Health Agenda

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Plating up for picky eaters: Part 2

Practical tips for helping kids learn to love new flavours.

Health Agenda magazine
July 2016

In part two of our story on fussy eaters, we offer strategies for encouraging kids to enjoy a variety of healthy foods.

Model behaviour

The most important thing you can do to encourage healthy eating in your children is to eat well yourself, says David Katz, nutritionist and the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Centre.

“The right response is to model,” he says. “All young animals learn what to eat by watching their parents. Also, diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding begin to shape taste preferences, so eat well then.”

Katz’s wife Catherine Katz, a neuroscientist, dedicated foodie and mother to the couple’s five children, knows only too well the realities involved in trying to get kids to eat healthily. Her website Cuisinicity offers helpful advice and healthy and delicious recipes aimed at getting kids to ‘love the food which loves you back’.

“There's no point forcing your kids to eat their vegies and fruit outright,” she says. “Save yourself the aggravation of making food an issue. In unity, there is strength. Just make vegies part of your daily dinner always and have fresh and dried fruit easily accessible in your household. They’ll come around eventually.”

Trading up

Catherine says the key to transforming your children’s palate to appreciate healthy food is to, “Know how to trade up for better nutrition for every box, can, bottle or jar on the supermarket shelf.” You can do this progressively by replacing unhealthy cereal or snacks in your pantry for something better, one box at a time.

The Katzes developed Cuisinicity’s Nutrition Detectives program to teach parents and kids aged five to 14-years-old to read food labels and identify the healthy products in every aisle.

Be stealthy

While some experts warn against sneaking healthy ingredients into kids’ food, the Katzes say it can be an effective way of introducing new flavours they may like.

Catherine recommends starting with foods kids already love and adapting them to contain more healthy ingredients. Some of her tricks include sneaking avocado onto pizza or combining black lentils with turkey mince to create a juicy hamburger.

“Upgrade the nutrition without changing the texture, the appearance or much of the taste to appear just like what they know and love,” she says. “Eventually, when their tastes adapt to a more wholesome diet, there’ll be no need to be deceptive.”

Relax

Setting expectations too high at mealtimes can only create a fraught experience for all, so Catherine advises: “Be patient with yourself and your kid. Adjust progressively without trying to do it all at once.”

Bee Wilson, award-winning British food journalist and author of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, agrees. “When feeding children, worry less about the next five minutes and more about the next five years. It doesn’t matter if they eat this or that plate of greens, what matters is that they grow up to become someone who chooses greens of their own accord.”

Limit milk intake

When children and toddlers start out on solids, Wilson warns some parents fall into the trap of giving them far too much milk. “There’s a phenomenon called ‘continuous milk intake’ where toddlers are drinking as much as a litre of whole milk a day,” she explains. “Some of these kids end up in child obesity clinics and some end up in picky eating clinics because, with all that milk, their palates are totally geared towards sweetness and blandness.”

Encourage taste testing

On her website It’s Not About Nutrition, parent educator and sociologist Dina Rose suggests that when you’re encouraging your child to try something new, tell them they can spit the food into a napkin if they don’t like it.

In a study where children were asked to try different vegetables on the proviso they didn’t have to swallow them, kids spat out the sample vegetable, but many admitted later they actually liked it and on a second try were more likely to eat it.

The Tiny Tastes method

As parents of picky eaters know, just getting kids to try new foods is often most the battle. Wilson recommends trying a method known as Tiny Tastes.

“It sounds too simple to be true but this technique has been pioneered by psychologists and doctors working in feeding clinics and has proven remarkably effective, both with extreme picky eaters and with more normal eaters in schools,” she says.

As a way of getting children to try a food multiple times without it becoming traumatic, the concept is that the child chooses an unfamiliar vegetable they’ll work on.

Each day, at a time other than a set mealtime, they taste it in minuscule fragments – as small as a pea. Even licking the food and spitting it out counts as a try, with each attempt earning a sticker.

“You repeat this for 10 to 14 days, after which odds are the child will like the new food,” Wilson explains. “With my picky eater I found it usually only took three or four days before he was asking for bigger pieces.”

For older children, and even teenagers, she suggests another method known as Plate A-Plate B. “Plate A contains tiny morsels of three disliked foods. Plate B is normal sized portions of food that the child likes. The child takes alternate mouthfuls from Plate A and Plate B,” she explains. “What’s brilliant about this method is that the child is always in control,” Wilson points out. “If one of the foods on Plate A is too horrible to contemplate there’s always another one to try.”

Adapt and conquer

While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, the message to take away is simple: Slowly offer (and eat yourself) more of the good stuff and provide less of the unhealthy stuff, and your child’s tastes will gradually alter. “The scientific evidence, which I have reviewed thoroughly, is quite clear and entirely convincing all on its own: Taste buds are adaptable little fellas. When they can’t be with foods they love, they learn to love the foods they’re with,” David quips.

Learn more

To understand why some kids are fussy eaters, and what mistakes to avoid, read Plating up for picky eaters: Part 1

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