Parents deal with all sorts of child-related frustrations throughout the day, but frustration at mealtimes can be a whole other level of exasperation.
“It’s easy to feel defeated and focus on what the kids aren’t eating,” says Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietician and founder of Kids Eat in Color, a local resource with 1.4 million Instagram followers. “Feeding kids is a long game, though.”
First, it’s important to remember that most children are a bit picky, especially around age two, according to Mandy Hart, a pediatric speech-language pathologist and drama therapist in Bethesda, Maryland. One of Hart’s specializations is feeding disorders.
“If a kid doesn’t like foods like broccoli, cauliflower or lettuce, that’s okay,” she says. “Kids are allowed to have personal preferences.”
That said, kids’ preferences are often fickle; sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to them.
Christine Ju, a registered dietician nutritionist in Washington, D.C., and part of the Good Food Nutrition Group, advises parents not to give up.
“As parents, we all get frustrated when our kids don’t eat something we want them to eat after multiple attempts,” she says. “Sometimes, if a child rejects a food once, the parents assume that the food is forever banned, but that’s not the case at all.”
Anderson recommends serving micro portions of new foods — about the size of a pinky nail — to reduce a child’s anxiety about it and to reduce waste. Even with such tiny portions, “it can take many exposures to a new food, sometimes hundreds, before a child tries it,” she says.
Have safe foods
While it is important for parents to expose children to different foods Hart recommends serving at least two foods at each meal that you know your child will eat.
Anderson echoes this sentiment, saying it’s important to always include a safe food at meals to prevent table tension. “A meal consisting of all new foods or foods that are hit-or-miss for your child can cause stress,” she says. “Make it a habit to make meals that usually include familiar non-familiar foods.”
Make it flavorful
“Parents tend to go for more bland foods, but kids like spicy, tasty foods,” Hart says. She recommends offering young children food in all different flavors, including spicy, bitter and sour.
Put them to work
“The more your child invests in the preparation of your meal, the more likely he or she will be excited to try it,” says Ju. She suggests taking children grocery shopping, letting them pick out a new fruit or vegetable and then finding an interesting recipe to try together.
Look for signs
Although many kids dismiss certain foods because they don’t like the taste, some refuse to eat them because of how they feel afterward. If you notice a pattern of physical ailments after they eat a certain food or food group, try eliminating the food in question and then reintroducing it to determine the source of the problem, says Ju.
“If you have serious food-related concerns, a discussion with your pediatrician or a registered dietician is always in order,” she adds.
Classic examples of something more serious include physical ailments such as diarrhea, loose stool, excessive gas, stomach upset or pain and skin issues like hives.
“If the child acts out after eating something he or she didn’t like, but then acts fine when presented with other foods, chances are it’s more of a preference,” says Nancy Piho, a registered dietician nutritionist at Good Food Nutrition Group. “The body doesn’t lie when it’s an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, so be sure to look for signs and patterns.”