Picky Palate: Tips for Getting Your Kids to Try New Foods

Looking back, Amy Palanjian refers to it as the “Goldfish period,” the time when her daughter, Linden, then 18 months, seemed to eat nothing but orange, fish-shape crackers at daycare.

Like many parents, Amy worried about Linden’s neon-fueled fixation. The solution to the Goldfish fixation turned out to be easy. Amy simply limited the supply of packaged snacks at home. “I realized that I could relax about what she eats when she's out in the world since I knew that overall she gets a range of healthful foods,” says Amy, a writer, recipe developer and creator of the Yummy Toddler Food blog and magazine.

That anxiety – that picky children grow up to be picky adults – may be nearly universal among parents. Even so, being choosy is often just a natural developmental stage, say experts. The key is understanding what picky eating means.

Why are kids picky eaters?

Both nature and nurture can influence eating habits. For example, there’s evidence that the foods Mom chooses when she’s pregnant may affect baby’s food preferences. Most often, though, picky eating is simply an expression of baby’s “food personality.” But, as frustrated parents fear, it can occasionally signal a bigger issue, says Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, a pediatrician, registered dietitian and co-author of the “Picky Eater Project.”

At its extreme, picky eating may point to underlying problems, such as food allergies, digestion issues, or even anxiety and depression. Some studies, says Dr. Muth, have demonstrated a genetic link to finickiness. It also may come from health conditions, such as sensory issues or autism spectrum disorder.

Although most children quickly move past the most extreme pickiness, there are risks for those who don’t. These include worries like nutritional deficiencies, obesity and diabetes. There can also be social consequences for kids who find it hard to participate in, say, birthday parties or sleepovers.

Widening the picky palate

For most children, parental persistence is the best route to better eating habits. “It can take 15 to 20 tries for some children to accept a particular food, but eventually they do come around,” says Dr. Muth. “The objective for a parent, then, is to help the child experience repeated exposures without forcing or coercing them to try new foods. I talk about it as ‘training the taste buds.’”

Family-focused teamwork works well. “I encourage parents and children to work together to identify strategies,” says Dr. Muth. “In many cases, it's getting the kids into the kitchen to help prepare meals, letting a child choose a new food to try or simply making it OK for a child to taste a food and spit it out instead of swallowing, at first.”

The future for picky eaters

On the picky eating scale, Linden probably scores pretty low: Now 5, she embraces her favorite foods – pesto pasta, meatballs, black bean soup, omelets, sausage, snap peas, – and resists those she thinks she won’t like. It’s Amy who stocks up on fresh produce, cheese, and nuts; steers clear of snack foods; and chooses what's for meals and snacks. But Linden is free to decide what and how much to eat.

“We talk about foods that help us grow and balancing our plates with choices from the different food groups. We try to get her out into our vegetable garden, the farmer's market and local farms as much as we can,” she says. “It is a combination of kids realizing that they have the power to voice opinions at the table and parents respecting their preferences and assumptions about food. Which is to say, if you serve a toddler a pasta in a shape that they've never seen or a new vegetable that they've never eaten, they don't have the skills or experience to be able to guess what it might taste like. And that can be scary.”

Remember: The point is food, family, and time together. “My son definitely is more of a selective eater than the rest of us,” says Dr. Muth. “He is learning to 'train his taste buds,' though he is convinced that no matter how many times he tries tomatoes, he isn't going to like them. And that's ok. He helps me remember that this is all a process.”

Watch our video for tips to talk to your kids:

Learn to grow, grow to learn

That’s the motto of Henry Ford Health System's Let's Eat Healthy. The group helps elementary-school-age kids learn more about where food comes from and what their bodies need to thrive.

Helping Your Picky Eater

What works for Amy Palanjian and Dr. Natalie Digate Muth might help your family, too:

1. Start early, exposing children to many different flavors of foods.

2. Adopt a “one family, one meal” rule. Don't cater to the pickiness, but do try to include at least one food at each meal you know your child likes.

3. Engage the child in helping pick recipes, make healthy choices, and grow and cook food.

4. Work on learning to “train taste buds” but don't force or bribe.

Categories: Get Healthy

woman and child reading orange callout

Sign up for our eNewsletter

Get HAP’s Balanced Living blog delivered right to your inbox. You’ll get the latest health and wellness news, tips, advice from HAP experts, and helpful ideas to improve your well-being.