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How can I expand my picky eater’s palate?

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Dear Mama Drama:

My two-year-old won’t eat anything, but macaroni and cheese. I’m afraid to give him other things because if he doesn’t eat it he’ll be hungry. I see other children, even younger than him, eating a wide variety of foods. I am amazed that they will eat things like tofu and vegetables.

How can I get my son to eat a wider variety of foods?

~Scared of starving

Dear Scared:

Many children have difficulty expanding their food choices once they have found a favorite food. Macaroni and cheese, PB & J, and mashed potatoes are common favorites. They may like the texture, smell, or associate a positive experience with that food. However, we have to offer them other foods on a regular basis if we want them to make other choices. Our job as parents is to provide healthy options for our children to eat, not to force them to eat it.

Children may need to try a new food several times before they develop a preference for it. Having a family rule that everyone tastes each type of food offered at a meal is a good way to start. Varying the ways that you prepare food can also make a difference. You don’t have to be a short-order cook, but cooking foods in a way that your child is more likely to eat them ensures a better chance of success. If your child doesn’t like slimy foods, don’t offer cooked spinach. Instead, offer him spinach salad with yummy cranberries or mandarin oranges and a sweet vinaigrette dressing. As parents, it is important to model trying foods we previously disliked as well.

Sometimes children are more willing to try new foods if they can dip them in something familiar. Barbeque sauce, salad dressings, and honey are just a few choices that may make a new food more appealing for your child.

Some children (and adults) don’t like their food mixed or touching. To those of us whom this does not bother, it doesn’t always make sense. But rather than forcing the issue, simply use plates that have sections in them to separate the foods. It’s an easy fix that eliminates an unnecessary battle.

If your child misses a meal or two, he will be hungry but will not starve. If you have provided healthy, kid-friendly food to eat and he has refused to eat, then you have done your job. Be sure you refrain from rescuing your child on these occasions by giving him the mac and cheese after he’s refused to eat other foods you’ve provided.

There are times when extenuating circumstances may be impacting your child’s willingness or ability to eat other foods. Some children have sensory processing issues that make eating different food textures almost unbearable. Others have very sensitive senses of smell that may cause them to avoid foods. Subtle reactions to unknown food sensitivities or allergies may also be an underlying reason. If you have concerns in any of these areas, please consult your pediatrician.  

-Lisa Vratny-Smith

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