Picky eating is a common complaint among parents of small children, and almost every child goes through some kind of fussy phase – in fact, it’s a natural evolutionary trait. Sometimes known as neophobia, children reject new foods simply because they are unfamiliar or, more specifically, because the food is bitter or astringent, which can be a sign that an item is poisonous.
As a parent you aren’t, of course, offering your children poison – just broccoli – but their response is likely to be the same either way. Luckily, if you continue to introduce new foods, over time most children will begin to accept them and even enjoy them. In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your little one meets their nutritional needs. These four steps will help keep the peace with your picky eater until those new foods become old hat.
One Meal, One Food
One of the most important things you can do when introducing new foods to your child is to only introduce one new food at a time. Remember, your child is already going through an adjustment, and during this time they’ll look to familiar items for comfort; offer too many and you risk an all-out rebellion, as well as a long-term rejection of all new foods. It can also help to introduce that new food at the beginning of a meal when your child is most hungry, or to place a new food out with snacks so your child can graze on new, healthy options.
Choose Heavy Hitters
If you’re having a hard time getting your child to accept new foods, make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck by choosing foods with multiple nutritional benefits. For example, peas are packed with vitamins and iron and are also a great source of complete protein, making them a great option if your child is at war with meat products, a common textural aversion.
Try Dietary Disguises
Some picky eaters can be bribed or otherwise cajoled into trying new foods, but others are much firmer in their rejection of unfamiliar items. If that’s the case with your child, it’s okay to hide vegetables in more palatable foods while you work on introducing new items. Adding vegetable puree to pasta dishes, for example, not only encourages children to eat more vegetables, but can reduce calorie intake in children who are prone to overeating.
As for picky protein eaters, while you may not be able to mash up meat products, it’s easy to boost your child’s protein intake by baking and cooking with protein powder. Protein powders are available in a number of different flavors, so they can be integrated into everything from cupcakes to soup. They’ll never notice, and some research suggests children enjoy “hidden food” recipes more than the originals.
Beware Underlying Problems
Not all fussy eating is age-related or developmental; in some cases, it may have an underlying medical cause. For example, children with acid reflux may be picky eaters because eating causes them discomfort, and they may selectively avoid foods that make their reflux worse.
Another underlying reason for picky eating is food aversion, which is different from picky eating. Children with food aversions may gag at the sight or smell of unfamiliar foods, may struggle to swallow or gag when eating, and can even struggle to identify their own hunger and thirst signals. Some of these children are diagnosed with failure to thrive early in life, while others with sensory issues, including many autistic children, may eat only a very narrow set of foods. Most children with these conditions improve over time and with feeding therapy, but it can take years of support and should not be treated as just being “picky.”
Most children require at least seven trials before accepting a new food, and for some, the process can be considerably more arduous, so don’t give up – many perfectly normal adults were at some point viewed as picky eaters. With a multivitamin and a little creativity, your child will get all the nutrients they need. As the classic piece of wisdom goes, ‘they’ll eat when they’re hungry.’ We’re programmed to eat, and eventually, your child’s diet will expand to include a wide, nutritious variety of foods.