Don’t go to war over food: How to turn picky eaters around

How can you help picky eaters — young and old — make healthier food choices?

Here are some steps you can take to transform your child (or grown-up) picky eater.

How to help turn picky eaters around

by Sarah Johnson, MSU

Don’t go to war over food. Michigan State University Extension recommends finding small ways to make changes that will stick, without making dinnertime a battle zone.

  1. The first thing you can do for a picky eater is to be a good example. If you’re the picky eater, find someone else that you feel is a positive example.
  2. Keep healthy choices on hand and healthy food accessible. Have fruit and veggies ready to grab as snacks for yourself and for kids. Limit the junk food you keep in your home, if it’s not around then it’s not an option.
  3. Don’t stress yourself or your child by forcing foods. Start small by increasing the fruits and vegetables that you already enjoy into meals. Set a “try bite” or “one bite” rule for yourself or your kid. This will encourage trying new or different foods without the pressure to eat the whole plate.
  4. It’s also important to try to new foods. A person’s taste buds change. Things that you didn’t like as a child, may appeal to your taste buds as an adult, but you won’t know unless you try. Try new textures and flavors.
  5. It may take some creativity to introduce healthy foods to picky eaters. Find something that you like and do one thing to make it healthier. This way no one is pushed too far out of their comfort zone. For example, if you’ve never tried a smoothie, make one with your favorite fruit. Try mashed cauliflower in place of potatoes. If making the switch is seems like too much, try combining potatoes and cauliflower.
  6. Keep trying new foods, textures and flavors stress-free by making small changes. Keep healthy food options on hand. Find what makes you or your picky eater comfortable by not forcing big changes, but by making small changes.
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Colorful plates boost a picky eater’s appetite

Parents of picky eaters can encourage their children to eat more nutritionally diverse diets by introducing more color to their meals, according to a Cornell University study reported in 2012. The researchers found that colorful food fare is more appealing to children than adults. Specifically, food plates with seven different items and six different colors are particularly appealing to children, while adults tend to prefer fewer colors only three items and three colors.

“What kids find visually appealing is very different than what appeals to their parents,” said Brian Wansink, professor of Marketing in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “Our study shows how to make the changes so the broccoli and fish look tastier than they otherwise would to little Casey or little Audrey.”

“Compared with adults, children not only prefer plates with more elements and colors, but also their entrees placed in the front of the plate and with figurative designs,” Kniffin says. “While much of the research concerning food preferences among children and adults focuses on ‘taste, smell and chemical’ aspects, we will build on findings that demonstrate that people appear to be significantly influenced by the shape, size and visual appearance of food that is presented to them.”

Mothers’ diets have biggest influence on what kids eat

Research revealed a mother’s own eating habits – and whether she views her child as a ‘picky eater’ – has a huge impact on whether her child consumes enough fruits and vegetables. Previous research shows that early repeated exposure to different types of foods is needed; up to 15 exposures may be needed before it can be determined if a child likes or dislikes a food.

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A study by professor Mildred Horodynski of Michigan State University’s College of Nursing, reported in the journal Public Health Nursing in 2010, looked at nearly 400 low-income women (black and non-Hispanic white) with children ages 1-3 enrolled in Early Head Start programs. Results show toddlers were less likely to consume fruits and vegetables four or more times a week if their mothers did not consume that amount or if their mothers viewed their children as picky eaters.

“What and how mothers eat is the most direct influence on what toddlers eat,” Horodynski said. “Health professionals need to consider this when developing strategies to increase a child’s consumption of healthy foods. Diets low in fruit and vegetables even at young ages pose increased risks for chronic diseases later in life.”

When mothers viewed their children as picky eaters – unwilling to try nonfamiliar foods – a decrease also was seen in the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed. “Perceptions of a toddler as a picky eater may be related to parenting style or culture,” Horodynski said. “Mothers who viewed their children as picky eaters may be more lax in encouraging the consumption of fruits and vegetables.” She added, “Mother needs to have the knowledge and confidence to make these healthy decisions for their children.”

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