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6 practical ways to introduce new foods to picky eaters

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19 January 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From the ‘rule of 15’ to ‘texture versus taste’, these tried and tested ways will help you encourage your child to overcome their fussy eating.

A picky eater can be a frustrating dinner companion, and parents know that new finicky habits can appear seemingly overnight.

Here’s what science teaches us about helping picky eaters become more adventurous:

1. Rule of 15

Studies show that children need to be introduced to a food as many as 15 times before they will accept it. So don’t give up. Keep putting those green beans on the table and eventually your picky eater may start eating them.

2. Food bridges

Once a food is accepted, parents should use “food bridges” by finding similarly coloured or flavoured foods to expand the variety of foods a child will eat. If a child likes tomato on a pizza, add some red pepper next time and then offer both raw in a salad. If a child loves corn, try mixing in a few peas or carrots. Even if a child picks them out, the exposure to the new food is what counts.

3. Texture versus taste

When a child rejects a food, try to prepare it in a different way. If your child doesn’t like steamed cauliflower, serve it raw with ranch dressing or slice and roast it to bring out its natural sweetness. Or think about how you might change the texture of a food so it’s harder or softer the next time. A child who rejects mushy cooked spinach or cooked zucchini may like both of them raw and crunchy in a salad.

4. Model

Children learn eating behaviours, both good and bad, from a parent. So dinner time is a good time to model healthy eating. If a child has avoided a dish, don’t pressure them. Just give yourself a heaped serving, and ask them if they want to try. If they say no, just say, “More for me!” and let them see you enjoy it.

5. Bring kids into the kitchen

With hot stoves, boiling water and sharp knives at hand, it is understandable that parents don’t want children in the kitchen when they’re making dinner. But studies suggest that involving children in meal preparation is an important first step in getting them to try new foods.

Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University studied how cooking with a child affects the child’s eating habits. In one study, nearly 600 children from kindergarten to sixth grade took part in a nutrition curriculum intended to get them to eat more vegetables and wholegrains.

Some children, in addition to having lessons about healthy eating, took part in cooking workshops. The researchers found that children who had cooked their own foods were more likely to eat those foods in the cafeteria, and even ask for seconds, than children who had not had the cooking class.

6. Make it fun

When family health researchers study family dinner, they often hear from adults who remember torturous family meals with strict rules and lots of discipline. But family dinners should be fun. One strategy to keep it lively is to think of theme nights. Involve kids in choosing the theme. Breakfast for Dinner, Taco Tuesday, Finger Food and Picnic Night are fun ways to make cooking easy and dinner time fun. During clean-up, crank up the music and let kids pick their favourite song.

Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award-winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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