Frustrated by your picky eater? Here’s the secret to helping kids become more familiar and comfortable around new foods.
As parents, getting our kids to eat new foods feels like the end-all-be-all, right? But maybe we’re going about it all wrong. I’ve been a fan of Dr. Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli, for years. She coached me through my son’s dinner strike when he was a toddler. And we eventually became co-hosts of The Happy Bite, a podcast about feeding kids that Dina still produces. I really like Dina’s approach to feeding kids, and she recently developed a “food exploration” kit that’s perfect for reluctant eaters because it takes the pressure OFF! Here, Dina makes the case for shifting the goal from eating an unfamiliar food to exploring it. At the end of the post, you can learn more about her kit and enter to win a free one!
by Dina Rose, PhD
Is there anything more joyful than watching a young child dive into a plate of food? Especially when that plate is full of healthy food? They’re smiling and happy. We’re smiling and happy. I remember feeling a sense of, dare I say, triumph when my daughter reached across the table to scoop up a fistful of guacamole. We were at a family outing, and my daughter’s adventurous eating felt like success. She was 12 months old.
Fast-forward a few months. My daughter wasn’t nearly as interested in new foods as she had once been, and she certainly wasn’t as interested in trying new foods as I wanted her to be. Maybe this sounds familiar?
You’ve heard that toddlers can shut down around new foods. The experts call this neophobia: fear of new foods. Of course, many toddlers shut down around familiar foods too. What they once ate with gusto is suddenly non grata. That ‘yuck’ is no longer welcome. And before you know it, your child is eating five things. Or at least it feels like his acceptable list is limited to five things.
What to do? The answer is counterintuitive:
Stop trying to get your child to eat new foods. Start focusing on exploring them instead.
Exploring works where eating (or even the suggestion of eating) doesn’t because it is safer. It is easier. Think of it this way: Eating new food takes courage and commitment. Exploring new food simply requires a dose of temporary curiosity. It’s like the difference between speed dating and going away for the weekend with a blind date.
Even, “Just taste it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” —probably the most popular parenting phrase out there—does not invoke the freedom of exploration. Kids know you want them to do more than take a taste. They know you want them to commit to the blind date.
Food exploration really is like speed dating. You can size up a new dish by taking a look. If that feels enticing, maybe reach over for a light touch. (And this is where the metaphor falls apart. Because with speed dating, if you leaned in for a sniff you’d probably–hopefully?–get rebuffed. But I’m sure you get my point.)
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Sensory education is the essence of food exploration. When children learn about new foods through appearance, aroma, sound, temperature, texture and taste, they get to set the pace. Too scared to take a taste? Fine, let’s just have a look. Curious about how that feels? It’s fine to prod and poke. In the process, kids build up their database of food facts so new foods become familiar.
There’s an advantage of switching to food exploration for parents too. It’s way less frustrating. You know how kids need to be exposed to a new food around ten times before they’ll enjoy eating it? Most parents give up after five exposures, the research shows, because it is hard to continue serving food that kids reject. Food exploration is a game-changer. Not only does exploration only require a pea-sized sample (nothing ends up in the garbage) but there is no way to fail. Even the most hesitant child can find an activity they’re willing to do.
It’s easy to get started. All you have to do is call your child’s attention to the food they’re already eating. Ask them, What color is this cracker? Which food on your plate is the squishiest? Can you find anything in the house that is as red as this apple? When you’re ready to move on to new foods, look for pea-sized samples to explore. They’re everywhere: At the supermarket, on salad bars, even on your plate. Think of this process as a science experiment—or maybe a treasure hunt!
Remember, all kids can become confident, adventurous eaters.
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