My first child is the very picture of the perfect pint-size eater. Now 7 years old, she's always loved healthy foods, truly gets excited when I place a bowl of peas or a plate of broccoli in front of her for dinner, and seems to eat her weight in fruit weekly. She also isn't afraid to try new foods, even when they're exotic, and recently requested crab cakes for her birthday lunch. Initially, I took credit for her varied and awesome eating, which I assumed was caused by my expert parenting. Obviously. Unfortunately, her little brother quickly disproved that theory.
I introduced foods to my son the same way I had his sister, yet he's refused to eat almost anything but corn dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches basically since he was old enough to chew. Yep, my 4-year-old son is about as picky of an eater as I've ever met, preferring to keep his diet limited to carbs, cheese, encased meats, and as many sweet foods as I'll allow, as long as they're not in the fruit family. Getting him to add healthy, non-hot-dog-based meals into his life has been a struggle, one that I would say I'm far from winning.
Having two such different types of eaters as children has taught me a few things about what to do and what not to do to in an effort to prevent your kid from becoming as picky of an eater as I'm currently dealing with. Sure, their nature might be to eat only white bread, but these nurturing steps can open up their palate, and in time, they might even let in some leafy greens.
- Keep your diet varied during pregnancy. This sounds silly (and admittedly, I craved copious amounts of green juice during my pregnancy with my picky eater and the same amount of milkshakes while expecting my veggie-lover), but studies have shown that fetuses taste the foods we eat through our amniotic fluids while in the womb. So eat a lot of fruits and veggies while pregnant, and you just might give birth to a kid who has a preference for those healthy foods, too.
- Start solids as early as your doctor approves them. Kids are most accepting of new flavors and textures between the time they start sitting up and walking, so now's the time to introduce the toughest flavors, like citrus fruits and green veggies. Because they've had less exposure to high-fat and supersweet foods at that stage, they're more likely to be open to less universally appealing flavors.
- Introduce your child to a wide variety of foods early on. Toddlers are wired to be suspicious of new foods — hey, their little brains are saying, this could be poisonous or spoiled — but during the sitting-to-walking window, a new food usually needs to be given to your kiddo less than 10 times (the closer together the tries, the better) for them to eventually accept and like it. Wait until your child is walking, and that number goes up as high as 89 (!!), according to pediatrician Dr. Bob Greene, so bring on those baby peas and zucchini early and often.
- Establish a "one for me, one for you" rule. Make trying new foods a little more fun and less overwhelming by accepting that your child might eat very small amounts in the beginning. Try the "one for me, one for you" game. For every small bite of the new food you want them to eat, they can have a big one of the favorite food that's already on their plate. Even if you get a few small bites in them, you're winning (not that they have to know that).
- Limit snacks. You know how everything tastes better when you're really hungry? The same is true for your children, so limit snacks when you're introducing new foods. They'll come to meals hungrier and therefore more willing to eat whatever you put in front of them.
- Keep trying, and don't give up. Once your child is old enough to walk on their own, you're going to have to give them new, less-naturally appealing foods a lot (see that 89 statistic above!) in order to get them to accept those foods. While attempting to feed your kid broccoli, grapes, or kale almost 100 times can seem overwhelming, think about it like this: if you give each of those three foods to your child at every single meal for a month, by the end of that month, you'll have a grape, broccoli, and kale eater. So don't give up hope. With a little effort, those corn dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches will be consumed with a side of carrots and spinach before you know it.