Let’s Dish: My Three-year-old asked for a salad

by Amy Flanigan on January 11, 2009 · 10 comments

* For those readers who have grown children, or who don’t have children at all, please pass this along to someone you know that has youngsters at home. And in the meantime, maybe you can enjoy this post and laugh because you don’t have to deal with this problem!

My daughter, Haley, is three years old. For the past three years, I have been attending parenting classes, groups, and play-dates. One of the most common topics among parents regarding young children is “my kid is such a picky eater…he/she won’t eat anything!” But these same parents readily admit that as their child started on solid foods, and only liked bananas, that’s all they were fed.

It’s no surprise that my daughter has a lot of the same food anxiety as other three-year-olds; not wanting her food groups touching each other, loving turkey one day and hating it the next, must hold the cup as I pour the milk, and so on. However, she is unique in that she will try everything, and will eat almost anything I serve, without argument. She even asked for a salad the other day. Did I mention she’s three?

As I beam with pride among other parents about Haley’s food likes and requests, I hear a lot of “you are so lucky.” My response used to carry the apologetic tone of “Well, it’s not like she loves everything, though. And it did take a while, and I’m sure we won’t be as lucky with her little brother…” I didn’t want to make anyone feel guilty, like they’re not doing something with their kid that they should.

There are some children who are just plain picky. Beyond picky. No matter what methods you try, they won’t eat anything. I’ve even heard stories of kids who would rather starve than eat a green bean. In my experience, however, those children are in the minority. If you fall into this category, my heart goes out to you.

Here are suggestions on how to get your kids to be good eaters, I believe my children are because of the following approaches I took with them (in no particular order):

The “10-time” rule. You’ve heard this one… make them try the same food at least 10 times. I think we even went beyond that with the “15-time” rule. I felt the same frustration as she grimaced, pushing the spoon away, but I forged on. Being consistent and not giving up prevailed.

Don’t try the same new food every single day. Instead, offer it once a week or so. And do this for several months, even longer. Some items they will grow to enjoy, and some they won’t. But at least you learn what they truly don’t like. It took over a year (a year!) of offering Haley pineapple and Salmon before she liked either of them.

Variety. I made sure to have her try most of the options offered from the different baby food companies. Not just apple, pears, and carrots, but guava, mango, and the carrot/tomato combination, for example. As she gets older, I still offer something different all the time, like bell pepper and hummus, or a quesadilla with beans and corn.

Have your child eat what you eat. When she started eating table food, I didn’t dumb down my cooking for her, changing the ingredients or adding less of the spices, for fear the flavor would be too strong. It was hit or miss for a while. But I just kept making my favorite dishes, she kept trying them, and eventually Haley ended up asking for a lot of them.

Offer small bites. Whenever I introduce a new food to Haley, I make the pieces small. Smaller bites don’t seem as intimidating to young kids.

Give offerings at random times. I stopped asking her to try new food items at the dinner table. Instead, I started offering “bites” of things throughout the day. I would call for her in an excited manner and say, “You’ve got to try this!” My theory is that during the day it appears more like a treat or something special (even though it was just an avocado or slice of mango.) This approach proved effective.

Let them spit it out. I always give her the option of not swallowing a newly introduced food if she doesn’t like it. If you let them know this is okay beforehand, young children are more willing to try something. Remember, you want them to at least try it. Liking it may come later.

Tell stories about food. At mealtime, when I have a captive audience, I tell stories to Haley about the new item on her plate. This makes it fun and she is more willing to try it since it was in a story with a character she liked.

Get them involved in the preparation. I try to prepare a few new meals each week when I’m not in a hurry, so that Haley can help me (little kids are great at mashing, stirring, and scooping), and I don’t care if we make a mess. This gets her excited about the cooking process and she is more willing to try it because she helped make it.

Do as I do. My husband and I make sure that our kids see us eat everything. And if there is a particular food that we’re not really fond of, we still let them see us try it. Just because you don’t like something, don’t deprive your child of it! Imitation is a powerful force in learning.

