At my house, dinner often looks like grass-fed rib eye, grilled to medium rare with salt and pepper, and broccoli roasted with avocado oil and cooked ‘til crispy. It’s satisfying, satiating, and metabolically in line with the way I like to eat.
Dinner probably looks fairly similar at your place too. Only while grilling up your perfect cut of steak, you might also be firing up a big pot of mac ‘n cheese or popping some dino nuggets and waffle fries into the oven for the picky eaters in your household. Especially if your kids are used to conventional, Standard American Diet type fare.
This is a question I get a lot from my health coaching clients. And my answer typically sounds something like, “only if you want them to become part of the growing epidemic of folks struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes1 before they even move out of the house.” I realize that sounds harsh, but honestly, you know all the fake ingredients, sugar, and additives that manufacturers put into overly processed packaged foods. You won’t eat it, so why the heck would you feed it to your kids? Okay, rant over.
Anatomically speaking, we all have the same taste buds. Unfortunately, if your kiddos have spent most of their days being spoon fed something that comes out of a brightly colored box, how easy is it going to be for them to choose different foods? Not very. It’s kind of like when you first started eating Primally. The cravings. The longing for your old friend, fast food. The preference for salty, sugary, and crunchy snacks. Then, little by little, you started to notice that when you ate better, you felt better. Same goes for your kids.
Can You Change a Picky Eater’s Preferences?
There have been a ton of studies on this topic, and you’ll be happy to know that the answer is a definitive YES— you can change a picky eater’s preferences.Research done by Yen Li Chuand Paul Veueglers from the University of Alberta2 showed that children who were involved with food prep were more likely to make healthy choices at mealtime.
In the study, one-third of the kids surveyed said they helped their mom and dad up to 3 times per week, while one-quarter of them helped about once a month, and 12.4% didn’t help at all.
While the frequency of involvement differed (3 times per week vs once a month), the result was the same. Kids who helped their parents in the kitchen were more interested in eating healthy foods like vegetables than their non-helping peers.The data also showed that kids who participated in meal prep were more confident about the importance of making healthier food choices for themselves.
Does that mean that once you start cooking together they’re going to be begging for an extra serving of kale salad before bed? No. But they might start asking for full fat yogurt instead of ice cream. Or enjoying roasted chicken instead of the processed nugget variety.
My How-to Guide for Getting Picky Eaters to Eat
So, how do you do it? Check out these 9 strategies for turning a picky eater’s habits around. These are the same tips I use with my health coaching clients to make mealtime less stressful. Give them a try — I’m confident they’ll work for you too.
1. Don’t force it
No one likes to be pressured into trying new things, especially if they’re someone who already has a preconceived aversion to it. It might be tempting to force-feed your family, after all you are the parent, but there’s a good chance it will backfire. Studies show that kids who have a history of being pressured to eat continued to dislike those foods long into adulthood.3 Just some food for thought…
2. Time it right
You obviously don’t want to feed your kids when they’re not hungry, but waiting ‘til they’re starving, grumpy, and feeling the effects of a drastic blood sugar dip will make them less receptive to eating what’s on their plate. Time it right and you’ll be more apt to get picky eaters onboard with healthier choices.
3. Be understanding
While we all have the same taste buds, some people do have a heightened sensitivity to bitter and sour foods. This could be genetically based or due to years of eating a highly processed diet. Regardless, it’s important to understand that your kids might not jump at the chance to scarf down a plate of wild caught salmon and asparagus. At least not right away.
4. Pair new foods with familiar flavors
Studies show that you can trick pickier palates by pairing flavors they prefer with new ones. In one experiment, researchers gave kids sweetened vegetables a number of times. When asked to taste and rate veggies in their natural state afterward, they reported liking the unsweetened versions more than they did originally.4Dips and sauces are a great way to combine an unfamiliar food with something kids know and love.
5. Walk the talk
I’m assuming that you’re well-versed in the benefits of the Primal lifestyle, but if you’re doing more talking than walking, your kids could be getting mixed messages. Notice the foods you keep in the house and what your meals look like. Be a positive role model whenever and wherever you can.
6. Avoid being too strict
It’s easy to go overboard in the all-non-Primal-foods-are-evil department, so you’ve decided every processed food is off-limits, you might want to back off a little. Make simple swaps like fresh fruit instead of juice or an occasional treat made with better-for-you ingredients.
7. Try new things
There’s a correlation between the number of new foods you feed your family and your picky eater’s willingness to eat them, so keep at it. Repetition and continuing to reintroduce foods (without force or frustration) has been linked to an increased liking of those foods.5
8. Get kids involved
As I mentioned above, kids who help out in the kitchen have a greater interest in eating healthier foods. So, look through recipes together, chop veggies together, and have them set the table. Being a part of the prep process gets kids’ curiosities piqued, which makes them more interested in participating in the end result — eating dinner.
9. Keep it simple
I’m not a fan of fussy meals anyway, so I always recommend keeping things simple regardless of who’s at the table. Remember that sometimes kids aren’t being picky, they just prefer simple and separate foods. Instead of serving up a complex flavor-filled recipe, keep it plain and simply prepared without a lot of sauces or seasonings.
Wondering what to do with your picky eater?
The main idea here is to take the stress out of making healthy food choices for your family. That means stop forcing, worrying, controlling, restricting, or walking on eggshells around your kids. Make it less of a battle and more of a fun, engaging experience. After all, no one chooses to be a picky eater. They’re not trying to make dinnertime a daily struggle. You just have to use the right strategies. Keep in mind that your kids’ eating habits won’t change overnight, but they will change. Just remember these 9 tips:
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.