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How to Transform a Picky Eater into a Little Foodie

Of all the challenges we’ve had to face so far as parents, eating has not been one of them, I feel lucky to say.

Or perhaps it’s not luck. Studies have found that genetics play a part in taste, and that some people naturally experience bitter flavors with greater sensitivity than others. My wife and I both love spice, and intense flavors, and rich, leafy greens; we’re both fairly adventurous when it comes to eating. Our son seems to be as well. Sure, he complains about the stems of lacinato kale (sometimes called dinosaur or black kale, it’s the variety with shadowy blue-green, spear-shaped leaves). They’re chewy, but once removed, he’ll plow through a portion of the stuff, sauteed with garlic and olive oil.

Still, all toddlers have a certain amount of pickiness, and a predilection for carbs, sugar, and fat. In part this too is biologic: these types of foods pack the most caloric punch per bite, and our kids need all the energy they can get. Not only are they growing, but their bodies lose heat faster than adults. And their little digestive systems can’t wring as much nutrition from fiber-rich foods as we do.

Social factors play a role as well. Just as your tot is experimenting with saying no, with exerting her will, with, well, being a difficult toddler, so too will she test the power dynamic at the dinner table. If I whine about not liking something, will my parents make me eat it? How will they make me? Will they withhold dessert? Scream and yell? Make a game of the meal? Send me to bed with no dinner? Even the best of eaters will throw down the gauntlet, just to see what happens and how great a reaction their behavior can create.

So what can you do if you’ve got a picky eater at your table? Click below to find 8 tips that will help you out.

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  • You Are Feeling Very Hungry… 1 of 9
    You Are Feeling Very Hungry...
    Tots can be stubborn when it comes to food choices. But don't fret, I'm here to help!
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephoto/2419798922/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Be understanding 2 of 9
    Be understanding
    Just like experiencing the flavor of bitterness differs from person to person, some kids, and people, are predisposed to not eat adventurously. New foods will be met with distrust and dislike, and may take a while for the child to accept. This may be out of your hands, and just something you'll have to learn to live with.
    Also, remember that what you're tasting may not be what they're tasting. Something that's slightly bitter or a little hot to you might be very intense to them. My son, for example, has found too much salty Pecorino cheese grated over his pasta "spicy." The pleasant tingle it gives my lips was, to him, somewhat painful in large amounts.

    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maessive/184313180/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Keep Exposing Your Kids to New Foods 3 of 9
    Keep Exposing Your Kids to New Foods
    Even if you've got a child who naturally doesn't go for new foods, all kids will benefit from repeat exposure to foods they don't like. This starts even in the womb the mother's eating habits when pregnant impact the child's taste when born, and early exposure to food is key to the child eating it later in life. So don't give up keep serving those lima beans, and maybe one day, junior will like 'em.
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tavallai/4599411726/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Model Healthy Eating Habits 4 of 9
    Model Healthy Eating Habits
    Make sure that you're eating whatever it is you want your child to eat, and do so with gusto! If you've got a very picky eater on your hands, you may want to show your child pictures of other people eating the food too. Seeing other children eat vegetables, fruit, pasta, whatever may be especially helpful, as our kids imitate their peers more than their parents.
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimmypk/2983112308/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Allow Them to Try Just a Little Bit at a Time 5 of 9
    Allow Them to Try Just a Little Bit at a Time
    This is a strategy that always works with us. We place a very small amount even just a bite of something new on the plate along with a beloved favorite. Yes, this means we sometimes make a special meal for the tot he may have an egg, say, while we eat coconut milk plantain stew but unless what we're eating is seriously spicy, we require he try just a smidgen. As I said, we're fortunate to have a good eater, open to exploring, but that doesn't mean he likes everything that passes his lips. Sometimes, though, he learns that he likes something mouthful by mouthful, and before we know it, he's eating a whole portion of his own.
  • Pair New Foods with Familiar Ones 6 of 9
    Pair New Foods with Familiar Ones
    Plop one piece of broccoli atop a pizza. Slip one pea in a omelet. Hide a bite of apple within a grilled cheese. Mix some leafy greens into buttery, cheesy pasta. Be creative. Use the meals that they like as wedges to open their tastes up wider.
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffreyww/6921934437/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Hide Healthy Ingredients in Familiar Food 7 of 9
    Hide Healthy Ingredients in Familiar Food
    Find creative ways to sneak healthy food into your child's diet. Pulse spinach, olive oil, and salt into a pesto that you can toss with pasta or smear on a sandwich. Make a quick zucchini bread and call it a cake. Load muffins with applesauce, carrots, and raisins. Need more inspiration? Start by browsing Babble's healthy eating section.
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/galant/1699562510/
  • Get Kids Involved with the Cooking and Growing of Food 8 of 9
    Get Kids Involved with the Cooking and Growing of Food
    At three-and-a-half, my son cuts mushrooms with a butter knife, washes greens in the sink, organizes sliced veggies into piles for roasting, and attacks avocados with a spoon, turning them to guacamole in no time. As much as possible, make your children a part of the meal's preparation and encourage them to take pride in the food that they make. If you've got a backyard or window box, try growing herbs, beans, tomatoes, or lettuce. Demystify food so that it doesn't feel so scary.
    Photo via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rog2bark/3618497934/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  • Keep Meals Simple 9 of 9
    Keep Meals Simple
    Especially for the picky eater, sauces and complicated dishes may be a turn off. The child might like to see that what they're eating is food, and less rich, more basic flavors may hold a greater appeal. Put sauces on the side, and allow the child to add the amount that they would like. Or just stick to straightforward preparations and skip all the bells and whistles. What's the point if they're not going to eat it anyway?
    For more food advice, check out The Importance of Instilling Good Snack Habits in Your Kids and Getting Your Kid to (Happily) Eat Their Brussels Sprouts

    Some of the information in this piece was culled from The Science of Picky Eaters and Your Picky Eater on Parenting Science.

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