Raise your hand if you’ve ever hidden your child’s vegetables somewhere in a heaping spoonful of another food they love. (Guilty—but, also, they need to eat their greens, right?) Parenting a picky eater has its challenges, but have you ever wondered about the role you play in pushing them to be more adventurous about their food? We asked Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen (who also happens to be a mom of three) to help us uncover the ways we’re accidentally blocking our kids’ efforts to expand their palates.
5 Ways You Might Accidentally Be Encouraging a Picky Eater
1. You Accept Their Pickiness as Reality
Yes, your five-year-old has had an aversion to salmon since she was old enough to talk. But when the option comes up—say, out at a restaurant or in a meal that the rest of the family is enjoying at home—you act as a path-clearer, helping her maintain her limited preferences by saying things like: “Oh, she won’t eat that,” or “just order her the chicken fingers.” The problem? You’re enabling a pattern without giving her the tools to break it. “The thing about kids is they can totally surprise you,” Largeman-Roth explains. “My son refused to try sushi for years and then one day he decided to try it. Now he’s hooked. You have to just keep offering things over and over again. One day, they will actually try it.”
2. You’re Hiding Food
Sneaking in alternatives (like those aforementioned veggies) can feel like a success story when you’re desperate for your kid to try something new. But Largeman-Roth says that’s actually a no-no, especially with picky eaters. “I know a lot of parents resort to this, and it may work sometimes, but it doesn’t educate your kids about where veggies come from and why they’re good for you if you’re always hiding them in pancakes,” she explains. If you keep putting it on their plate, eventually they will be curious enough to try it.
3. You’re Short-Order Cooking
Per Largeman-Roth, being too accommodating is a huge mistake. Still, she’s not advocating for the “one family, one meal” approach either. “I love the idea of that, but in reality, it doesn’t always work,” she says. “For example, my oldest daughter doesn’t eat meat anymore, so a meal that centers around that just won’t work for her. That’s why I recommend a flexible approach that works for parents and for kids.” Case in point: Taco night. “If you’re going to have taco night and you want to make ground beef or grilled shrimp, try including one additional alternative like beans. Then, especially if you have slightly older kids, instead of loading everyone’s tacos for them, just put everything out in small bowls and let each person add their own fillings.” The goal is to offer a max of two options for dinner, but that’s the limit.
4. You Don’t Model Good Eating in Front of Them
Maybe you eat meals separate from the kids. Or maybe you consistently decline a certain type of food. (You’ve never been that into Brussels sprouts. Oops.) Modeling adventurous—or healthy—eating in front of your kids is one of the best ways to get them to try something new. “Show your kids how much you enjoy your fruit and veggies and whole grains,” Largeman-Roth explains. “Parents are the biggest influence on kids, even though it doesn’t always feel that way.”
5. At a Certain Point, You Just Give Up
It’s so hard and daunting and exhausting, right? Summon all your willpower to stay patient and open-minded. “Picky eaters often do outgrow it, but sometimes they just change what they’re picky about,” Largeman-Roth explains. “As long as they’re continuing to try new things, that’s what’s important. Expose them to different colors, textures and types of food.” Also, remember that it takes time for kids to develop a palate. “Kids are born to love sweet things and it takes time to appreciate the bitter notes in many vegetables. Don’t be afraid of a little cheese, ranch dressing or drizzle of butter or olive oil. Some parents impose their own uber-healthy policies on kids, but that’s not necessary. To raise an open-minded eater, you need to be one yourself.”