Q: How far do you push to get your kids to eat? My son is very skinny and though we have almost no junk food, he often refuses to eat what we eat for dinner, though he cries and says he is hungry. Should I just let him go hungry if he refuses the family meal? He won’t even eat pizza!
Jacobsen: The research is clear that pressuring kids to eat actually has the opposite effect on appetite and intake, meaning it turns children “off” to food. I recommend giving children room by following Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding and make sure you have at least one thing your child is likely to eat at the meal.
But sometimes picky eating may be caused by an underlying issue. For example, if a child has undiagnosed reflux or a food allergy, eating is going to hurt so they will eat less. Or they may have sensory processing disorder and need a more thoughtful approach to increase their food variety. In this post (content also in my book), I help parents decide if their child needs to seek professional help.
Q: Any suggestions on how to get kids to truly give new foods a try? I heard some parents make their kids eat three spoonfuls. Would love to know your thoughts.
Jacobsen: Some parents who choose the three-bite rule may have initial success, but it may not last. One study showed that 70% of college students chose not to eat food they were forced to eat during childhood. That being said, a small proportion of students said being made to eat helped to expand their food preferences. My guess is that less-picky kids may respond better to bite mandates than kids that are more sensitive to tastes and textures. And if a kid is eating foods because his parents make him, he won’t necessarily eat those foods willingly in the future, as the study suggests. So, to be honest, success of “getting kids to eat” can be tough to measure during childhood. Are they eating the food to please their parents or because it is a true preference?
Hands down, the best way to inspire children to eat is not about any one strategy, but helping them learn and grow with food. When we are too focused on the outcome (eating), we don’t do a good enough job with the teaching part. In my book, I use the analogy of growing a plant. First, is choosing the right soil and seeds, which for eating is regular, enjoyable meals with a good variety. But some plants need more or less water and sunlight. Parents can do the equivalent of over-watering their child by exerting too much pressure. And of course, some kids may be fine with little pushes. Know your child, but most importantly, take that long-term view with feeding.
I have found that providing more information about the food to kids helps and bringing them in the kitchen is always a bonus. I might let them know why I think they might like the food (it’s like the X you love, except it’s prepared a bit differently). But I pretty much leave it at that.
Q: How important is variety if you have a child who has a well-balanced, but monotonous diet?
Jacobsen: In my other book, Fearless Feeding, my co-author and I help parents understand how to meet their child’s nutrition needs at every stage. Children don’t have to eat a huge variety as long as they are consistently eating from these six areas — protein, grain, dairy or non dairy alternatives, fats, fruits and vegetables. Most kids can get by on a variety of fruits with a small amount of vegetables. Even when kids eat from all food groups there are usually two outliers: vitamin D and DHA and EPA. Most kids need supplemental D to get the recommended 600IU, and if no fish is eaten, a parent may want to consider a supplement to provide the healthy fats DHA and EPA.
Q: How developed are kids’ taste buds? Can some kids really feel that some things taste stronger than others?
Jacobsen: A child’s taste buds are growing and changing just like everything else about them. What we know is that young children are more likely to taste bitter compounds in food (think bitter, green veggies) and they have a biological preference for sweet. Salt is also a preference, but it is learned. A small portion of kids may be “supertasters,” something that mellows with time but is brought with them into adulthood.
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Many thanks to Maryanne for taking the time to answer TLT readers’ questions! As I noted in part one of this post, I received so many questions that not all could be submitted to her for a reply, but if “picky eating” is an issue in your house, be sure to check out Maryanne’s excellent new e-book From Picky to Powerful.