“I don’t like that, it’s yucky!”
I hear it often enough in my house, so I'm guessing that many of you do too.
In fact, just last night, after making a huge batch of our family-favourite Roasted Squash Macaroni and Cheese, my oldest--who usually gobbles it up and asks for seconds--turned his nose up to it and said "I don't like this". Just as my daughter was about to take her first bite, she heard this and promptly put her fork down and pushed her bowl away (clearly influenced by her older brother). Although it was the same mac and cheese that I usually serve, I used different shaped noodles and a different variety of squash--so it looked different.
Some common replies to food rejection might be: “But you’ve never tried it before—how do you know that you don’t like it? Take a bite.” Or, "you DO like it--we've had it before and you ate it up!"
I too was tempted to say: "Are you kidding me?! You love this stuff! Starting Eating!" but I didn't. I knew that any type of coaxing or pressuring would only render it "yuckier" in my kids' minds.
The reluctance to try a new or unfamiliar food is called a food neophobia. Although proven to be extremely frustrating for most parents, it is a fairly normal eating issue for kids (food neophobias seem to peak around the ages two and six). Some research shows that food neophobias are genetically linked. So if your kid is always the one who shies away from new foods while other kids seem more adventuresome, it could very well be a hereditary trait. Some researchers also believe that food neophobias (especially when it comes to bitter vegetables) stem from hunter-gatherer times, to protect people from poisonous or toxic substance (which also tend to be bitter-tasting).
Kids judge food by its appearance, so if they know that one green vegetable was bitter tasting (which naturally doesn’t appeal to most kids), they may turn their nose up to other green vegetables. Even if it's not a true neophobia, your child may reject a food if it looks different from what he or she is used to (which was the case with my mac and cheese). Beyond food neophobias, there are several reasons why kids refuse to eat at meals. I have a free printable that you can download at the bottom of this post, which outlines 12 of the most common reasons (plus solutions).
Although your first instinct is to throw your hands up and scream (or is that just me?), take a deep breath and calmly say "you don't have to eat, but this is family time, so you do need to sit at the table." Make sure there is a variety of foods served at every meal (three to four) so that you your child has lots to choose from. Young kids should sit at the table for at least 10 minutes before being excused. Remind your child that "the kitchen will be closed after dinner," so it's important to fill your tummy now." As much as you want to hover over your child and force them to eat, simply being at the table with your child, making mealtime less about the food and more about family time, and modeling healthy eating will all prove to be much more effective (especially in the long run).
Serve a meal family-style: Let your child serve himself sometimes. Instead of plating his food for him every night, let him decide what foods he is going to eat and what foods he is going to leave. The goal is to let him feel like he has a bit of control and to take the pressure off.
Take the emphasis off of the food: It's important to make the dinner table a positive and pressure-free place. This will help you child grow a healthy relationship with food long-term. Make mealtimes about family time, not all about eating.
Include a loved food: Always serve at least one food that you know he likes. This will make unfamiliar or unaccepted foods seem a little less “yucky” or scary.
Keep on trying: Keep reintroducing unaccepted foods in different forms. For example, instead of making baked yam like you usually do, make yam “fries” and serve with ketchup to make it more fun.
Model healthy eating: Kids assume that what Mom and Dad do (and eat) is normal and healthy–they are watching you and will mimic actions that you take, such as eating healthy foods.
Slight modifications are ok: It's ok to slightly modify your child's meal to make it more appealing to him/her, as long as you're not making a special meal or modifying it drastically. Adding a dip or two, separating certain foods from others, or cutting foods a certain way (within reason) are all ok. This can be a slippery slope, so once you've made one to two slight modifications, stand your ground that "this is dinner".
Institute the “tester” plate: Have a separate plate for your child, where “yucky” or unfamiliar foods can be placed (separate from his or her regular plate). This plate is meant for exploring foods in safe and fun way such as touching, playing with, stacking, licking or maybe tasting and spitting out foods that your child isn’t ready to eat yet.
Involve your kids: Get your kids involved in planning and prepping your family meals. The more they are involved, the more likely they will eat it!
If you're worried that your child's picky eating falls outside of what is typical or "normal", and you're concerned about his or her growth and nutritional health, read my post about extreme picky eating vs. typical picky eating.
There are several reasons why a child might not eat at meals. In fact, I've outlined 12 of them (and over 30 solutions) in my free printable "12 Reasons Why Your Child Isn't Eating at Meals (and what to do!)"
For free access, click on the picture below. Happy feeding!