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Let them lick the bell pepper: progression of a picky eater

There are many ways that you can help encourage the initial acceptance of vegetables in your little ones.

Hello Villagers.

I always find the joys of parenthood a little funny. We get overly excited about seemingly mundane things such as using the bathroom in peace, feeling like the laundry is done, cooking a dinner that no one complained about, or in my case, watching my then 3-year-old pick up a piece of bell pepper, inspect it for a while, and then finally lick it. That’s right folks, not only did she touch this vegetable, it actually made contact with her mouth. And I consider that a HUGE win, especially in a picky eater.  Research shows that it takes roughly 10-15 exposures before children begin to accept new foods. I’ve found, however, that when it comes to vegetables and my kiddos, it takes SO.MUCH.LONGER. As babies, they were fantastic little eaters, but then a sudden stop occurred around the toddler years. Though this is normal, it is very frustrating and makes meal time a dreaded experience. It may seem easier to stop serving these foods and save your time and money, but this can poorly affect their eating habits in the future. The taste preferences that they develop at a young age can extend into adulthood, making the early years an important time for food experiences.

A successful food experience with a child doesn’t have to mean that they gobble up a bowl of Brussels sprouts before leaving the table. For some families, it may mean that their toddler didn’t throw a fit when something green was set in front of them or that they were willing to take a tiny mouse-size bite. Those successes deserve a happy dance too. It’s important to remember where your child started and where they are now. Did they previously revolt against green beans, but now peacefully ignore them? That’s a win. Did they progress from ignoring them to playing with them on their fork? That’s a win. Did they finally take a few bites? That’s a win too. The more you expose your children to vegetables, the more likely they will eventually accept them. Maybe you’ll get lucky and it only takes a few tries, maybe your child fits within the 10-15 exposure rule, or maybe after a year or so, they finally progress from licking that bell pepper to taking small bites. It’s all about those little wins in parenthood, my friends.

There are many ways that you can help encourage the initial acceptance of vegetables in your little ones – especially a picky eater. Here are just a few:

  1. Continue to serve rejected vegetables, no matter how frustrating it may seem. Give them small portions so that it doesn’t seem overwhelming and let them approach the food on their terms. There is no need to bribe or beg.
  2. Eat those tasty greens yourself. When children are younger, parents and caregivers have a greater influence on food choice than peers. This switches as children age, so take advantage of your role model position and show them how great vegetables can be.
  3. Let them choose which vegetables you serve every now and then. Select 2-3 options and allow your child to decide which one they prefer. If possible, let them help you prepare it. A preschooler can very easily wash some veggies, wipe a mushroom, or snap asparagus.
  4. Books can be a great way to expose children to the idea of trying new foods, learn about vegetables, and view images of the foods themselves. This may relieve some of the anxiety that children sometimes have when it comes to new foods. If you are looking for new storybooks, here are a few good options:

More book ideas for your child can be found here.

5. Last, but not least, be relaxed during meal time. Heightened pressure to eat can increase the likelihood that your child will have negative associations with that food. I realize that it’s difficult to not become frustrated when you see your child’s full plate, but I encourage you not to focus on the amount of food they have consumed. Maybe save that plate though, just in case they ask for a snack later.

Jessica Barnes, PhD, RDN, LD

Dr. Jessica Barnes received her PhD in nutrition from Texas Woman's University. Her research focused on food preference development and creating materials to help preschoolers become familiar with healthy foods. She has worked with families and communities as a clinical and community Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

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