KIDS
December 26, 2017

Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Who doesn't like dessert better than vegetables? Picky eaters need to try healthy foods repeatedly.

If you have a picky eater at home, you know how frustrating it can be when kids reject a new food and eat only the same — usually unhealthy — foods repeatedly. A study summarizing the results of over 40 previous studies on food preferences and has come up with some tactics parents can use to do an end run around the problem.

Being persistent about exposing kids to new foods is high on the list. Don't give up after a few tries; keep at it. Your refusal to completely give in to a child's whims can make a big difference in the long-run.

There are things parents can do, both before and after picky eating emerges. The study's findings shed light on how taste preferences develop, from exposure in the womb through childhood.

“The goal was to review the literature in order to make recommendations to parents and caregivers on how they can best encourage children's healthy eating starting as early as possible,” said author, Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, in a statement.

How Parents Can Help Picky Eaters

When the State University of New York at Buffalo researchers reviewed a range of studies, certain findings stood out:

Early exposure can make a difference. In fact, the findings showed that the foods a woman consumes while she’s pregnant can actually affect the taste preferences of her child. “Flavors of Mom's diet reach the child in utero,” said Anzman-Frasca, “so if she's eating a healthy diet, the fetus does get exposed to those flavors, getting the child used to them.” Breastfeeding can also affect a child’s tastes, since some pass through the milk to the baby.

Your refusal to completely give in to a child's whims is likely to make a big difference in the long-run.

Repeated exposure is the way to go. It may be tempting to give up after one or two rejections, but continuing to present a particular food every so often will pay off in the long-run. After four or five rejections, a child may just suddenly accept and enjoy the “new” food that is not so unfamiliar any more.

“There are many studies with preschoolers who start out not liking red peppers or squash, for example, but after five to six sessions where these foods are repeatedly offered, they end up liking them,” Anzman-Frasca said.

Rewarding a child for trying a food should be used sparingly, perhaps only if a child is refusing to try a food altogether. Rewarding your kids for trying a given food can actually undermine the repetition strategy and make it less effective, the researchers found. Instead, try repeating the food a number of times and perhaps use modeling, where you or older siblings demonstrate how delicious the food is.

After four or five rejections, a child may just suddenly accept and enjoy the “new” food that is not so unfamiliar any more.

Finally, get in the habit of only offering healthy drinks and side dishes, especially at restaurants. That way, the kids can’t just fill up on bread or another non-nutritious side dish if they don’t want to try the main course.

The real takeaway is do not quit, even when you’re frustrated with your kid’s stubbornness. Many children don’t like to try new things, some more than others, but persistence seems to be the key, at least when it comes to developing food preferences and good eating habits, such as being open-minded about unfamiliar foods.

“Overall,” says Anzman-Frasca, “based on all the studies we reviewed, our strongest recommendation to parents and caregivers is ‘don't give up!’”

The study is published in Obesity Reviews.

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