I have since stopped apologizing. The fact is, Haley is a fantastic eater because of me, and I am very proud of that, pure and simple. Maybe, just maybe, there is a little dash of luck from her DNA, but I know I am responsible. And it’s not a fluke, because her one-year-old brother, who was once a question mark on the food topic, has now joined us at the table; a fabulous eater also, kicking up his legs as he eats bits and pieces of Grilled Salmon with Blackberry Sauce with a side of broccoli. Did he like it at first? No. How about the second time? Not yet. Third time is a charm? Not quite. Rejection is probably the hardest part for most people, including me. But I don’t give up and my persistence pays off.

We know that a child’s world is ruled by routine. The same thing over and over again becomes predictable to them, and therefore safe. That’s why they like to read the exact same book 100 times in a row, or listen to the same song over and over again. But if you play a different/new song (in the background, let’s say), for a long enough period of time, before you know it, they are singing along. Because that song becomes familiar, without them even knowing it. The same idea can be applied to food.

Research has shown that children in their first years are already developing food habits that will last a lifetime. This explains why some adults are picky eaters; chances are they had issues with food in childhood. Willingness to taste new foods at these early ages is key to building a balanced and healthy diet for them now and their future.

And as an adult, remember that your taste buds change over time – what you disliked ten years ago may not hold true today! Don’t be afraid to try new things yourself.

©2009 Amy Flanigan

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lora April 14, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Your tricks on giving them tastes at a time other than dinner was a great idea. At least it got my son interested in what was going on in the kitchen. Also the tip about letting them spit it out has made a difference. I see him more willing to try things since we changed to this policy.

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Lisa April 7, 2009 at 9:07 pm

I had read some similar advice elsewhere, but your personal examples made much more sense to me and put it in perspective. I tried some of the techniques on my small kids and amazing – it worked. We parents give up too easily, but if we are persistent, the pay off is huge! Thanks, Amy!!

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Melissa March 28, 2009 at 11:57 am

After reading this post a few months ago, I thought the information was very helpful. But I was still skeptical. I have three little boys and all of them are pretty picky in one way or another. I gave it a shot, though and sure enough, the tips proved to be effective. I will share this information with other parents I know. Thanks!

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Helen February 11, 2009 at 8:07 pm

I tired some of these tips on my two-year old and they actually worked. I wish I had been more educated about these techniques with my first few children.

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Chelsey January 22, 2009 at 11:07 pm

I completely agree with your advice. I sometimes think that with the child it’s hesitation and non persistance of the parent. When parents become short order cooks it becomes chaotic. Make one meal, they’ll eat…kids won’t starve. (I do agree however that there are things that some people will not like , but when kids only like three things…that’s the problem.)

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Scott January 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Great article. Great advice.

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Marie January 12, 2009 at 12:06 am

what sage advice (no pun intended)

can I call you for daily doses of food optimism? or mommy pep talks?

it’s like I know all of this stuff in theory but it is so hard to put it into practice when your kid has refused to try anything new for so long that you have just about given up … and you are happy that they eat anything at all as long as it has some caloric value and maybe some calcium or protein

thanks for sharing, i am hoping that your blog will inspire me to keep trying new things with marina

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Carrie January 11, 2009 at 10:56 am

Aren’t our kids totally worth the investment? We care about their education, we care about who they hang out with, we care about if they can read and write. Why not about their diet?

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Nancy January 11, 2009 at 9:18 am

I have really good eaters, too. We tried some of these methods (I wish I would had thought of ALL of them!) and they are effective. Don’t give up. Early “intervention” is so key to having great eaters as your kids grow older.

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Cheryl January 11, 2009 at 8:34 am

At the risk of offending, I think so many parents are just lazy. Let’s face it, it’s just easier to microwave a frozen burrito than cook anything from scratch. And if it avoids your kid screaming…

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