When your child is a picky eater, everyone has advice. What's a parent to do?
When your child is a picky eater, everyone has advice: Cook with your kids! Eat like a French person! Roast those Brussels sprouts! Sneak veggies into other foods! What's a parent to do?
Offer a food again and again, said Terence Dovey, a lecturer at the Centre for Research Into Eating Disorders at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England. "At no point do you force the child to eat it. Eventually, the vast majority of children will accept the food."
Estimates of how many young picky eaters there are vary widely, from 8 to 50 percent of kids, with researchers differing on how to define the term. Some allow parents or caregivers to define pickiness; others look at how many foods kids actually eat, and some look at average kids during some or all of the peak pickiness years: ages 2 to 6.
A 2007 review of scientific studies by Lucy Cooke of Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London found that repeated exposure can increase liking and consumption.
Cooke, co-author of a large 2003 study on the subject, found that repeated tastings increased a child's acceptance of a vegetable. While she said she can't guarantee that parents will get the same results she did, she said the technique does look "very promising."
Here's the basic procedure: Every day for 14 days, the parent would offer the child small pieces of a single "moderately disliked" target vegetable (carrot, celery, tomato, red pepper, green pepper or cucumber, depending on the child's tastes).
The vegetable was served raw and the kid could eat as much or as little as he or she liked. A parent might say, "You don't have to eat it, just taste it" or "I've tried it; can you do it, too?"
At the end of the 14 days, the children were consuming more of their target vegetables and reporting that they liked them more.
But not all kids are willing to even try a disliked vegetable, Cooke acknowledged. A small nonfood incentive can tip the balance, she found. In two subsequent studies she co-authored, kids were offered stickers for tasting the target vegetable, with good results. All of the kids were willing to try the moderately disliked vegetable when the sticker incentive was added.
Cooke doesn't advise continuing the daily tastings after 14 tries, and she said that under some circumstances, 10 tries are probably enough.
"The evidence is pretty good that 10 tries will do the trick -- 15 is optimal, but we do fully understand that it's just beyond the patience of many parents to persevere that long, especially if the child doesn't appear to be responding," she said.