In the first two years, your child will learn to sit, stand, walk, run, talk—and eat. That goes beyond just grasping finger foods or using a spoon. Learning to eat also involves developing a taste for new flavors and textures and building the kinds of skills needed to become an adventurous diner, not a finicky one. Instilling healthy eating habits before the age of 2 is a kind of “preventive medicine” against picky eating, says feeding expert Karen Le Billon, Ph.D., author of Getting to Yum: The 7 Secrets of Raising Eager Eaters. Researchers believe that the experiences babies have when they first start solids make a huge impact on the foods they end up liking and disliking. In fact, long-term studies show that eating habits established in infancy (whether healthy or unhealthy) influence choices throughout childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood. It’s a lot easier to foster these habits in your baby or toddler now than to shift gears with an 8-year-old. Here’s how you can help your kid become confident and comfortable around all kinds of food.
You don’t expect your child’s first step to turn into a sprint or Day 1 of potty training to be accident-free. “A love of new foods is not innate. It’s something that needs to be taught,” says Dr. Le Billon. She calls the process of discovering new foods and flavors “taste training” and emphasizes patience. Case in point: Research has shown that babies will eat more of a particular fruit or vegetable after they’ve tasted it at least eight or nine times. But many parents give up after just three to five tries if their child doesn’t seem to like it. “Just like learning to read, kids can learn to eat well,” says Dr. Le Billon. But it takes time—and not everyone will learn at the same rate. So when you’re tempted to write off your child as a “bad eater” or “picky,” remember that he’s simply still learning.
Serve as many different foods and flavors as you can in these first two years. Most children become less agreeable and begin refusing new foods (even well-liked ones) sometime around age 2. So it’s a numbers game: If they’ve been exposed to a wide array of tastes, they’ll still be eating more kinds of foods when this finicky phase hits than they would have if they’d been fed a smaller variety from the start, says Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., coauthor of The Picky Eater Project.
Consider supplementing purees with some large spears of well-cooked sweet potato, ripe avocado, or steamed zucchini that your baby can pick up and gnaw on. In research, babies who were fed a variety of different-textured applesauce (such as smooth, lumpy, and diced) liked a greater range of textures when tested later than babies who’d been fed mostly smooth applesauce. In another study, 7-year-olds who hadn’t been given lumpy solids until after 9 months of age ate a smaller number of foods and had more feeding problems than those who got lumpy solids between 6 and 9 months.
A child’s pickiness may actually be a response to a tense mealtime situation, says pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko, R.D. “Anxiety and stress are appetite suppressants for your child,” she says. “Family meals are about being together, talking, and connecting, not counting the number of bites your child takes.” When you interfere less with his eating and focus on appreciating your own meal, you’re modeling healthy enjoyment of food—and you’re creating a safe, accepting, and happy eating environment for your child.
Hummus and steamed carrots for breakfast? Soup for snacktime? Sure. “Young kids don’t yet have set ideas about what’s eaten when,” says feeding expert Dina Rose, Ph.D., author of It’s Not About the Broccoli. “So take advantage.” When kids and parents get stuck in notions of what meals and snacks should look like, that can actually lead to unhealthy choices, like sugary muffins in the morning and empty-calorie pretzels or crackers for snacks.
Don’t rush to wipe your child’s face or discourage her from playing while she eats. Kids need to experience food with all of their senses. Squishing and smearing their meals teaches important lessons about texture and builds a child’s familiarity with different foods, says pediatric feeding specialist Melanie Potock, coauthor of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater. “Kids are programmed from birth to explore with their hands and mouth,” she says. “When kids are on a path to adventurous eating, part of that journey is about getting messy.”
Okay, it may not happen every time, but setting this goal means your child will be guaranteed regular exposure to fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Rose. And the more familiar your child is with a food, the more accepting he’s likely to be. Your child will also grow up knowing that we eat veggies at all times of the day, not just at dinner (when many little kids are too fussy and tired to be receptive to new or challenging foods). And even if he only takes a few bites each time, that adds up to multiple servings a day!
All too often, it turns into a major source of conflict and stress between parents and kids, so nip that in the bud now. Consider ending most meals with a piece of fruit (or just skipping a sweet capper altogether). It’s fine to have a traditional dessert like cookies and cake occasionally, but try this surprisingly effective strategy from family therapist and feeding expert Ellyn Satter, R.D.N., author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense: Serve dessert along with the meal to downplay its significance. Sure, your child may sometimes eat dessert first or even mid-meal, but that’s okay. As long as you keep the portion size small (and don’t offer seconds of sweet treats) she’ll most likely eat her other foods as well. And you can avoid linking dessert with emotions by never using it as a punishment or a reward—even for finishing her entire serving of veggies.
Your child is building her language skills now, so take advantage of that by talking about food, suggests pediatric dietitian Jill Castle, R.D., coauthor of Fearless Feeding. When you serve a snack say, “Let’s sit down to eat so we can really enjoy it.” Talk about hunger and fullness by asking, “Is your belly happy or is it still hungry?” If your child doesn’t like what’s served, assure her, “I know you want X, but we don’t eat the same things every day. We’ll have that again soon.” Castle says, “She may not understand the meaning of everything you say, but you’re making the conversation about food, eating, and appetite a normal part of everyday life.”
Want to avoid having a kid who’ll eat only one brand of bread or one type of cheese? From the very start, mix up the brands, varieties, sizes, shapes, and flavors of the foods you serve. For instance, instead of serving just white rice, serve brown, red, black, steamed, fried, and rice mixed with vegetables and other grains like quinoa. Your child may come to prefer one kind or another, but he’ll probably also be agreeable to eating other types too.
If your baby wrinkles her nose when she eats pureed broccoli, don’t assume she hates it. Researchers say that a grimace is a perfectly normal facial expression during feeding—but it doesn’t mean babies don’t like the flavor or never will. That’s why you’ll sometimes see babies grimacing while still happily eating. Ditto for toddlers who say “I don’t like it,” which is often code for “I don’t know it,” explains Dr. Le Billon. If your child absolutely refuses a certain food, just take it away without commenting and try again in a few days or weeks.
Kids are typically more receptive when they’re hungry. Dr. Le Billon advocates for a “first course” of veggies. Or offer veggies as the snack in the hour before dinner—either the veggie you’re serving with dinner or another from the fridge. That way, even if your child doesn’t eat the vegetables you serve with the main meal, you know he’ll already have had a serving or two.
The more your child tastes a food, the more likely she is to accept and enjoy it. But tasting simply means the food touches the taste buds—she doesn’t have to actually swallow it. If you remove the pressure to chew and swallow and allow your child to spit things out, you’ll encourage her to try more foods, says Leann Birch, Ph.D., professor of food and nutrition at the University of Georgia in Athens. Even toddlers can be shown how to politely spit food into a napkin. Your child may be even more willing to try new things when you serve very small amounts, such as just two or three tiny bites.
From the very beginning, skip the notion of “kid food” versus “grownup food.” Instead of ordering from the kids’ menu—which is typically an uninspired mix of hot dogs, nuggets, and mac ’n’ cheese—ask for a small plate for your child and serve him bites from your own meal.
Research has found that children’s veggie repertoire is linked to their parents’ preferences. “If you have food hang-ups or weight worries, these may come through when feeding your child,” says Castle. That can interfere with her forming a healthy relationship with food. View your child as a clean slate, an opportunity to do things differently than when you were young.