Is your child a picky eater? We asked the experts, including health counselors and nutritionists, for their best tips on how to get your child to eat (and like!) new - and healthy - foods.
It's a food-loving parent's sweaty nightmare: a picky kid who turns down fresh, wholesome food in favor of ill-shaped nuggets or only things drenched in - gasp! - ketchup. Here are some clever ways keep kids refining their palates, at every age:
Serve up veggies first.
The key to an open mind, er, palate later is introducing a wide range of flavors from the get-go. One of the traps many parents fall into is only offering sweet flavors - bananas, sweet potatoes, and the like - in their children's first bites, says Jeanette Bessinger, a holistic health counselor and author of Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler. One tactic is to start off with whole grain rice cereal then go straight to the veggies so kids are exposed to some sour and bitter notes, too.
Start adding real flavor early.
By the time kids are taking on a pretty broad variety of textures, around 9 to 12 months, you can start adding a dash of flavor using your own taste buds as your guide. Give cauliflower a sprinkle of cumin, beets a dash of cinnamon, and yellow squash a pinch of dried basil. "For many countries in the world, like India, spice is added to first bites in serious amounts," says Bessinger. This translates into a tolerance, and even affinity, for flavors later on.
Also: Take advantage of the "flavor explosion" that can happen between 18 months and 2 years. "It's just like language," Bessinger says. "There's an explosion of potential for introducing new foods." (Introducing one food at a time is still a good idea, though, because it helps to isolate any allergic reactions.)
Don't sneak around with the good stuff.
There has been much ado lately about sneaking nutrients into foods, whether through fortification or through handiwork in the kitchen. But if you do so, is your kid really "trying" something new? Are they ever going to try if you've pandered to fickle tastes for too long? "Children have to learn to be individuals and develop a taste for real food," says Bessinger. "If we're disguising our most nutrient-rich good stuff, then we're doing them a serious disservice."
Rely on peer pressure - the good kind.
Remember a childhood friend from another culture who ate miso soup or always had exotic fruits, like starfruit, in the fridge? It was way cooler to try foods at that friend's house than when your mom was pushing them. "If you tell them it's healthy or different, you've just built it up," says Bessinger. Then the experience becomes more about the parent-child relationship and less about the child-food relationship, and that's a mistake. Feel free to scheme with other parents so that your child is exposed to new foods away from the home, where he's much more likely to nosh.
Get the kids in on the process.
The number one way to get a kid to chow down on a mixed green salad, or even something as exotic as endive? Actively involve him in the process of getting the food on the table. Join your neighborhood garden (check out greenthumbnyc.org to find green spaces in your hood), and then get dirty growing some veggies. If that's too much of a task, try growing herbs in a window box. Once its dinnertime, let kids measure, marinate, mix - anything to give them a hands-on connection with the food you're introducing.
Here's some news for you: "It seems counterintuitive, but the key is really to just relax about the whole thing," says Bessinger. If you are nervous and uptight about something new, kids will pick up on the stress. She says that a better tactic is simply to put a new food on the table, no explanation necessary: "Just put it down and walk away - no reward, no punishment."