War and Peas: Tips to Get Your Picky Eater to Eat

Yesterday peas were a favorite food, today those peas are thrown on the floor in a fit.

Picky eating is a common behavior observed among toddlers, and if you’re finding it difficult to navigate through your child’s picky eating phase you’re not alone. We asked expert pediatric nutrition researchers Susan Johnson, PhD and Laura Bellows, PhD, MPH, RD to share some tips with us to keep food from flying.

How do children learn to eat new foods?

Dr. Johnson: The mantra is “repeated exposure, over and over.” We think that repetition helps the child learn that foods are safe to eat and, once they are known to be safe, they can be enjoyed.

Dr. Bellows: Children should be encouraged to explore new foods with their senses — smell, sight, touch and taste. Using our senses helps us become familiar with new foods and relate them to others that are similar or different. Remember, kids are blank slates, and we need to build up their experiences.

How can parents help their picky eaters get nutritious foods?

Dr. Johnson: Don’t turn an eating occasion into a power struggle — you may win the battle but you won’t win the war. Instead, go for the long game and keep offering nutritious foods. Additionally, be a good role model by showing your enjoyment of the foods you want them to eat as new research shows that infants can use social cues to make food choices and they are particularly good at interpreting social cues of disgust.

Dr. Bellows: Keep at it! Keep offering, keep being positive and keep modeling. It’s important to provide children with foods that they like when introducing new foods. It’s also important to continue to offer new foods (or foods that they haven’t been won over by).

How many times does a child need to be exposed to a food?

Dr. Johnson: Persistence wins the day. Research shows that the number of exposures to induce acceptance can vary between 5 to 15 times (depending on the age of the child) and that introducing food variety and textures via repeated exposure early on increases the likelihood of establishing food acceptance than when children are older. However, it’s important to recognize that food preferences can change, and if one food stays in the disliked category, it’s probably not tragic.   

Dr. Bellows: Children will change with the wind. One day they won’t like a food that was their favorite food just last week. Consistently and persistently offering a variety of foods provides children with healthful choices as they navigate their likes and dislikes.

What are some final tips you have for parents?

Dr. Johnson: Research shows that what a mother eats during pregnancy and during breastfeeding can expose her child to a smorgasbord of flavors. This variety of flavors is thought to help the child learn to accept foods with the flavors more easily once they are ready to eat foods. Another attractive strategy is to offer liked and disliked foods on alternate days, this will also help to avoid making mealtimes unpleasant and something that is dreaded, instead of enjoyed.

Dr. Bellows: Change your expectations about how fast children learn to like new foods. Parents should not expect children to like every food that is provided and certainly not on the first or second offering. It takes time (repeated opportunities), role modeling by both adults and peers and positive encouragement.