Just five a day: That’s how many servings of fruits and vegetables physicians recommend that children eat. But if you’re dealing with a picky eater, that goal can seem unattainable.
“Kids love what we call ‘the white food diet,’ ” said Patricia Cantrell, MD, a pediatrician who is champion for childhood obesity prevention at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. “That’s everything from French fries, pancakes and crackers to tortillas, bread and white rice.”
With a little creativity and persistence, even the pickiest eaters can learn to love the garden’s bounty. Here are some of Dr. Cantrell’s best ideas for parents and schools on expanding kids’ dietary horizons.
#1. Stick with it: It takes time for children to adjust to the flavors and textures of new foods. So if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying.
“Sometimes toddlers will make a funny face when they try a green bean or a piece of broccoli for the first time,” said Dr. Cantrell. “Their parents assume they don’t like it, so they take it off the menu for good. But it could be that the child just needs time to get used to it.”
That’s true for older kids too. Some studies have shown that you need to show a child a new food as many as 15 times before they’ll try it.
#2. Be reasonable about serving size: A child doesn’t need to eat an entire fruit or vegetable to get a complete portion. Instead, use the palm of the child’s hand as a guide. “That’s a normal serving size for a child,” said Dr. Cantrell, “and it keeps increasing as they get older.”
#3. Offer variety: Mixing things up is a great way to keep things interesting for your child and encourage them to try new things. “When my kids were little, they only liked three vegetables: edamame (soybeans), peas and green beans,” said Dr. Cantrell. “I alternated between those three, and then every so often, I’d give them something different until they started to like broccoli and cucumber salad too.”
She added, “Children’s preferences change as they grow older and begin tolerating new flavors and textures, so it’s important to keep offering different things.”
#4. Slice and dice: Presentation is key when dealing with kids. A whole apple or orange might go uneaten, but if you slice it up or divide it into sections, it’s much more tempting. For added appeal, use a cookie cutter to slice a cucumber or watermelon into fun shapes such as hearts and diamonds.
#5. Dip it: If your child doesn’t like the flavor of certain fruits and vegetables, try pairing them with tasty dips. Great pairings include carrots with ranch dressing, red pepper with hummus, apples with peanut butter and cucumbers with tzatziki. Not only can dipping help mellow flavors your child doesn’t like, it’s also fun.
#6. Get creative: Dealing with picky eaters requires a certain amount of resourcefulness. Instead of serving cherry tomatoes and broccoli, offer your child “moon squirters” and “mini trees.” Fill a celery stalk with cream cheese, put some raisins on top and call it “ants on a log.” “The more playful it is, the more they’ll want to try it,” said Dr. Cantrell.
Concealing vegetables in foods such as smoothies, soups, muffins and pasta sauces is another clever trick. Try adding kale to a fruit smoothie — or pureed cauliflower to macaroni and cheese. “Kids will still be getting all the nutrients,” said Dr. Cantrell. “And even though they don’t realize they’re eating kale, they’ll be developing a taste for it and will probably be more receptive to eating it in the future.” Check out our Mixed Berry and Beet Smoothie and other great recipes on our Food for Health blog.
#7. Stand your ground: While issuing ultimatums is never a good idea, Dr. Cantrell encourages parents to be “gently firm.”
“If children don’t eat what’s on their plates, wait half an hour and then bring it back to them instead of immediately offering an alternative,” she suggests. “Encourage your six-year-old child to take six bites of her vegetable before moving on — one for each year of her age. The message you’re sending is that sometimes you have to eat what’s healthy for you, even if it’s not your favorite thing.”