Two different scenarios:
You are starving and your boss is ordering lunch today. You sit down and your boss gives you a plate of food that you don’t recognize at all.
“What is this?” you ask.
“It’s Kecka*. It’s fish. Eat it!”
It doesn’t look like fish you’ve had before. It smells, not bad, but odd, just really unfamiliar.
“Eat it now! Why are you so difficult! You never listen to me! Eat it or you won’t get paid!”
Your boss asks you to lunch and wants to go to a new sushi restaurant. You would have preferred a burger joint but it will be nice to show your boss you are enjoyable company so you agree to go along. You don’t recognize much on the menu but the waiter explains in detail where the food came from, what it might taste like and it’s culture. Your boss decides on Kecka for an appetizer. The waiter explains: “It’s an Asian fish, similar to salmon, but a little
blander flavor. It’s covered in capers which contrast with their bold smell and flavor and a special blend of herbs and soy dressing.”
That must be what the strong smell is. You realize. Your boss loves it.
“You gonna let me eat all this? It’s awesome! You have to try it!”
Which seems like a more fitting scenario to try a new and unfamiliar food?
The first scenario happens daily in some homes, to children with picky eating habits. They are being forced to eat extremely unfamiliar food, under pressure and judgment and expected to like it. Often threatened or punished for not eating enough of it, done by parents with the best of intentions.
How can I make my child’s eating experience more like scenario 2?
1) Involve children in meals and give them a clue what they are eating. Ask them what they want. Take them to the grocery store to help pick new things out. Go to the farmers market. Have the farmer tell your child about the food. They will be happy to, trust me. Look online with them for recipes they might want to try. Let them make something up. Play a game. Try to eat a new color or reenact a meal from a cartoon. Make it a positive experience and make the child have some ownership and pride in the process. Give them as much information as possible in a positive way about what the food is and what you could expect it to taste like.
2) Keep trying. Outside of a new type of ice cream, no one is really crazy about anything they try the first time. Taste preferences typically come from previous experiences of what food tastes like. If you bite into a cracker and it tasted like piece of juicy steak, you would probably think you didn’t like the taste. Kids have no idea what broccoli tastes like until they eat it regularly. A child who doesn’t like broccoli has probably had broccoli truly less than 10 times in their life as compared to an adult with much more exposure. That’s why some kids will like chicken nuggets but refuse baked chicken. When they try baked chicken, it doesn’t taste like chicken nuggets so they don’t like it. The food companies know this. They spend lots of time and money ensuring that every bite of their products taste exactly as you expected it to taste. Kids have to try something multiple times to like it. The first 50 times will be experimental.
3) No one likes anything they are being forced to eat. I can’t stress this enough. “One more bite!”, “Finish your plate.”, “Just try it!”, “You’re not leaving this table until you eat three bites!” or “eat your broccoli or you won’t get your dessert.” These are some of the worst methods possible to make kids eat healthy food. The short term benefit of physically ingesting the small amount of nutrients in this process is nothing in comparison to the long term negative effects of this behavior including but not limited to a fear of eating, negative association with the forced food, anxiety toward meals/food, losing the inability to listen to your body’s hunger/full signals, loss of confidence toward a child’s ability to please their parents, a tendency to sneak forbidden foods when able, and even further pickiness.
4) Sit down for family meals together. Let the child please you with their eating habits. Children want to please their parents, I promise. Everyone should eat the same things. Avoid ‘kid friendly foods’ or special meals. If someone decides to not eat something that is their choice. Don’t force it, just don’t offer anything else. If you start this from a young age, they will not fight for something else. Kids will only fight for things when they know it might work. Don’t cave, which teaches them you just have to throw a really big fit. Your child will not suffer negative health consequences from not eating a few meals, especially with healthy food in front of them. Don’t make it stressful! Hungry people WILL eat food!
4) Focus on variety over nutrients. Kids who eat a variety of foods and are willing to try new foods will have a much healthier relationship with food and will typically get more nutrients. Don’t worry too much about eliminating or adding specific types of foods to their diet. Just feed kids real, unprocessed food, most of the time.
5) DO NOT MANIPULATE INTAKE! Do not worry they don’t eat enough, do not worry they eat too much. Do not (of course, outside of medical conditions that should be discussed with your doctor) give supplements. There is a special place in hell for people who market nutritional supplements using scare tactics to parents. Hungry kids will eat food. Supplements are usually bad for long term health and do much less to deliver short term nutrition than they often claim. We are born intuitive eaters. Let hungry kids eat and let not hungry kids not eat.
6) One more thing about drinks. Give your child water like you would your dog. If you gave a dog a bowl of milk, he would drink it all, if you gave him another bowl of milk, he would drink it all again. If you give your child water, he will drink it when he is thirsty and will not when he is not thirsty. Give them access to water and let them drink it when they want it. Don’t manipulate intake. Give them anything else to drink besides water on occasions only. Children don’t dislike water, you are just allowing them to prefer flavor. They will endlessly chug flavor, but they will only drink water when thirsty. Excessive drink consumption is one of the leading causes of childhood nutritional issues.
*I made Kecka up completely.