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News / Health

It’s matter of taste for your picky eater

By Casey Seidenberg, Special to The Washington Post
Published: November 7, 2018, 6:05am

Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a land not far from here, parents would force children to clean their plates during meals, regardless of their hunger level. We now know that this feeding strategy can teach children to ignore their own hunger cues and subsequently overeat as adults, and thankfully this practice has declined.

The next contingent of parents educated themselves about nutrition to the degree that they earned the moniker “helicopter.” They progressed from expecting their kids to eat every item on a plate to expecting them to eat some of every nutrient on a plate. When that didn’t happen, these parents began to panic. They begged, cajoled or bribed their kids to eat three more bites, if they didn’t give in and make a second dinner so the child would at least eat something. This reinforced a generation’s tendency toward picky eating.

(I became a parent during the “no-thank-you bite” chapter: Kids needed to try one bite of everything on their plate, then could say “no thank you” if they didn’t like something. This strategy inherently sends the message that the child won’t like the food. Why is anyone surprised when that turns out to be the case?)

Since neither of these approaches results in a child who eats a wide variety of healthy foods, how should the story be rewritten for this generation? It boils down to taking all pressure off of children to eat and making mealtimes positive.

As a prologue, all parents should live by the mantra, “It is not your job to get your child to eat.” We are responsible for providing them with food. It is our children’s job to decide if they want to eat the foods we serve. But we can encourage them to eat well.

First, stop pushing them. As Dina Rose says in her book “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” “Pressure is your enemy.” Instead of harping on a child to eat new foods, Rose suggests accustoming children to tasting new foods. This could be tasting a new variety of apple, a yellow cherry tomato instead of a red one or even a new type of cookie. It is widely shown that many children need to taste a food at least 10 times before they decide they like it, so getting kids enthusiastic to taste new foods is an imperative step.

Many parents give up long before the 10th taste or start begging, pleading and forcing their kid to try one bite, making dinner a battle and priming the child to never enjoy that battleground food. Instead, parents should continue to offer foods under no-pressure situations. If a child doesn’t taste it, she doesn’t taste it that night. There is always another night.

Because children don’t have as many food experiences as adults, they can’t anticipate what something might taste like. This makes it scary for them to try an unfamiliar food. If we help them understand how something tastes in an honest, nonmanipulative way (in other words, don’t tell them plain yogurt tastes just like ice cream), they will be more open to trying it.