Let's first clarify what exactly I'm talking about when I say pickiness. There are some children who have difficulties with sensory processing or for other reasons food is a huge issue for them. I am not talking about these children in this post. I am talking about otherwise typically developing children whose range of acceptable foods is annoyingly small.
The easiest way to help a child develop an adventurous palate is to expose them to a lot of different foods from the time they are little. When we fed babies, it was rare that they would have the same food served exactly the same each time they ate. Once they were established with eating and we did due diligence in checking for allergies, our babies ate whatever we ate. We would grind it up in a baby food mill, often mix it with some ground rice and yogurt and feed it to them. I just didn't have the patience or brain power to figure out a baby-centered feeding plan. Pretty much they never knew what to expect.
It turns out that my lazy parent baby feeding method was a good thing. It seems that the research that is out there suggests that babies who are fed a variety of foods with a variety of textures at a variety of temperatures are less likely to become picky eaters. It's good to know if you have a baby, but there are plenty of parents out there with picky children who are past babyhood. This doesn't help them a whole lot.
After babies come toddlers. Let's just say right up front that every toddler is picky. It is just their nature. But just because a toddler is picky does not mean that you need to cater to their pickiness. It is still the job of the parent to provide a child with a balanced diet with lots of variety. The trick is to find the right balance between foods they really like and everything else. (Because there is no middle ground with toddlers. Either they really, really like something, or they really, really don't.) What to do?
First, don't make it a battle. There are a couple of things a child has absolute control over... pooping and eating. You can't make them do either if they don't want to cooperate and if you do, you run into the possibility of setting you both up for future problems. It's just not worth it. But just because you can't force a child to eat something he doesn't want to, that doesn't mean you are without weapons in your arsenal against pickiness.
Instead, take the emotion out of eating. At least your emotions. You offer the child food. If she eats it, great, if she didn't, she won't go hungry. Just leave it. You can present the food saying something is really yummy and that you like it. She can see you enjoy eating it. But the last thing you want to do is equate your happiness with whether she eats the food or not. As a toddler gets older, I try to encourage them to try something new, but I don't push.
Toddlers are also easily overwhelmed. Don't give them too much on their plate. If they love it, you can always give them more, but too much at the start may cause them not to want to eat anything. For instance, our children have all enjoyed salad from a very young age, but none of them enjoyed eating it at first. We started out by giving the child just one leaf of lettuce from the salad. Sometimes they didn't even touch it, which was fine. They were getting used to seeing it on their plates. Eventually, it would show up often enough that they might pick it up. After playing with it, they might even put it in their mouth... and take it right back out again. This would go on for possibly months. They would see everyone else eating salad and would try it and put it back. At some point, they were used enough to the taste and texture that they might actually eat a bite. After months and months of this, they were happily eating a small serving of salad. At this point, we might comment on it saying, "Isn't salad yummy?" and smiling.
But my children aren't toddlers, you say, and they won't eat anything!
Now comes the tricky part. If an older child is picky, then your job is to convince him that trying new foods is a good thing. It will be a tough sell, but I do think it can be done. This is also where my pet theory comes in. I have observed that in families with picky parents, particularly picky fathers, the children will also be picky. If you want a child who is an adventurous eater, you need to be one yourself. I read an article in the newspaper that mentioned a study that showed exactly that. (Sorry, I don't have the study details.) If you want children with a wide taste in food, adventurous eating needs to become a family value and both parents need to be on board.
If this is something you want to develop, here is what I would do (and do with my own children).
- Serve a wide variety of foods. Try new recipes, try new foods, try new spices. Let your children see you trying these things as well. Doing this will serve two purposes. First, it will broaden your family's exposure to the types of food that are out there. Second, you may not like every new food you prepare. As adults, we tend to only fix what we want to eat. It is easy to forget what it is like to be confronted with a completely unfamiliar taste. We need to keep this in mind when helping our children become adventurous eaters because it is not always a pleasant experience. Some things really do need multiple tastings before you can begin to like them. For instance, I didn't really care for mangos when I first had them, but some of my children did, so I kept serving them. Over time, and always making myself take a small portion, I have developed a taste for them. Model what you want from your children.
- Insist on at least a taste of everything. I don't want to torture my children with food they don't like, but I do want them to at least taste everything. If I know a child hasn't always liked something, I will only give a small portion, but they still get some. A. will probably never like okra (she's gone far beyond the supposed 11 tastings that are needed to develop a taste for something new), but we still put a small amount on her plate. And she eats it, though she does slather it with hot sauce now.
- Expect politeness. Anyone dislikes something (except J. who is the least picky person I have ever met), yet can still be polite about it and thankful for someone having prepared the food. We have zero tolerance for impoliteness. Usually it only takes a child saying, "Yuck! I don't like this!" and having the offending plate whisked away, thus being left without dinner to convince them that it is not a wise course of action. Yes, many of my children have gone to bed hungry because of this type of behavior. None of them have expired overnight. (I don't really need to say that this is for children who have emotionally stable backgrounds, do I? We do not tolerate impoliteness from our children from hard places, but it would not be healing for them to go without food. Hunger is too much of a trigger.) Pretty much, you can say, "I don't care for this" having tried some, but you can't offer disgust, and especially not before tasting it. Everyone is allowed their own opinion, it is a matter of how it is expressed.
- Be caring. Sometimes someone just really doesn't like something. I try to accommodate them within reason. If it is something that is added on, such as shredded cheese, a child may most certainly opt out of that. If a child doesn't like peas, they are welcome to pick them out (assuming they tasted at least one) and quietly move them to the side of the plate. We don't all like everything. I was a fairly picky eater myself, until I went to a restaurant in college and in looking at the menu realized that because of my pickiness there was not one thing on the menu that I thought I wanted to eat. I realized that this was crazy and decided to not be picky. (Yes, it was really that easy.) I still do not care for mushrooms and will quietly give them to J. I want my children to feel they are able to navigate their likes and dislikes in an adult way; to know they can eat something if they must and how to avoid it politely if they can.
You can turn a picky eater around, but you need to decide if it is really worth it to you. Are both parents on board to make it something that is important and for both to model adventurous eating? Are you willing to allow a child to go hungry if they don't want what is served (without making it a battle)? Are you willing to go snackless while you are retraining your children? (If a child is getting all their calorie needs through snacks, they are not going to really care if they eat dinner or not, especially if they think they won't like it.) Are you willing to ignore the whines? It's doable, but it's also hard work.
Like so many things, we need to stop and ask ourselves if something is really important to us. If it is, we then need to carefully examine how we are living to see if we are showing this in how we live. Sometimes these things line up, and sometimes they don't. It is a form of cognitive dissonance...where what we say we believe does not meet up with our experienced reality. You have to decide. Is it important enough to you to change how you are living, or is it actually not so terribly important after all?
To end on a lighter note, I have some favorite picture books about picky eaters that I like to read to and discuss with my children. The first is The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. I like this book for many reasons, not the least of which is to watch the mother and the laundry as more children are added to the family. The next is Mrs. Pig's Bulk Buy by Mary Raynor. It's not exactly about picky eating, but still fun. And lastly, the ultimate in talking with a child about picky eating is Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. I love all the Frances books because the children are portrayed so accurately and the adults have such good common sense. I probably have this one memorized we've read it so many times.