart.
A big advantage to exploring foods is that kids get to set the pace, she says. And remember that even a small lick of a new food counts as tasting--and for some children, that takes a lot of courage!
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.