Are Your Kids Picky Eaters? Use Patience and Repetition

How many parents have kicked off a new year saying, “This will be the year I get my kids to eat healthy foods”? We resolve to be consistent in presenting fresh and wholesome options at the dinner table, but soon enough the battles begin.

Trust me, I know. As a registered dietitian and a mom of 8-year-old twins and a 4-year-old, I’ve felt my patience wane when my kids greet a new dish with an emphatic “no way!”, or refuse to eat a carrot or green bean they happily consumed just last week.

Refusal to try new foods is generally a perfectly normal phase of development for kids from 2 to 8, and it shows up in households of every race, culture and socioeconomic class. But knowing picky eating is typical doesn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with.

Like most things in parenthood, navigating your kids through phases of picky eating is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes patience and perseverance to steer young children toward healthy eating habits and choices. But the rewards are many.

This is underscored by a new report from Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation based at Duke University, and for which I am deputy director. We convened a panel of experts to review the research on parenting and feeding styles to give parents and caregivers guidance on how to develop healthy eating behaviors in their children.

While the report includes more than 30 tangible recommendations to help parents dealing with picky eaters, the experts’ advice can be summarized in three words: autonomy, structure and repetition.

Autonomy means supporting children’s independence in learning to accept healthful foods. Children recognize their power to bargain as early as age two, and by eight, they’ve refined their ability to test boundaries and argue against rules. In the face of those milestones, pressuring children to eat certain foods or clear their plates may backfire. Instead, parents should involve kids in meal planning and food preparation as a way to encourage them to make their own healthy choices.

Structure is about predictability — sticking to regular snack and meal times, and ensuring that healthy choices are consistently available while limiting less healthy options in your pantry. Because let’s face it — it’s way easier to say “no” to a food that isn’t within reach.

But the most important — and most challenging — of these strategies is repetition. It takes time for kids to develop new, healthy habits, including trying and tasting new foods. In fact, the research shows it may take kids sampling a food 10 to 15 times before they accept it. Parents may need to vary cooking styles and preparations to find the flavor that finally clicks. Even a tiny bite counts as a win.

To be sure, this can feel like a lot to parents. Many of us are operating with limited time, budgets or both. Cooking vegetables in different ways for a dozen meals, only to have your child repeatedly turn the plate away, may sound like a waste of time, effort and food. But the encouraging news is that persistence usually pays off. For most children, picky eating gets better with age.

We’ve been practicing these tips in my home, with success. My 8-year-olds are more willing to try new foods than they were even just a few years ago. And while my 4-year-old still needs extra encouragement, several of the recommendations — like positive role modeling from his big sisters, and pairing new items with other well-liked flavors or dips — work really well for us.

The slow, patient approach may feel especially daunting for families facing food insecurity, who lack access to healthy foods or have little time to devote to meal preparation. Policymakers can and should do much more to improve access to and affordability of nutritious foods. In the meantime, the new report highlights productive steps that every family, no matter its resources, can take to consistently expose kids to healthy choices and habits. And with new data showing that one in six kids in the U.S. is obese, it’s never been more urgent for us to put our kids on the right path.

So the next time your toddler scowls at the roasted vegetables you’ve so carefully prepared, just take a deep breath, relax and know that we’ve all been there — even dietitians. It’s a long game, but one that ultimately will show our kids healthy habits that last a lifetime.

Megan Lott is deputy director of Healthy Eating Research, based at Duke University.

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Duke University is home to more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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Duke University Opinion and Analysis

Duke University Opinion and Analysis

Duke University is home to more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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