Almost every night, I set a plate down in front of General Leia, and for at least one food on there, she whines, “I don’t like this!” which is inevitably parroted by Bella Bean:  “I don’t like dis!”  Yet they end up eating at least some of it. My kids actually have a pretty varied diet, and I feel confident that their palette will continue to expand as they get older.  So how is this happening?

In Parts I, II, and III of this series, we established the pros and cons of buying organic food.  In Part IV, we talked about how you can get the most bang for your buck, nutritionally speaking, by buying groceries selectively.  But we all know that the most healthful food in the world isn’t going to help your kid if he or she won’t eat it.  So what do we do when our child is really used to a narrow diet and is unwilling to try new foods?

First and foremost, relax.  Think back to yourself when you were a kid.  Did you refuse a lot of foods then that you like, or even love, now?  Or do you at least know of someone else who you saw grow up to eat a more varied diet?  So see?  It’s going to be okay.

But seriously, our kids’ diet is something we can get very stressed out about very quickly.  And once we get all bent out of shape and food becomes “a thing,” you’re just setting you and your kid up up to be mad at each other and to ruin one of the most important opportunities for connection you have. Instead, when you feel yourself getting upset, ask yourself, “Is it really that important that my child eat this food right now?”  I think you know the answer.  So take a few deep breaths, and start again.

Now that we have our little therapy session out of the way, let’s discuss strategies that can help you relax while also giving your child the opportunity to try new foods.

1. Don’t label your child as “picky”

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but talking about it only reinforces the situation.  So don’t tell yourself or talk to others about him being picky, because that just reconvinces you that he is.  And certainly don’t tell him that he’s picky or that all he eats is (fill in the blank), because if he believes that about himself, he’s more likely to act on it.  So just throw the word picky out of your vocabulary.

And of course, comparison among siblings isn’t productive either.  Whether or not your son’s sister tried a food (or has done anything, really) has no bearing whatsoever on his actions.  So just don’t say bring it up.

2. Spin new food as an opportunity

Whenever I set a food down in front on a child and she immediately turns up her nose, I just say, “We always try new foods.”  I use this phrase with cheerfulness but also finality, so they know that’s just the expectation in our house.  If these words accompany a repeat food with me hoping Leia has forgotten her first tries of it, I might get a “but this isn’t a new food!”  In that case, cover blown, I just respond that we still always try foods.

If  my daughter continues to grumble, I just say, “I know when you’re ready you’ll try the spinach,” or whatever it is.  And this works!

The phrase “I know when you’re ready you’ll…” is basically magic, because it takes the pressure off of everyone.  You don’t have to be the enforcer, and she doesn’t feel like she has to oppose you out of principle.  The trick to letting this phrase work is patience on your part.  It’ll usually be a minute or two before they’ll comply, kind of a way for them to convince themselves, “I’m doing this because I’m choosing it, not because mom’s making me.”  Let them have that win.  It doesn’t hurt you, and it lets them save face while also doing what you want.

3.  Let them help prep

I know, this is hard for me too.  Making dinner while the baby is screaming and everyone is hungry is hard enough without your little cherub underfoot helping.  But they are more likely to at least try something they’ve had a part in making themselves.

Plus, handling and chopping vegetables are ways of exposing your child to them without the pressure of eating them, at least at that very moment.  And research has show that any type of exposure to a food, even if it doesn’t include eating, means a kid is more likely to accept it at a later date.

And even tiny ones, as young as a year and a half, can “help” a little.  When General Leia was about a year and a half, I remember giving her dried beans to “sort” at her high chair while I cooked.  She was happy to play with them, and I was able to get meal prep done.  Granted, it was easier to do that because she was my only child at the time, but even Budrow Wilson, youngest of three, got to stir some last week.

Of course this can’t happen every meal.  Heck, you’d be lucky to have time and patience for your younger kids to do this with you every week.  It takes a lot more physical effort and mental exhaustion to manage small children while to make sure they don’t set the house on fire or cut off their fingers.  But if you ever have a calm afternoon when you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything that evening, then you can make this happen.  And I hear that eventually the kids get bigger and are legitimate help in the kitchen, if you lay the foundation when they’re young.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

4.  Just be cool, man

How many times has a kid claimed they didn’t like a food, finally tried said food, and then realized they liked it after all?  This happens with General Leia all the time.  She’ll complain, take a bite with a grimace, and then look surprised before saying, “Hey… I do like this!”

The knee-jerk reaction, at least for me, is to be like, “I told you that you’d like it!” Vindication!  But don’t say that.  I just say, “Really? I’m so glad!” enthusiastically, like I’m as surprised and delighted as she is.  Once again, it’s about them saving face.  If you make it a point that you were right and they were wrong, then it sets up this environment where they almost “have” to dislike a food in the future so that they don’t give you the satisfaction of winning.

And other times, they don’t like the spinach or casserole or whatever.  In that case, I simply say, “Thank you for trying it,” and move on.  I don’t make something else, but the kids are allowed to get frozen vegetables out of the freezer to eat, still frozen (great for teething toddlers, btw, and then years later you end up with five-year olds who eat frozen peas and diced carrots for snacks and at meals, meaning they eat veggies with zero effort on your part.  Win.).  There’s several evenings where I dish up food for everyone, all the kids eat is a few bites of whatever it is, and that’s it.  I don’t make it a thing, and they continue to survive.

That’s the real trick.  Don’t allow yourself to get emotionally attached to the outcome of dinner.  Very yogic, I know. If you don’t get upset about whether or not they eat, they aren’t locked into fighting you, and they’re ultimately more likely to expand their food choices.

5. Get some support

By the way, you’re not the only parent who goes through this struggle night after night.

You know what will help you keep your cool when you’re starting to feel really frustrated by your child’s uncooperativeness at dinner time? Having a supportive community where you can work out these issues. That’s why we have Evidence-Based Parents, our private Facebook Group. Join us today to get the support and idea-exchange you need to transform your interactions with your kids!