I can’t tell you how many times dealing with picky eaters comes up in the parenting and homeschool forums I visit. Advice seems to fall into two distinct camps: Make Them Eat It or Never Make Food A Battle. Neither philosophy really helps picky eaters try new foods, much less like them, however. These tips may not turn your picky eater into a culinary adventurer overnight, but they have helped my children stretch their palates and willingly try things that don’t look like pizza or macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, they even like them.
First off, understand that children have a different sensitivity to taste than adults.
They don’t like strong flavors because flavor is stronger to them. Their sense of smell is more acute. They really can find that finely diced onion in the spaghetti sauce because they are like superhuman sensory machines. Sometimes, they aren’t picky eaters so much as sensitive eaters. Be mindful of the fact that there really are “adult” flavors and acquired tastes. If you are having a fine pâté and caviar, by all means let your children sample if they wish, but don’t make them sit there all night staring at it until they force it down or starve.
Introduce food as an adventure.
When we go to the Asian market, I let my kids pick something new to try. Every trip, it is someone else’s turn. So far, we’ve tried smelt, octopus, shark, some obscure flavor of Korean pudding and various kinds of snacks whose labels I couldn’t even read. They are begging to try frog legs and have started asking when our next trip to the market will be. Explore the cheese section of your local grocer. Trader Joe’s has a pretty nice selection and the whole reason my children like to go is for the cheese. I had to start letting them pick two cheeses because they could never decide between trying something new and choosing one of their favorites (brie and honey chevre).
Get out your video camera.
Watch some of those YouTube videos of foreigners trying our snacks and Americans trying foreign snacks. (Note: preview any videos before showing them to your children. Not all of them are appropriate.) My kids are kind of addicted to them and have watched quite a number of people trying foods they generally hate. Collect some of the snacks for your own tasting and record the results. Let your children share their reactions with family and friends and help them laugh through the experience.
Sample, sample, sample.
Go to Whole Foods and let them try the varieties of sauces, fishes and cheeses available to sample. They often have sample trays out of things I would never think to feed my kids. Because it is there on a little sample tray, my kids will try it. Sometimes I will even warn them that it is spicy or salty or bitter and they might not like it, but still they want to try. It surprises me just how often they will ask me to buy something I thought they wouldn’t even like because they were “allowed” to try a small sample.
Introduce new foods gradually and as noncomittally as possible.
Basically, what I mean by that is to not make your garlic pesto pasta as a main dish if your picky eaters have never had pesto and do not have any particular love for garlic. Nothing kills the sense of adventure in eating like having an entire plate of something potentially disgusting plopped down in front of you with no alternatives in sight. Introduce it first as a side dish. Encourage your child to take a small, bite-sized spoonful “just to try.” If they don’t like it, laugh with them (not at them) and talk about the flavors they didn’t like. Help give them the language to talk about food. Rather than, “That’s disgusting!” try, “It’s a little too garlicky for me.”
Talk about food.
Talk about things you would like to try. Talk about strange foods you have eaten. Talk about that time you choked down some jellied meat thing your host mother in Germany fed you even though you thought it might make you throw up. (OK, so I might be the only one, but surely you have some story?) Particularly talk about how tastes change. My kids know that I didn’t like tomatoes as a kid. The first one I liked was on a Whopper, jr. I only ate it because my brand new friend ordered it for me and told me it was the best sandwich in the world. Now I eat tomatoes straight out of the garden with a little salt, pepper and olive oil. Tell them how children are more sensitive to flavors than adults and that they can expect their tastes in food to change in time. Let them know that it can take ten (or more!) times tasting a food to develop a taste for it. Try to help them not reject a food for all time because they didn’t like it the first time they tried it.
Give them permission to not like things.
We all have foods we would rather not eat. As adults, we simply do not prepare those foods. Children, however, are left somewhat at our mercy when it comes to dinner time. Take their preferences into consideration when preparing meals. Have things on the menu they like alongside new foods or foods you are trying to help them develop a taste for. And when they try a new food, help them have a sense of humor about it. When I taught a unit on Australia in our homeschool co-op, I brought Vegemite. Not one person wanted to try it until I told them it was OK to not like it. They weren’t going to hurt my feelings if they took one bite and threw the rest away. I told them it was even OK to spit it right back out and get a drink of water. With the permission to not like it came the courage to try it. Everyone in the class ended up taking some. Most of it went right into the trash can after the first nibble, but two of them actually liked it.
Remember: it is the attitude behind eating more than your child’s picky eating that matters.
If your child sees him or herself as adventurous despite having exactly three dishes they will willingly eat, they are more likely to keep trying new foods and expand that repertoire. Research into why we like the foods we like shows interesting trends.
“The big predictor of whether someone will like something like bitter melon or hoppy beer isn’t their sensitivity to bitterness,” Marcia Pelchat, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “It’s their exposure to it, their motivation, their interest. It’s all cultural stuff.” ~How or Sense of Taste Changes as we Age
Exposure. Motivation. Interest. It isn’t what we decided was the one and only food worth eating at the age of seven that affects what we will choose to eat as adults. It is what we were exposed to, what our motivations are and what our interests are. It is cultural. Develp a culture of curiosity about food and your child will slowly acquire a broader range of tastes as they mature.