It’s January, and for many of us that means setting goals and realigning with the best versions of ourselves (again). When it comes to embracing better habits, we can’t make New Year’s resolutions for our kids — if only! – but we can try to steer them in the right direction. If you have a picky eater at home, you may have already resolved to find a better solution in 2020. Here are some helpful strategies to help kids overcome their pickiness and build their palates, one bite at a time. The common thread in every approach? Empowerment — which is what resolutions are all about.
A Seat at the Family Table
One of the best ways to encourage exploratory eating is through sit-down meals. These days, life is a whirlwind, and family dinners can easily elude us. But sitting around the table with a variety of options gives children a sense of autonomy, which is a big part of finding the courage to experience new things. Start by including one or two healthy, new-to-them options with every meal (any more could feel overwhelming). Try placing the foods on a lazy Susan to make filling their plates at the table more fun. And when they finally decide to try something new, you might even consider presenting them with their own set of personalized big kid utensils or dinnerware to extend the “all grown up” story even more.
Curb Snacks Before Dinner
Much to the chagrin of every grandparent I know, I will share the following sage yet sensible advice: Let them get hungry! The more ravenous they are, the more open they might be to trying new foods. Many kids are perpetual snackers — and many parents always have Snack Catchers on hand, even on quick errand runs (I’m guilty of traveling with purse snacks myself). You might be wondering why constant snacking is detrimental. Food is food, right? While snacking has its perks, kids who snack all day long may not know how to properly identify hunger cues. If you cut after school snacks, for example, they might surprise you and be receptive to trying something new at dinnertime — especially if that new food is one of the few options available at the time.
Get Them Involved
Excitement, empowerment and motivation are the main drivers for those well-intentioned “new year, new you” sentiments. Finicky eaters may find the motivation to try a new food if they have a hand in growing it, picking it, or preparing it with mom and dad. Whether you have a sprawling yard, a small balcony or a community garden, one thing’s for sure – kids love being outside and getting their hands dirty. Planting a garden results in more than just edible bounty. It produces endless lessons in science, patience, and caring for living things. Involving them in the kitchen once said fruits and vegetables have been picked can also spark curiosity and interest in expanding their taste buds. Young kids can help wash ingredients, while older kids can experiment with more complicated tasks like cracking eggs or even cutting fruits and vegetables (supervised, and with kid-friendly kitchen tools, of course). The main takeaway here is to encourage their involvement and have kids feel invested in the process of cooking or baking. Encouragement gives children confidence to navigate the new and unfamiliar — at the dinner table and beyond.
Rooted in Familiarity
Half the battle with picky eating is overcoming the fear of the unknown, whether it’s a new texture, color, aroma, or entire food group. Just as you would ease a child into an unfamiliar situation by holding his hand, you can try a similar approach with food. Introducing a new food on the same plate with tried and true favorites is the equivalent of hand holding and reassurance. So is taking their food preferences into consideration. If your child likes the crunch of crackers, for example, she might be open to raw veggies like carrots. If she loves chips and apples, she might be intrigued by baked apple chips. If she’s into breaded chicken, she might try breaded zucchini, too. Sometimes, all it takes is repeated exposure to empower a child to gain the courage to try. Encourage her with choices that are somewhat familiar, but don’t push anything if your child isn’t ready.
Let Go of Expectation
As Elsa famously sang in Frozen, “Let it go, let it go!” Try not to expect a miracle just because it’s a new year. A picky child won’t change overnight, so relaxing your grip on expectation is a logical first step. When my daughter was a toddler, she maintained a diet consisting of the same handful of meals. Recently, at six years old, a lightbulb went off and she slowly began to overcome her fear of adventurous eating. On New Year’s Day, she proudly made a resolution to try one new food each month. So far, she’s tried four, and we’re only halfway through January! Granted, they aren’t all “new” – one was broccoli stems, which she’d outright rejected in the past (she’s loved the tops for years). Another was stir fry noodles (and yes, she’s had plenty of plain noodles before). But they were new to her, and she was also open to kiwifruit and maple syrup, which she loved. Now that she’s had a taste of making her own decisions and following through, she’s incredibly excited to continue.
The point of sharing this story is that when they’re ready, they’ll let you know. And they’ll feel so very empowered when they do. In the meantime, there’s no harm in nudging them in the right direction. I can all but guarantee they won’t be exclusive chicken nugget eaters in college. Cheers to that – and healthy resolutions!