Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a land not far from here, parents would force children to clean their plates during meals, regardless of their hunger level. We now know that this feeding strategy can teach children to ignore their own hunger cues and subsequently overeat as adults, and thankfully this practice has declined.
The next contingent of parents educated themselves about nutrition to the degree that they earned the moniker “helicopter.” They scrutinized whether their kids were consuming enough protein or calcium every time they ate. Because not every child eats the ideal number of nutrients at every meal, many of these parents began to panic and serve their kids any food they would eat as long as it had a smidge of nutrition. For example, a mother might rationalize that if she served her child fish for dinner the child might eat nothing, yet, if the child eats a hot dog he may not get as much nutrition as from the fish but at least he will get some protein.
This rationale led to an overabundance of short order cooks who would whip up their children’s favorites every night, or who would beg, cajole or bribe their kids to eat three more bites. These behaviors further reinforced a generation of picky eaters, and although these tactics perpetually backfire, this storyline lives on.
I became a parent during the “no-thank-you bite” chapter: Kids needed to try one bite of everything on their plate, then could say “no thank you” if they didn’t like something. As with the encouragement, “Just taste it, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it”, this strategy inherently sends the message that the child won’t like the food. Why is anyone surprised when the child doesn’t like the food?
Since none of these fairytales end with a princely child who eats a wide variety of healthy foods, how should the story be rewritten for this generation? It boils down to taking all pressure off of children to eat and always making mealtimes positive.
As a prologue, all parents should live by the mantra, “It is not your job to get your child to eat.” We are responsible for providing them with food. It is our children’s job to decide if they want to eat the foods we serve.
So stop pushing them. As Dina Rose says in her book “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” “Pressure is your enemy.” Instead of harping on a child to eat new foods, Rose suggests accustoming children to tasting new foods. This could be tasting a new variety of apple, a yellow cherry tomato instead of a red one or even a new type of cookie. It is widely shown that many children need to taste a food at least 10 times before they decide they like it, so getting kids enthusiastic to taste new foods is an imperative step.
Many parents give up long before the 10th taste or start begging, pleading and forcing their kid to try one bite, making dinner a battle and priming the child to never enjoy that battleground food. Instead, parents should continue to offer foods under no-pressure situations. If a child huffs and puffs and doesn’t taste it, she doesn’t taste it that night. No big deal — there is always another night.
Because children don’t have as many food experiences as adults, they can’t anticipate what something might taste like. This makes it scary for them to try an unfamiliar food. If we help them understand how something tastes in an honest, non-manipulative way (in other words, don’t tell them plain yogurt tastes just like ice cream), they will be more open to trying it.
If they do try it, don’t immediately ask them if they like it with an eager, hopeful voice. Instead, ask them to describe it: Is it reminiscent of another food? Is it sweet, salty or spicy? Crunchy or chewy? Hot or cold? In her book, Rose lists questions parents can ask and words children can use to describe their food. Even after they have described it, do not ask if they like it, because if they say they don’t they will be less likely to try it again later. Just let them be pleased that they tasted a bite.
Parents should allow their young kids to play with their food, push it around their plate, smell it or mix it. In her guide “Try New Food!,” dietitian Jill Castle explains that “the tactile investigation of food is part of development — it’s necessary, productive and speeds up the learning curve.”
And finally, parents should lower expectations of both how much kids should eat and how much they should try. Rose validates that a taste can be tiny, such as one-quarter of a pea or one sesame seed. Castle confirms that even a lick of a food counts as a taste. Talk about lowered expectations!
When we move from expecting children to try and then eat a lot of a new foods to expecting children to look at, smell, touch, play with, lick or maybe, just maybe, take a tiny bite of new foods, kids are more likely to meet those expectations. Sounds like a happily ever after to me.
First published in The Washington Post on November 5, 2019.