Four tips for encouraging picky eaters

21309518670_03e4a22d07_oAt KinderCare Education, we know that growth starts from the inside out. Having a healthy body means having a healthy mind and we want to nourish and fuel the children in our care to learn and grow. That’s why, over the next few weeks, we’re sharing stories about the nutrition improvements we’ve made and celebrating the extraordinary centers and sites who are taking our commitment to do what’s right for the children in our care to the next level.

Children excel at coming up with excuses not to try new foods. Whether something is too green, too sticky, has a funny smell, or just looks plain weird, children may resist a new food up to 15 times before deciding to try it. KinderCare Education’s Registered Dietitian Courtney Hines and some all-star teachers have tips for encouraging children to try new and healthy foods:

1 – Family style dining: Eating together around a table creates a safe environment for picky eaters. At every KinderCare center, children pass food to one another and eat together.

“Children are offered and encouraged to try new foods, but ultimately, they can choose what they want to eat,” said Hines. “The autonomy and responsibility at meal time is exciting for young children and generally results in children accepting a variety of different types of foods.”

At KinderCare in Branchburg, N.J., prekindergarten teacher Nancy Smith knows that family style dining can have quite an impact.

“Eating family style gives children control over the portion that they take,” said Smith. “When they’re trying something new, they can take a smaller amount. It helps them establish their independence.”

2 – Model behavior: “Children learn from each other and often model behavior of their teachers, parents, and peers,” said Hines. “If a child is reluctant to try a new food, but they see a friend or teacher eating it and talking positively about the taste, color, or texture, they will be much more likely to try it as well.”

At KinderCare Education centers and sites, teachers sit with children as they eat to model positive behaviors, like giving new foods a try.

“Whenever I make a new recipe, I sit with my friends during lunch and encourage them to try it,” said Darsetta Wood, the cook at Woods Chapel KinderCare in Blue Springs, Mo.

3 – Involve children in meal service: Children don’t have to be Master Chef Junior material to participate in meal service. Passing out plates, silverware, bowls, or cups before meal time helps get hesitant children involved in the process of a meal—and when children are involved in the cooking, their sense of pride can push them to widen their comfort zone.

When Wood taught her school-agers how to make pickles from cucumbers, the once-skeptical children were proud to taste their creations.

“When children are involved in the meal, they are more engaged and interested in eating,” said Hines. “At home, parents can build upon that concept by allowing children to pick out one new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store to try each week.”

4 – Be persistent: Changing the way a food looks, smells, tastes, or feels can have an impact on a child’s willingness to try it. In Missouri, Wood sautés onions and zucchini to make vegetable dishes more appealing to younger children.

It also helps to avoid insisting a child try a new food. Smith encourages her pre-k students to try new foods by offering three portion options: “no thanks,” small, and large. Instead of passing up a food altogether, Smith encourages her students to take a small, bite-sized portion that they have the option of trying. Every meal time, children take a “no thanks” portion of a food they are skeptical to try. After a while, they’re comfortable enough to give it a go.

“With the ‘no thanks’ serving, children feel like they have more choices,” she said. “They have control over the amount of food they take when they have the opportunity to try something new, and with that established independence, they feel like they want to try something, not that they have to try something.”

Want more ideas to help kids try new foods? Check out these resources from the USDA’s Choose My Plate website:

Healthy Tips for Picky Eaters

Kitchen Helper Activities

Phrases That Help and Hinder

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