Some children seem to want the same thing to eat, meal after meal, day after day, often for weeks at a time. These “food jags,” are a common occurrence during toddlerhood. As the child’s rate of growth slows dramatically after the first year, there is a natural decrease in appetite. Developmental tasks such as emerging independence, learning about cause and effect, and attention seeking may also impact mealtime behavior. For these reasons, a child’s interest in new foods may wane, or she may become resistant to trying new foods at all.
When a child will accept little besides macaroni, tossing in some cauliflower without mentioning it may seem like a good idea. The parent may feel good that the child has consumed a few extra vitamins and nutrients, but the accomplishment stops there. The child has received the familiar food (macaroni), but she has missed the opportunity to explore the novel food (cauliflower). A better strategy would be to offer the usual favorite with sides of steamed cauliflower and bites of watermelon. This allows for easy identification of each item on the plate, and, with repeated attempts (8-10 tries for most toddlers), the child may eventually accept the new food.
Another problem with adding that handful of kale into the berry smoothie on the sly is that children are incredibly observant. Toddlers and preschoolers watch their caregivers constantly, absorbing nonverbal cues very effectively at a young age. Hiding vegetables inside of snacks in lieu of offering them in readily identifiable ways sends the message that the parent agrees they are not enjoyable to eat on their own. Worse yet, a persnickety preschooler may discover one day that a food she does not prefer has been added to her shake. This experience may cause her to be suspicious of other mealtime offerings in the future. As with the macaroni example, the child may have consumed a vegetable in the smoothie, but she has not gained an appreciation for eating the vegetable. In addition, she may actually be dissuaded from trying new foods that are not specifically recognizable to her.
In this case, a better approach would be to make the kale a part of routine smoothie preparation and not a “secret ingredient.” The parent should explain enthusiastically that the kale makes the smoothie even better, perhaps allowing the child to add it herself after she has poured the dishes of berries into the blender. Later, the kale could be served differently, such as in a salad, along with a reminder to the child that it is the same kale that made the smoothie so delicious. The kale then becomes familiar to the child despite the novel presentation.
Teaching children to be healthy eaters is a process that unfolds over the course of many years. New foods provide interesting colors, tastes, textures, and smells that really can make a meal into an experience for all the senses. It is important to keep in mind that this can be overwhelming for a small child. Parents may need to introduce a food many times before a child will accept it. In the meantime, mixing some veggies in with the child’s usual favorite may seem like the best way to increase the nutritional content of the meal, but it should not be used as a stand-alone solution for picky eating. When it comes to feeding young children, sneaky tactics will likely create setbacks, while positivity, patience, and perseverance will pay off in the end.
Dr. Whitney is a general pediatrician with The Children’s Medical Center, PA in Greenville, SC. Her interests include toddler feeding issues and helping children develop healthy habits.