Healthy Living in the North

Are “picky eaters” just “eaters in training”?: Tips to help build kids’ food acceptance skills

Child eating a cherry

Kids are often unsure about new or unfamiliar food. With time and practice, they can learn to eat a variety of foods.

It’s lunch time. You prepare a meal and sit down to eat with your kid(s). They eat all of the [food x] but leave [food y] completely untouched. What’s the deal? Is it always going to be like this? Why can’t they just eat a bit of everything? How do kids go from here (“rejecting” certain foods) to there (accepting a wide variety of foods)?

Come on a little trip with me!

Imagine you take a trip to an unfamiliar place. Somebody presents you with bread, cheese, and a bowl of … green, lumpy, semi-solid something. They gesture for you to eat it. You hesitate. You feel anxious. You don’t know what this is – you certainly don’t feel like eating it!

Stay on this trip with me. Imagine now that you eventually learned to like that green, lumpy, semi-solid something, and now you even look forward to when it might be served again! Whaaaat? How could it be? How did you come to accept, and even like, that food?

It could look like this:

First, you looked to see that other people were actually eating it. But you looked at the “semi-solid something” and decided that you were not yet ready to try it. The next week, it was offered again, and now it was a little less scary. Maybe you poked at it with your spoon. Later, you gave it a sniff. Then, you stuck your finger in it. Maybe someone told you what was in the dish. Maybe you had the opportunity to see it being prepared, and you even got to help. Eventually, you put a little in your mouth but then spit it into a napkin. You decided it was tasty, and that you wanted a little more of this … broccoli soup or green jello or guacamole or whatever this dish is in your mind.

Back to reality. Think of a time when you learned to like a new food. What helped you to learn?

Kids are often unsure about new or unfamiliar food. With time and practice, they can learn to eat a variety of foods. We can help to make this learning process feel safe.

Here are some things to try to support your kids to learn to eat a variety of foods:

  • Make the same meal or snack for everyone. Sit and eat together. Seeing others eat a food is a great way to learn about it.
  • Offer new foods with familiar foods. If they are not yet comfortable with one food, kids can eat from the other items at that meal or snack.
  • Serve new foods over and over, without pressure or praise. Kids may need to see a food 15 to 20 times before they decide to eat it.
  • Be honest about what you are serving. Kids need to experience foods in order to learn.
  • Teach your kids to politely turn down food they aren’t yet ready to eat.
  • Respect tiny tummies. Serve a small amount to start and allow seconds. Kids’ hunger and appetite change from day to day, meal to meal.
  • Involve kids in growing and cooking food, and in packing their lunch.
  • Praise kids on their table manners, not on how much or what they eat.
  • Expect that in time your “eater in training” will learn to accept a variety of food. They will learn at their own pace.

For more information, see: Coaching Kids to Become Good Eaters and The Picky Eater.

Lise Luppens

About Lise Luppens

Lise started her career as a dietitian with Northern Health in 2004 when she moved to Terrace "for a year." More than 10 years later, she is now part of the regional population health registered dietitian team and she continues to love living, working and playing in B.C.'s northwest. Lise enjoys playing outside with her husband and friends and you might find her skiing, biking or kiting. She’s passionate about local food, keeps a garden, enjoys local community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers market goodies, and carries out food preservation projects.

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The sit-down family meal: A thing of the past?

Family eating at a table

Is it really worth it to take the time to eat as a family? The answer is yes!

When I think back on my childhood, some of my best memories involve food: big family gatherings for holiday meals, unplanned barbecues in the summertime, baking with my grandmother. They all revolve around enjoying food together as a family. Even when my sister and I were busy with various after-school activities, my parents almost always made sure we sat down and ate together. Now that I have a family of my own, I make a point of having a sit-down dinner most evenings. Is it really worth it to take the time to eat as a family when we could just eat on-the-go? The answer is yes!

The way in which families dine together has changed from 20+ years ago. People are often distracted by technology and lead fast-paced, busy lives. But what are we missing out on when we don’t sit down to eat together? Research shows that family meals have a big impact on the health and happiness of children. Structured family meals can:

  • Serve as an opportunity to “catch up” with one another and exchange stories.
  • Engage children in trying a variety of foods in a safe setting where others are enjoying the same foods.
  • Teach children to come to the table hungry, and eat with pleasure. They will leave happily satisfied and energized to do other things.

Family meals don’t have to be elaborate. They can be as short or as long as your schedule allows. Even sitting down to enjoy a snack together is beneficial. Some meals might be missing a family member or two for whatever reason – and that’s okay. The key is to have everyone as often as your family can manage. To get started, try these tips:

  • Set a realistic goal. If you aren’t already having family meals, try for 2 or 3 meals a week and build from there.
  • Pick a time to eat that works for most family members, or alternate times so everyone has a chance to participate.
  • Communicate to all family members about the time and place. This avoids the “I didn’t know” excuse.
  • Set aside all distractions. Come to the table gadget-free, ready to eat and connect with one another.
  • Keep the mood positive. Don’t pressure children to eat; provide a variety of food and allow them to choose whether and how much to eat.

Remember: it’s not always about what you eat, but that you are taking the time to eat together. Start making plans for your next family meal today!

More tips and resources on family meals

The Ellyn Satter Institute:

Healthy Families BC:

Tamara Grafton

About Tamara Grafton

Tamara is a registered dietitian currently working with the clinical nutrition team at UHNBC and in long term care facilities in Prince George. Originally from a small city in Saskatchewan, she now lives the rural life on a ranch with her husband and young son. She has a passion for nutrition education, healthy eating and cooking. In her downtime, she enjoys reading food blogs, keeping active, and trying out new recipes on her family and friends

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