How to Solve a Picky Eating Problem

I’m a sucker for pretty packaging. I don’t think I’m admitting anything particularly shameful. It might not even be much of a revelation. After all, food manufacturers spend billions to ensure their goods look, well, good. Clearly I’m not the only one who responds positively to shiny objects.

The notion that presentation sells is the core idea behind the “make food fun” fad. I call it a fad because making food fun for toddlers hasn’t always been a thing.  That’s good to remember if the idea of food faces makes you want to tear your hair out.

Let’s talk about presentation for a minute.  There’s a growing body of research showing that people are more eager to eat well-presented food. One study: a brownie served on a china plate was rated “excellent,” whereas the same brownie served on a paper plate was rated “good,” and the one eaten off a napkin was “okay but nothing special.”

Traditional Cajun Red Beans with Rice were a better seller than Red Beans with Rice. And Grandma’s Zucchini Cookies beat out plain old Zucchini Cookies.

So presentation matters. And FUN presentation matters to children because children like to have fun. In fact, there is evidence that enjoying the time spent at the table can reduce picky eating. One way to do that, of course, is to draw smiley faces with ketchup. Make fruit kebabs. Go crazy with cookie cutters.

Another way to have fun at the table is to start being a little silly. When my daughter was young my husband had a routine where he would grab my daughter’s fork and talk to her food. “Don’t worry, I know it’s safe in her mouth.” Then, he would change to being the voice of the food as it was being chewed, “Owwwww. Help!” Our daughter (literally) ate it up.

An important tool for teaching children healthy eating habits is to create a positive association between food and time spent at the table. One reason people enjoy sweets and treats is that they’re linked with happy times (think parties).  And yet, we ask children to sit still and eat quietly. All too often it is easy for parents to forget that playing is for children what conversation is for adults—a way to make eating more social, and therefore, more enjoyable.

One problem with play and the “make food fun” mindset is when it is used as a distraction. When it comes to eating, distraction=bad habits. That’s why you’re not supposed to feed your kids (or yourself) in front of the TV. Turning shredded carrots into hair is a terrific technique if it’s used to engage children, not trick them into eating carrots—even when it works to “trick” kids into eating carrots.

It’s easy to fall into the trap that food has to be presented in a certain way for children to eat it. I understand the urge to do whatever works, but there are pitfalls. For starters, it distorts the power relationship between parents and children. Right? If you’ve got to present food in a way that pleases your kids, who is in charge, you or them?

Moreover, the sense that you’ve got to do something puts pressure on you. Pressure is a problem because the moment we parents feel stressed about what our children eat we pass that feeling onto our kids. In the feeding dynamic pressure is the enemy.

I can’t say this enough: It is the stress, not the lack of food art, which kills how kids eat. Many children simply shut down when they feel stressed about eating. And that’s true even when the food is “fun.” That’s why searching for the right design, or the right receipt, can’t solve a picky eating problem. So make food fun when you want to, but not when you have to, and spend your energy on making mealtimes enjoyably interactive instead.


About Dina Rose

Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert and the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee). Dina has been training parents, pediatricians, dietitians, and early childhood educators in the Habits Approach for the past decade. Her work has been featured on TV, radio, and in both print and online news sources. Dina frequently speaks to parenting groups, early childhood educators, and at pediatric grand rounds. Her approach is so unique it has been called “transformational.” In addition to writing her own blog, It's Not About Nutrition, Dina is also a regular contributor to Psychology Today.

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