Tricks to Get Picky Eaters to Eat: Do they work?
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The most common question I get from parents is “How can I get my picky eater to eat _____?” Sometimes parents will settle for a “try” instead of “eat” in that question. The food category that usually fills in that blank is vegetables. Closely followed by fruit and meat or protein foods. These foods tend to be most challenging for many young kids.
I wish the answer on the tip of my tongue wasn’t always “you can’t.” I wish I had a magic formula to turn picky eaters into eat-everything-eaters overnight. However, I do have a better question:
“How can I support my child so he can do as well as he can with eating?”
Because your supportive efforts are something you do have control over. Just like with any skill you want your child to learn, eating is no different. You can’t make your child learn anything. You can only support.
Supporting A Child’s Eating Skill Development
The best support you can offer is through following The Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR) — a term and philosophy coined by feeding expert, Ellyn Satter and the basis of how I, and many dietitians, work with families. Notice that your feeding jobs are all about providing. Providing food, providing opportunities, and providing structure. So let’s talk opportunities.
What is an Eating Opportunity?
You provide your child with opportunities to learn how to eat and to like new foods every single time you eat together. That means sitting together, facing each other, and eating from the same selection of food.
But (you say), Liam won’t touch the entrees we eat with a ten foot pole. He’d rather starve. He only eats chicken nuggets and bread and potato chips.
No problem! Serve chicken nuggets for everyone, alongside the soup and salad. Serve bread with the casserole. Serve chips with your fancy sandwiches. Meet him halfway. Or try deconstructing your meal so there is something that he can spot on the table that makes him feel at ease. It all starts from there.
The peaceful and relaxed family meal is by far the greatest and most powerful tool you’ve got. Don’t hamper his learning with anxiety by putting pressure on your child to eat foods he doesn’t want to eat. Stick to your feeding jobs and let your child learn at her own pace.
Is That Enough?
You might be wondering is that enough..what if I want to do more? What about fun games, food art, hiding spinach, cooking, gardening? There’s got to be a way to speed things along. Maybe you have a friend who swears by a repertoire of food tricks, whose kids gobble up all things green and never order from the kids’ menu.
She’s a unicorn. And so are her kids.
I honestly think that normal food experiences are enough. And for those that enjoy other food activities, depending on your attitude, it can be educational and fun. Because it’s not really a trick to involve your kids in cooking. Here’s what I think about cooking with your kids and other common “tricks” to get kids to eat vegetables (or whatever food they won’t eat if they can identify it):
1. Cooking with Your Kids
- Great bonding time
- Teaches kitchen skills: washing produce, knife/chopping skills, measuring, etc.
- Allows for no-pressure exploration of colors and textures and smells
- Sometimes kids will sneak a taste of things they won’t touch at a meal. The little weirdos will occasionally even nibble on foods that aren’t meant to be eaten raw like butternut squash or potatoes.
- Eventually it pays off and their help is actually helpful.
- You have to have extra space for extra bodies
- Can get messy
- Potential for recipe flops if kids get creative and sneak in ingredients
- Takes longer so you have to have more lead time with little “helpers”
- If you do it with the agenda of getting them to eat it may blow up in your face.
This little cutie (and his sister) helped me cook dinner earlier this week. I’m not great at including them in cooking, but when I do he loves to help. He helped make a pesto based cream sauce that he tasted several times before it went on the table. Did he end up wanting it on his fettuccine? Nah. He’s a food purist. Cooking together is NO guarantee your kids will eat what they helped prepare.
Verdict on cooking with your kids:
I think cooking with your kids is a fabulous activity. One that I have personally struggled with because, before this year, the cons kind of outweighed the pros. But, to be honest, I wish that I had gutted through the earlier years and put up with the mess for the sake of their kitchen skill development and time together. If you’re thinking of cooking together more often, let go of expectations and do it!
2. Hiding Veggies (or fruit or whatever)
Is it a good idea to hide spinach in a smoothie, black beans in brownies, or cauliflower in mac & cheese because you’re getting in extra nutrients and fiber? Or is it a sinister idea that will forever scar your children? The answer really depends on your intent, your child’s age, and their overall level of picky eating. Also it’s not vegetables-or-death. Kids will do fine even if they think veggies are the devil incarnate for some years. Really.
