It's the classic standoff happening nightly at dinner tables everywhere, and it's been playing out for generations. It has a different name, depending on the household - from the "no-thank-you bite" to the "eat your veggies if you want dessert" rule. The root cause of the standoff is simple: Parents are trying to get their children to eat the food on their plates. But with the wrong approach, research suggests that parents might unwittingly be creating a bigger problem at the table.
Child-feeding studies reveal just how tricky it can be to feed children. One area where parents tend to overstep their boundaries is with the implementation of so-called "pressure to eat" rules. Insisting that a child try a bite of something, or that she eat a certain amount of it, for example, has been shown to create more resistance to trying new foods at future meals. In other words, trying to pressure a picky child to eat ends up creating a pickier child, in the long run.
So, what is the parent of a picky eater to do? Here are tips that will help bring some peace to your dinner table:
Allow your child to get hungry. Please note that allowing your child to get hungry is not the same thing as allowing your child to go hungry. This is done by having meals and snack times, and eliminating eating in between. By adding this structure to your child's eating times, you will allow him some time in between to build up an appetite. Appetite is an essential ingredient in enjoying food, and children who are hungry are more willing to take a gamble on nibbling that piece of cauliflower.
Serve the food, eat the food, repeat. Some foods are more challenging for children to try. This is natural and to be expected - in fact, it can take 20 exposures to a challenging new food for some children to come around to actually liking it! A common mistake parents make is that they stop serving a food after it has been rejected several times. Keep serving the food, and make sure you eat it, too. Your child is watching and may eventually come around. If you stop serving the food, he or she will never have the chance to make peace with it.
Lighten up on the one-bite rule. The problem with this type of rule is that it can become too pushy and end up creating a negative experience tied to eating. In fact, many adults connect the memory of being forced to eat Brussels sprouts (or a similar vegetable) with why they won't touch them to this day. A rule of thumb is to keep it light-hearted and low-key, and back off if you know it's starting to make your child squirm. Since your job is done (you've gotten the cabbage to the kid's plate - again!), it is now up to your child to decide if he's brave enough tonight to give it a try.
Remember, this is a marathon and not a sprint. The ultimate goal is not to get the broccoli into the kid tonight - the goal is to raise someone who is willing to give new food a try, and to hopefully broaden her palate with maturity. This may or may not mean that she grows up loving broccoli. However, if you try the approaches outlined above, your child will have plenty of opportunities to try healthy foods - on her own timeline and at her own comfort level.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.