By Laura Edwards-Leeper, PhD
Staff Psychologist, One Step Ahead Program, Children’s Hospital Boston
“But I don’t like broccoli.” “Spinach is gross.” “Eeeeew, what’s that?”
In my practice, I talk to parents every day who are trying to get their families to eat better, but the challenge of picky eaters always seems to get in the way. Here are some strategies that can help:
- Don’t draw battle lines. Force-feeding rarely works and just causes stress for parents and children.
- Set clear boundaries and rules. Parents should make the decision about what will be served for a meal, where it should be eaten, and when the meal should take place. Children should be able to choose how much they will eat and whether they want to eat the food that has been prepared.
- Do not make special meals. Making special meals for different members of your family does not encourage them to try new foods. Make one meal but try to have sides from which children can choose.
- Use positive reinforcement. Praise your child for being courageous and trying new foods.
- Model healthy eating. If your child sees you trying new foods, particularly healthy foods, they will be more likely to try it themselves.
- Encourage trying new foods up to ten times. Research shows that it takes up to ten tries of a new food to decide if you like it or not. Here’s how I explain it to my child patients:
- Look in a mirror and stick out your tongue. See those bumps? Those are your tastebuds. They help you taste things like sour and sweet. Our tastebuds are connected to our brains. When we try a new food, our tastebuds help our brain decide if we like it or not. However, your tastebuds need more than one chance to try a new food before they can decide whether they really like it!
- You have to try a new food TEN times before your tastebuds can decide whether they really like the food or not. That means that you have to try a new food TEN times before you can say you don’t like it. It has to be ten different times – not ten bites at the same meal. If, after you have tried it ten times and still don’t like it, then you don’t have to try it again for another year.
- Make a chart to keep track of how many times you have tried a new food.
- Try new recipes. If your child doesn’t like spinach as a side dish, how about on a pizza? What if the broccoli was in a casserole instead? Try new ways to prepare new foods – eventually your child might find one that he or she likes.
- Don’t worry! If your child decides to skip a meal or doesn’t eat much, they will be okay! They will not “go hungry” and you are not a bad parent if you do not make a special meal for them. Just try to make sure that the next meal or snack is something that you know they like.
- Keep offering and don’t give up! I’ve found that after children try something four or five times, they eventually come around and decide they like it. Have faith and keep trying!