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Raising a Delightfully Picky Eater

Growing up, I was a picky eater with an eccentric palate. I would swoon over escargot and stinky cheese, but shunned deli meats and any plate where multiple foods were touching. So it came as no surprise when my wonderful daughter Elizabeth shared some of my flavor preferences. A true New York City girl at heart, her self-described favorite bites are smoked salmon, hot dogs, sushi, and kale. I know I lucked out on that last one; not many parents of young children are able to rouse excitement when announcing that sauteed kale is on the menu.

She loves sweet potatoes but hates most pastas and regular potatoes. She will drink green smoothies but not freshly squeezed orange juice.

A lot of this stems from early childhood, with the foods that she was introduced to as a baby. Reflecting back, perhaps I was a bit too heavy on the vegetables in my efforts to avoid starches. If you are the parent of a 6-18 month old, this is your golden opportunity to condition your child to love the foods you want them to love as they get older. Just make sure to give them the vegetables first, and avoid sugar for as long as possible.

But wait! What if your child is already an established picky eater? How do you get them to try new things and taste the rainbow? The key is patience. And persistence. And Patience. And persistence. I’ve slowly but surely broadened my daughter’s palate over the last couple of years, and these are my personal guidelines that have been instrumental in that journey.

Put it on Your Own Plate. Children more often do as you do, as opposed to what you say. If they regularly see you eating a particular dish with excitement, it will spark their innate curiosity, and eventually they will be inspired to try it themselves. An anecdote: Elizabeth loves bagels, loves cream cheese, and loves smoked salmon. However, we have not yet worked up to eating all three combined. At first, she would pick off bits of bagel, then devour obscene amounts of smoked salmon via fork or fist. I would always dress my bagel with cream cheese and my smoked fish, and eventually she decided that cream cheese and smoked fish were good enough to pair. Although watching someone eat fistfuls of smoked salmon with cream cheese is truly one of the most nauseating things I have ever witnessed as a mother, I just smile and politely suggest the use of a fork while eating my completed bagel across from her. Children will eventually get there, and repeatedly visualizing a balanced meal through a parent’s dinner plate is a non-scary way to a balanced diet in a child.

Free Samples. Get them to taste it! If I cook or order something different, I will entice my daughter to sample everything on my plate. When I make it clear that I won’t be forcing her to go back for seconds, she usually finds my requests reasonable. The friendlier and more supportive the act of tasting is, the more likely a child will be willing to consume a new menu item, and less likely to stubbornly enter into the taste test with a predetermined distaste for the food item.

Repetition. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. I can’t tell you how many current dietary favorites only made it onto the list of acceptable foods after repeated taste tests. The important thing to remember is that tasting should be met with a verbal reward, and when your child tastes something, the new and unusual flavours might be unappealing at first. The more a flavor is introduced, the easier it is to become accustomed to it. So don’t lose heart when the first few tastes aren’t a success, and keep offering those brussel sprouts until you have a new convert on your hands. Taste, Rinse, Repeat.

Thoughts on: Hiding It. I understand the need to do this sometimes, children can’t sustain themselves on their preferred snacks alone. But I wouldn’t focus on sneaking veggies into their diet alone, because although they may like the flavor, they won’t actually be developing a positive relationship with that food item. And if the truth comes out, it may spark some future trust issues between your child and you when it comes to food. That being said, I try to fit vegetables into my daughter’s diet wherever I can.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be supportive of your child and to understand that patience is key.

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