Being the parent of a picky eater can be stressful. You may be concerned or confused by your little one’s eating habits, especially if they used to be more open to trying new foods and flavors. Of course, this concern comes from a good place; we worry they’re not eating enough, getting enough nutrients, or that we’re setting them up for bad habits (snack meals, anyone?). We all want our little ones to grow up healthy and strong.
So to all the parents with picky eaters, take heart. Nutrition deficiencies do not happen overnight. According to the feeding experts at Cerebelly, it can take more than 10 (10!) tastes of a new flavor for a child to truly make an informed decision about what they like. And what we interpret as dislike in their reaction could just be our child’s unique way of experiencing the new food. This is especially true if your baby is new to solids.
For those parents concerned about nutrition for their picky eaters, we tapped three experts to offer some guidance. Here, they’re addressing common concerns and offering tips to help ensure your child is getting the right amount of nutrients.
Why does my adventurous eater now only want a few foods?
“It can be explained in three words: ‘I DO IT,'” said Segal. She said it’s common for adventurous eaters to suddenly become more selective with their food preferences because they’re often seeking independence. Koveleski agreed, “Sometimes once little ones realize that they can say ‘no’ and make choices, they want to exercise that newfound skill as much as possible!”
It’s common for adventurous eaters to suddenly become more selective with their food preferences because they’re often seeking independence.
As frustrating as this behavior is, it’s also an appropriate developmental milestone. “Around age 3, many children show a greater interest in the details: how a food looks, tastes, feels,” Segal said. “How they experience the world is constantly changing. Often children will feel comforted by a few foods that may represent a ‘constant’ in their day, and they may choose those few foods to help them feel safe.”
When should I worry about a nutritional deficiency?
“Parents can be reassured that nutrient deficiencies do not happen quickly,” said Segal, “but a child’s first three years are a window of opportunity to optimize brain development, so the goal is to obtain the necessary nutrients during this time. If your child is only eating a handful of foods for a prolonged period or is drinking mostly milk and very little food, it’s a good idea to talk to your medical provider. Iron is an example of a nutrient that we see deficiencies develop [in] in weeks to months.”
Are there any feeding hacks to encourage picky eaters to try new foods and flavors?
How can you fit some actual nutrition in when so many new foods are rejected by your child? “Hiding” nutrient-dense foods in other foods isn’t recommended “because it doesn’t allow for a building of trust between the person offering the food and the child,” said Koveleski.
So with hiding food off the table, here are some expert-approved ways to ensure your picky eater gets their nutrition needs met.
Introduce new flavors early and often
“Food exposure is the key to helping kids become more comfortable with new foods. It takes time,” said Segal. “Help prevent young children from getting used to just one texture of food or just a narrow variety of flavors.”
That’s where Cerebelly baby food can help. They have tons of purees to help introduce your little one to new flavors, like Butternut Squash White Bean, Carrot Beef Broth, Sweet Potato Mango, and new meal-inspired Bone Broth purees with flavors and herbs, plus so many more. For snack-loving toddlers, Cerebelly also has Smart Bars so even snacktime can mean bonus nutrients. Each pouch and Smart Bar includes their patented 16 key nutrients that support the most critical stages of brain development: vitamin D, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B₆, vitamin B₁₂, zinc, copper, niacin, folate, iodine, selenium, choline, protein, DHA, vitamin E, and lutein.
Use responsive feeding techniques
“No matter what [feeding] method a family chooses, whether it be traditional purees, baby-led solids, or a hybrid of both, the most important point is to follow a responsive feeding model,” said Potock. “That means parents provide lots of flavors and safe textures while paying attention to baby’s cues. Watch for signs of ‘Yes, I’d like to try that again’ or ‘I need to take a break, but I’m not full yet’ and ‘I’m full, all done!’ and let baby guide you on how much they want to eat. Responsive feeding is endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP puts it this way: ‘You provide, your child decides.'”
Involve them in the food prep process
You can also include your LOs in making the food. “For example, if you’re making pancakes, have them mix a Cerebelly pouch in the batter (Carrot Pumpkin is a great one!) for an extra nutrient boost,” said Koveleski. “[Then] narrate what they’re doing. ‘You’re squeezing the pouch in! You’re mixing it up! You’re pouring it!’ That way they’re fully aware of what’s going in the food once it’s served and you’ve built trust. You can do this with chilis, casseroles, and many other foods that contain nutrient-dense whole ingredients.” Parents can use Cerebelly pouches to add a boost of nutrients to soups, stews, pasta, or that all-time toddler favorite, mac and cheese.
Nutrient-dense foods like avocado oil, legumes, or Cerebelly pouches are ingredients and adding them to your child’s meals is not being sneaky. “The key message is to continue to offer new foods to your child by allowing them to see it, smell it, and touch it, while ALSO mashing that same food up and baking it into a muffin,” said Segal.
Make their favorite food look different
To encourage a variety of textures using food they’re already familiar with, “place a small amount of a particular new food on their plate, off to the side,” Segal advised. “Place their familiar food (like pasta) on the same plate, but make it look a little different (e.g., cut it up into smaller pieces).”
Stay patient and positive
Dealing with picky eating often requires effort and patience on the part of parents to allow the process happen with as little pressure as possible. “Your little one will be more likely to try a food or eat a food when you use language that surrounds what they CAN do instead of what they AREN’T doing,” said Koveleski. “Instead of saying, ‘Come on, eat the broccoli,’ say, ‘You can shred it with your fork. You can poke it and scoop it!’ and model for them what they can do with it.”
“This type of language is not pressuring and helps little ones feel successful when interacting with foods that may be new or unfamiliar to them,” she continued. “You’d be surprised how many little ones are willing to scoop something and put it into their mouth without being told with this technique!”
Shift your mindset about picky eating
“Feeding is a developmental process, just like learning to crawl, walk, and run,” said Potock. “Kids are meant to move through feeding development in stages. When they struggle at one stage, they may get stuck there. Reach out to a professional if you’re feeling stuck. There is help and the earlier we can help those skills along, the better!”