Last week we were eating turkey burgers around the dinner table when I couldn't help but notice my son watching my husband's every move. My husband put ketchup on his burger, so my son asked for ketchup. My husband put a tomato on top, and so did my son. He wanted to be exactly like Daddy. Then, when my husband served himself some salad, my son asked for some too (he's never asked for salad in his life and has always turned his nose up at it). My husband reached for my son's hands and started saying "buddy, I don't think you'll like-" when I chimed in and said "sure Ben, you're welcome to try some salad" as I smiled at my husband. To our surprise, he gobbled it up happily saying "Mommy, I like salad now, just like Daddy!"
Parents often make assumptions about their kids' eating behaviours, unintentionally limiting their progress with accepting new foods. Believe me - never did I think my four year-old son would dive into a bowl of salad that night, so I know first hand how tempting it is to stop offering previously rejected foods. We also often forget how crucial our own eating behaviours are to their eating patterns - my husband didn't realize his own power over the situation.
Here are the three common false assumptions parents make at mealtimes:
Every single time I serve homemade pizza for dinner, I expect my son to remove the mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes. I've tried cutting them into different shapes, serving them raw with dip on the side (which was sometimes a success), and placing them in fun shapes on the pizza (in a heart shape for example), but regardless, he usually picks them off and doesn't eat them.
Until the day that he did.
One day he exclaimed "I think I like mushrooms now, Mommy." I responded with "That's great Ben; I love mushrooms too." He then ate his piece of pizza without removing his mushrooms. Even though I wanted to scream with joy and throw a huge party right in the middle of dinner, I smiled and calmly said "that's great that you like mushrooms now buddy - now you don't have to spend all of that time picking them off!" Since then, he happily reminds me that he likes mushrooms now when I serve him pizza (or anything else with mushrooms) with the odd exception when he just doesn't feel like eating them.
I'm sure you've heard or read that it often takes 15-20 repeated exposures for kids to accept a food, and it's true. Don't stop serving a particular food because of previous rejection. Keep re-introducing it in a non-pressured way. Your child WILL accept it in his own time. Now and then, gently encourage your child to try the food (you can try a "tester plate" or "eating in a circle") but never force or pressure them to eat it, (you might even want to rethink the "one bite rule") because this will further deter them from trying it.
Often as parents, we assume that our young kids only prefer foods that are bland, familiar, formed into a picture of a rainbow or are the perfect size to pick up with one hand and dip into something. But in assuming this, we often neglect to expose our kids to foods with stronger flavours or surprising textures; think olives, seafood, ethnic dishes, spicy foods, salads, bean and lentil dishes, and even some vegetables. Because of this, we tend to narrow our kids' food preferences right from the beginning and make it harder for them to widen their palates later on.
Kids often go through a "picky stage" around the age of three, when their growth slows and their appetites aren't as rampant. At this stage, it's more difficult to introduce new foods without some resistance. That's why it's important to start introducing a wide variety of flavours and textures before this time - right from six months of age, actually. There is literature to support the fact that early exposure to various flavours and tastes increases the chances of kids preferring them later on (even if the go through a fussy phase where they temporarily reject them). Try not to assume that your child won't like the green curry chicken that you used to love to make, or the sushi that you like to order now and then--expose them to it early, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at the variety of foods that you can enjoy as a family!
Parents play a powerful role in their kids' eating patterns and preferences from an early age. In fact, the first five years of life (from 6 months when they start solids to right before kids enter elementary school), parents play the most important role in shaping their kids foods preferences, which largely determines their foods preferences for life. Therefore, what and how we as parents eat around our kids during this time can largely shape their eating habits and what they deem as "normal." Although kids often reject certain foods (a common one is green vegetables) at one time or another, if they see their parents or siblings serving them up regularly and - bonus - showing signs of enjoyment, that food will seem safer, and it will increase the chances of them accepting it at a later time. Not only are children more likely to eat well in emotionally positive atmospheres, but parents and siblings can encourage the tasting of new or unfamiliar foods. I truly believe, had my husband not served himself salad that night, my son wouldn't have tried it that night either.
Interested to learn more on how to deal with common challenges with feeding little ones? Check out my Facebook Page, where I post daily nutrition tips, tales from my own childhood feeding trenches, easy recipes and articles on feeding.
Also, check out this post outlining the 6 Most Important Questions To Ask Your Picky Eater At Mealtimes, and here is the #1 Mistake Parents Make At Mealtimes