UNC Health Talk

Dinner Table Drama

Ashley Honeycutt, RD, LDN is the Manager of Corporate and Community Services for Rex Wellness CentersAshley Honeycutt, RD, LDN is the Manager of Corporate and Community Services for Rex Wellness Centers. She blogs about nutrition, wellness & healthy living.

Baby in highchair for dinner
Is your baby a picky eater?

Do you have kids? If so, you’ve probably experienced the dreaded dinner table drama. You might have a baby that eats everything now, but things could change as they enter the toddler years. Or, you might be knee-deep in the food fight now and just need some advice. It’s a good idea to understand why kids can be picky and learn how to help your kids develop into good eaters:

  1. Kids want control. (If you haven’t already figured that out). Toddlers are notorious for being picky eaters because they are learning how to test the limits with their parents, even at the dinner table. Although frustrating to parents, this is a normal part of development.
  2. Kids can be scared of new foods and textures. This fear is very common between ages 2 and 4. Kids are biologically driven to be skeptical of new foods, a behavior which is thought to have come from the hunter/gatherer times. This fear kept kids away from harmful or toxic foods. Did you know that kids may need to be introduced to a food as many as 12 times before they’ll try it or develop a taste for it? Keep trying….
  3. Your kid might be a ‘supertaster’. Taste is largely genetic and some kids are very sensitive to certain tastes and textures, most often found in vegetables. Flavors that most adults find appealing are actually very intense for kids. For instance, broccoli can be bitter for a supertaster. It’s estimated that ¼ of all kids are supertasters. The good news is that most kids grow out of this sensitivity.
  4. Don’t use food as a reward. They will start to develop a preference for the ‘reward’ food (like ice cream) and will continue to lose interest in the food that they are being told they must eat (vegetables).
  5. Don’t push vegetables. Just make them available. They’ll see you enjoying the veggies and will eventually want to try them. Remember what I said about supertasting? If they’re sensitive to the taste AND you’re pushing them to eat, they’ll develop a negative attitude toward that food.
  6. Don’t cater to them. Who likes making 3-4 separate meals at dinner? No one. Allowing the kids to choose their dinner every night can exacerbate the issue of picky eating. Instead, know their food preferences and include at least one of those foods with the meal that you serve to everyone. Include other ‘new’ foods you’d like them to try.
  7. Get them involved. Research shows that allowing your child to help with the shopping and cooking gives them a sense of ownership and they are more likely to try the food.
  8. Give them variety and expose them to new foods as much as you can. Research also shows that exposing them to different types of foods at a young age makes them more willing to try new things. And, like I said earlier, if they watch the rest of the family eat and enjoy these foods, they’ll be more likely to develop these healthy eating behaviors. Kids model behavior. They’re always watching you.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re experiencing the dinner drama. Most adults were picky eaters as kids and most of us have grown out of it. I vividly remember gagging my way through dinners that contained broccoli or peas. I remember feeding my vegetables to the dog whenever I had the chance, or trying to hide the peas in my tea (thinking no one would notice). I only really liked three vegetables until I graduated from high school. But, my mom served them. I may not have eaten (or liked) them, but I was exposed to them. We always kept sweets in the house but they were not used as a bribe for eating our vegetables. Dessert was never part of our dinner, unless it was a special occasion. She never cooked separate meals for my sister and me. We ate what was served to us, or we didn’t eat. And we didn’t starve. And today, I have a very positive relationship with food and am willing to try most anything.

Always remember that every kid is different. Every family is different. If these tips haven’t done the trick, take some time to meet with a registered dietitian and figure out the best ways to make dinnertime work in YOUR family.