When it’s just ingredients
Soups, casseroles, and many other entrees usually involve many ingredients. Often veggies are involved. I wouldn’t call a chicken pot pie sneaky because it has peas and carrots any more than I would consider a frittata sneaky because it contains spinach and mushrooms. It’s just part of the ingredients. All those veggies are pretty identifiable. And even if they weren’t plainly visible, it’s just how the darned food is made and you’re not trying to pull a fast one on your picky eater.
When it’s not just ingredients
If you have a child who is 1) on the more extreme end of picky eating, 2) has a long history of anxiety over food, 3) has very strong aversions to, say, vegetables, then it’s a different story. Your child might figure it out. A child who is a supertaster or has strong sensory sensitivities may not be easily fooled. For you, hiding or sneaking in ingredients runs the risk of breaking your child’s trust and taking him several steps back with his eating progress. A simple solution is to let your child know what is in the dish or involve her in making the food so she can witness the spinach going into the smoothie.
Don’t forget exposure
If your child is not particularly picky, just very young and inexperienced, it’s not a big deal to beef up a recipe with extra nutrition. But don’t forget exposure. Even if you’ve convinced your 5 year old that Green Monster Smoothies are the best thing ever, your child won’t learn to like food he doesn’t know he’s eating. He still needs to see green vegetables in their recognizable forms. Don’t quit serving rolly polly green peas or spinach leaves because she accepts them just fine via puree pouch.
Verdict on hiding veggies in foods
It’s fine if you’re not being “sneaky” with a child that would be upset at finding out and if you also serve those veggies without a mask. Because then it’s just using ingredients in a recipe.
3. “No Thank You” Bites
What is the “no thank you” bite?
The “no thank you” bite rule some families follow requires kids to at least take a taste of every food served. They don’t have to eat a full portion, just one bite.
Is the “no thank you” bite a good idea?
Every child is different. So is every parent-child relationship. There are families who successfully implement the “no thank you” bite without a hitch. There is no food fight, power struggle or negotiation. The trust with food is strong and/or kids are compliant and it all works out, no harm done.
In most families, for most kids, requiring children to taste food amounts to pressure. Many kids will dig in their heels and even if they don’t mind the flavor of the required bite, will end up stubbornly rejecting additional bites just to hold their ground. Not all, but many. For the sensitive or anxious child, it can totally ruin their appetite as anxiety tends to do. It can give kids a bad impression of a food they might have liked had they chosen to eat it on their own. Not to mention, even in name, it assumes your child is going to reject the food in the first place.
Verdict on the “no thank you bite”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But in general I don’t recommend requiring tastes as it steps out of your DOR feeding job and takes over the child’s job of eating. If you do it, consider changing the name to “thank you bite” — at least that puts a positive spin on it.
4. Taste Tests
To be honest, I started this post intending to write about how to do taste tests with kids. But as I struggled with how to write about this in a responsible way, I realized I needed to cover all of the above points first. So you know there’s no magic bullet, especially for kids with extreme picky eating. Taste testing is no exception, even though I find it fun.
What is a Taste Test?
Taste tests are an opportunity for kids to try variations on a familiar food in order to challenge them (a little) while enjoying new flavors or textures. For example, if your kids already love chips or crackers, you could buy 4 different varieties and together you would taste each of them and rate them or talk about their qualities. This can be fun with the right ages, personalities, and atmosphere. It can also be too much too soon for kids with major food anxiety and result in push-back or regression. I plan to write up a whole separate blog post outlining tips on how to do a successful taste testing session along with a litmus test to determine if it would be a good fit for your picky kid.
Verdict on taste tests with kids
For the non super selective or picky eater, who has grown up within the feeding framework of the DOR, taste tests can be a fun way to get to know new foods. But just like with cooking together, it may not necessarily translate to eating the taste test foods in the future with any consistency.
Final Verdict on ALL “Tricks” To Get Kids to Eat
I want to make it clear that anything parents do to hurry their kids into liking more foods is 1) unnecessary 2) can actually slow things down and 3) is likely to backfire with very selective eaters. If taste tests or any other “trick” happens to “work” it may simply be a clue that your kids are on the unicorn side and not truly all that picky. Or it may be a sign that they were pretty ready to move forward and that (yay) the trust in your feeding relationship was solid. Your best bet is to drop the agenda entirely and become a supportive feeder by following the Division of Responsibility. Eat together, cook together without expectations, be trustworthy and trust your child to master important eating skills in due time.