Parents all over the world can all agree that getting kids to eat a variety of healthy foods can be a challenge. Pickiness is an evolved human behavior. Early mankind avoided poisoning themselves by eating what is familiar. So, toddlers and preschoolers are just doing what is natural. It is also natural to learn to taste new foods, especially the great food we have here in the New York and New Jersey metro area, but familiarity is the key to getting them to try it.
Studies show that children need to be exposed to and offered new foods several dozen times in order to accept them as something they will eat. Not five or six times, but forty or fifty. What this means is that when eating a family meal, put a little of everything on each family member’s plate and don’t force the issue, allow sampling but there is no need bargain or cajole. Just getting some kids to let the new food be on their plate is a big step for them. Tasting can come later. Parents should model trying new things, kids always want to be like grown ups.
Some children have sensory issues and cannot be comfortable with certain textures, and that is a very real hurdle to jump when it comes to new foods. One way to deal with this is to serve foods differently. If a child has aversions to hard and crunchy foods, try preparing it differently. Apples can become apple sauce. Carrots can be carrot soup. Some children can’t handle multiple textures combined, like the wet, dry, crunchy, soft combo of a sandwich. There is a simple work-around; serve the sandwich deconstructed. Bread plain, lunchmeat separate, cheese separate, veggies and dip on the side. Same food, but much better reception.
Another perfectly acceptable way to get kids to eat healthier is to sneak the good stuff into the things kids all ready like. This trick can be used in conjunction with the offering policy. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to finding sneaky ways to add fruits and veggies to food that kids already like. Baking spinach and blueberries into muffins, or pureeing carrots and peas into pizza sauce will get the nutrition into the picky kid while they happily munch away.
Finally, when choosing a nursery school, preschool, childcare center, or day camp, make sure the school supports healthy eating habits. Snacks served at school should be wholesome and include fresh fruits and vegetables. Children are more inclined to eat what their friends are eating, so it’s important that everyone eat well at communal meals. Another thing to look for is a school curriculum that includes hands-on food preparation experiences, even for the youngest preschoolers. Children are more interested in new foods if they get to choose and prepare them themselves, and they can chop bananas, strawberries, and carrots on their own with teachers watching closely. They will be excited to try what they make themselves, and it’s great for their fine motor development as well.