You’ve done the impossible, managing to whip up a nutritious meal and get the whole family to sit down to eat together. You bask in the success of a job well done until your pickiest eater pushes the plate away, unimpressed. This scene is enough to make any parent throw up their hands and say, “I give up!”
Picky eating, also called food neophobia, can develop at any young age and in response to pretty much anything about a food, including its flavor, color, or texture. Similarly, parents vary in how they handle pickiness Some exert their authority by making their child eat the offending food, while others prefer to minimize conflict by fixing a simple alternative meal. But did you know a third approach is currently being researched? Playing with food.
Despite going against traditional table manners, play may be an effective way to reduce resistance to new foods. This finding comes from researchers at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom. Their recently completed study asked children to comb through mashed potatoes or gelatin in search of a small toy. Based on food questionnaires answered by the children’s parents, the investigators found a strong link between enjoyment of the “food play” and low food neophobia (1). While the study can’t distinguish between cause and effect, the relationship suggests that playtime may reduce food neophobia.
To conduct your own science experiment at home, all you’ll need is food and some creativity. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Make color categories. Ask your picky eater to organize everything on the plate based on color, using hands if desired. If old enough, challenge him or her to make the rainbow. Even if only one color gets eaten, that’s still a success!
2. Deconstruct the meal. If your toddler is poking suspiciously at the salad or casserole, ask him or her to pull it apart and organize the components. For example, carrots might go to one corner and peas in another. Afterwards, ask if any of the individual foods look good enough to eat.
3. Arrange a picture. With lots of bright colors to choose from, food can be a great medium for creating a picture on the dinner plate! Encourage your child to think of broccoli as trees, cheese slices as boat sails, spiral pasta as curly hair, or anything else that comes to mind.
4. Form fun shapes. Sometimes kids prefer to eat their own creations. If that’s the case, what’s the harm in letting them pound their meatballs flat into disks? When your child is old enough to use utensils, use food to practice knife skills. Maybe that sandwich would look more enticing if it was cut into triangle or fun cookie-cutter shape. Texture, shape, size and temperature can make a BIG difference!
5. Get hands-on. Food acceptance requires multiple exposures, so give yourself a leg-up by having the kids help with meal prep. They can stir, tear herbs, mash burgers and meatloaf, or layer and toss the salad.
6. Use the other senses. If your child is less than thrilled about eating, encourage him or her to explore the food using other basic senses. Ask questions like, “What does it smell like?” “What does it feel like in your hands? Is it hot or cold?” and “What does it make you think of?”
7. Invite a “friend” to dinner. Children learn best by example, which means having a favorite toy at the table can work in your favor. The comfort of a companion might inspire an adventurous side. You can even pretend to “feed” the toy from the child’s plate and act out good manners. If all fails -try using stickers as a reward to try new foods.
No matter how stubborn your child might be, patience is key. Keeping mealtimes lighthearted and fun will foster a healthy relationship with food and, hopefully, a willingness to try new things. Read more about “picky eaters”.
1. Coulthard H, Thakker D. Enjoyment of Tactile Play Is Associated with Lower Food Neophobia in Preschool Children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015; 115 (7): 1134-1140.