No parent ever gazes lovingly at their child and thinks, “I hope one day you’re a picky eater.” And yet, we all know kids—maybe you have one at home already—who fit that description, saying no to anything chunky, refusing anything green, or shutting down at the slightest whiff of a new food.
A child’s palate is influenced by many things—their age, their personality, even evolution drives the instinct to avoid anything bitter (for early humans, bitter = poison). But there are ways you can encourage a love of different foods and an adventurous spirit in your child, so that they learn to approach new foods with curiosity, rather than disdain.
Pair Favorites with New Foods
There’s a reason commercial solid baby foods are often fruit and veg combos—spinach tastes sweeter when mixed with apple, carrots go down easier when mixed with blueberry. Try customizing puree pairings at home, serving one new—or previously rejected—food along with your baby’s favorite. If your little one turns their head at avocado, try mashing it with the banana they love. They’re not a big fan of peas? Try stirring in some peaches to sweeten the deal. As they get used to the flavor, you might try slowly cutting back on the old favorite so they develop a taste for the newer food.
Grow a Garden
Planting an edible garden helps get kids excited about what they’re growing. Depending on their age, they can help choose which plants to grow, help dig in the dirt, plant seeds, check on the garden and water it daily, and do supervised taste tests to see how the herbs, vegetables, and fruits are growing. By the time the foods end up on their plate, kids will have a sense of pride and ownership in the entire process—and are likely to eat their homegrown produce more willingly.
Have Them Help in the Kitchen
In the same way that growing a food can help a bub feel connected to it and excited to eat it, helping prepare food can also spark curiosity and interest. Encourage small children to help rinse vegetables or select fruits for snack time; invite older kids to help decide on recipes—”should we make a salad or a stir fry?”—and get them involved in stirring, seasoning, and other age-appropriate food prep tasks. Getting them involved in the kitchen also helps them understand how foods taste different when they are prepared in different ways. Maybe last week’s roasted brussels sprout halves were a no-go, but shaved sprouts with parmesan cheese are a bit hit.
Make it Colorful
There’s logic behind the ancient Roman quote, “we eat with our eyes”—a fun, visually appealing plate is always more interesting than a dull, boring one. For kids, think in terms of colors and shapes. Offer a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Make a soup or chili with white, red, and black beans. Set out a dip platter with regular, beet, and spinach hummus. And whether the menu is pancakes, sandwiches, or cheese and crackers, use cookie cutters to make fun shapes like stars, moons, flowers, and hearts.
Lead by Example
Caregivers are a child’s biggest role models, and the more varied foods you eat and enjoy, the more your kid will be inspired to copy you. At mealtime, be sure to describe the tastes and textures of the food you’re eating, to help give your child a food vocabulary they can use. For example: “These mashed potatoes are so creamy;” “this lettuce is so crunchy;” “this watermelon is so juicy.” Armed with the right language, they may one day be able to tell you, “I love creamy foods” or “I don’t like when it’s too juicy.”
Try Again and Again
Research shows that infants and toddlers need to try a food as many as 8-15 times before developing a taste for it. (And if we’re honest, it works for adults too!) So don’t be discouraged if your little one doesn’t smile with joy the first time they try avocado. Some experts advise letting a child put the food in their mouth to taste it and get a sense of its texture, then spit it out if they’re not ready to swallow it. The next time you offer that food, they may be more inclined to eat it.
So your kid only eats beige food? Invite them to try new tastes in their preferred neutral color palette: white bean puree, chickpea pasta, brown rice, cauliflower, mushrooms, and white corn. Or maybe they’re dino-obsessed? Brainstorm with them to decide what a vegetarian stegosaurus might eat for lunch (drawing inspiration from picture books or online sources, depending on their age), and then make your own dino-inspired meal.
Kids of all ages and stages like to test their independence. Let your child feel like they have control over what they eat, by letting them decide where foods go on their plate, how much they take, or which of two healthy options they’d prefer for snack. Ultimately, as the caregiver, you control the options—but letting them make even small food decisions might empower them to be adventurous now and in the future.