Picky eaters are all around us, and even more of us are faced with the dilemma of trying to convert these closed-minded food-yuckers into people who are more open about what foods they try and enjoy. It may seem that no matter what we may do, kids will only resist. From my current job working at a cooking school with extensive focus on children’s programming, I’ve seen firsthand that even the pickiest eaters can be won over using some simple strategies to encourage kids to be a little more open-minded when it comes to eating healthier.
A general approach that you're not the child's coach, you're a team, may make a world's difference. Many times picky eaters like to play tug of war -- meaning however hard you pull, they will try to pull back harder. It's important they understand that you are working together, and that healthy food isn't such a foreign, yucky thing.
Teamwork, space, and flexibility are key components of a general mindset to have when attempting to open a child's mind to eating right, and becoming less reliant on those sugary cereals and Happy Meals. Additionally, there are some specific approaches detailed below that when utilized, can have a great impact on kids in broadening their culinary horizons.
Lead By Example
From a young age, kids are trying to learn what they like and what they don't, and a common method they use to try to figure this out is by observing the preferences of the people around them. Many children idolize the adults in their lives as role models. My suggestion? Use that to your advantage.
Instead of telling a picky eater that he or she they might find a unique food yummy if they try it, show the eater it can be yummy by trying it yourself and smiling. Stubborn children might not usually take adults' words for something, but are young enough to not perceive the social cues that would allow them to detect any form of sarcasm (and likely won't until age 10). If you show the child you like the food with pleasant reactions, they have concrete evidence that maybe it isn't so bad. And if children look up to adults in their lives, which most do, they'll be more likely to follow by example.
This method isn't foolproof, but it may increase the chances of converting a picky eater into a more open-minded one and encourage them to try new things. Leading by example is a strategy that might might work much better, however, with another one of the following methods.
And in the case that this doesn't work well, here’s another idea: think of someone the picky eater idolizes, perhaps a celebrity. Suggesting that their favorite sports player eats broccoli every day to be big and strong might give a helpful nudge in the right direction!
When most parents are dealing with picky eaters, they may not consider which of these four methods they use to shape behavior. When the persuaders tell them that they will take something of value away, perhaps their phone or tablet, to get them to try different foods, they are using negative punishment. Many people also attempt to convert these picky eaters to more open-minded eaters by yelling at the kids to stop refusing new foods (positive punishment). These persuaders may find that these methods work in the moment, but will not make a lasting impact in the long run.
Positive reinforcement, however, has proven to be much more effective. Instead of threatening to take away dessert or other foods the picky eater likes, instead adults should not make a dessert an initial option but offer it to the children who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and eat their veggies.
Why would encouragement work better than punishing a child for being a picky eater? Younger brains are more active after receiving positive feedback, which gives psychological motivation to succeed. It is easier for them to process encouragement. Also, punishment crushes the autonomy children explore at that age and dissuades exploration of one's preferences. Besides, it is far better to teach kids what to do instead of what not to do, thus it is much easier for them to learn what behaviors are specifically desired.
The Control Dilemma
At this stage in their lives, younger kids may want to explore how they can exercise their control to get what they want. This may make it difficult to reason with them, since the typical child seems to make food-based decisions on what he or she thinks they want, not what may necessarily be healthiest. Since kids can be stubborn when it comes to even the lightest suggestion of what to eat and how much of it, it may be best to make them think they are the ones choosing, although there is some sense of adult control. Perhaps, if you want them to eat some veggies, instead of serving up steamed carrots and telling them to eat them because you said so, it would be more effective to give the illusion that they're the ones in control by offering three different prepared vegetables and emphasizing that they get to pick whatever looks the most yummy. They will still feel as if they're in charge, and be less likely to say "NO" and refuse eating the veggies. Not even having some unhealthy food options in the house to begin with will also help, since the kids won't open the pantry and beg for junk food like sugary cereals.
Looks Can Mean Everything
Be creative with how you prepare food! Fruits and veggies may seem boring to young kids who are constantly seeking ways to stimulate their imagination.
Plus, from an evolutionary perspective, humans may prefer red, orange, and yellow food coloring which indicates that a food source is ripe (most of the time). This may make us more hesitant of bright purple and bright blue food dyes, so I suggest leaving the fruits and veggies their natural color.
What can be done to make a meal look more interesting, however, is to create color contrast with the food. A variety of vibrant hues makes for a pretty plate, and, after all, our taste perceptions can actually be altered by our visual perceptions (for more, see the concept of visual capture).
Making healthy food into fun shapes can also be exciting for picky eaters. If their favorite animal is a fish, take out some cookie cutters and make their watermelon into fish, that swim in carefully arranged blueberry "water!" This makes eating a more engaging experience for the child and helps them build a stronger association between healthy food and positive memories and emotions.
The last thing that can make food look better and therefore possibly taste better is the execution. Attention to detail is crucial, and kids like to feel more grown up if they are served food that looks more "adult." Think of topping vegetables with a drizzle of sauce or a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Perhaps lay some fruit slices on top of a cinnamon heart. Consistent cuts and placement will surely make the food look prettier.
Consider the three concepts of color contrast, shape, and execution when preparing and plating healthy food and perhaps kids will be more likely to try a bite of this engaging experience.
Maintain Clear Expectations
Kids can hang on to every word you say. Most seem to have a remarkable memory for when they feel like you've gone back on a promise or your word, and can get extremely upset. Also, telling them plans last minute can stress them out as kids can be inflexible and let their emotions take over rational thinking. Therefore, to minimize children associating food and eating with negative emotions, it is recommended that expectations are made clear ahead of time.
Growing up, I always had to try one bite of everything served to me. Eating the rest of the portion was up to me, but by having to try everything I was exposed to foods I never would have otherwise sampled. By making this a consistent rule, tantrums were immensely minimized. With inconsistent rules, across different meals or perhaps across different children, the word "fair" likely becomes the food-related argument's central topic.
What would clear expectations look like, exactly? They can range from setting rules about meal schedules and quantities of certain foods, to expectations of how often kids help out in the kitchen. Although initial pushback is expected, once a routine is established children would be more likely to follow the food rules.
Hopefully, you are now better informed on how to work with picky eaters in order to encourage them to become more open-minded when it comes to food-based decisions and healthier options. It's important to make sure kids are as involved in the choosing process and feel as if their opinion is valued as much as possible, while still maintaining an underlying level of control. When kids are involved in the process, whether by helping to make their meals (helps associate healthy food with fun) or by making a final choice when presented with a few options you prefer, it helps them to be more interested in this healthy food.
All in all, when it comes to picky eaters, be a team, and make healthy food interesting. The magnitude of their newfound passion for eating "right" may astonish you.
A high schooler with a love of food. See the My Story page to find out more.