Should my child at least taste new foods?

Parents want mealtime to be pleasant, enjoyable, and healthy, and they want their children to eat a variety of foods. But often the ways in which they try to accomplish these goals are self-defeating.

Parents may put new food in front of a child and say, “Just taste it”. They hope, of course, that he’ll enjoy the food and therefore ask for more. They also hope that after trying one taste, he’ll get used to experimenting with new foods. However, what often happens is that he refuses the taste and a power struggle develops.

Parents sometimes try threats or various types of persuasion. “You won’t get dessert unless you taste this”. Using dessert as an incentive focuses too much attention on sweets and often causes a child to expect dessert as a reward. Parents also say, “But it’s good for you”, “It will make you big and strong”, and, “Some poor children don’t have any food to eat”. But children tend to ignore such statements, which are based in part on falsehoods. There is no instant strength from food, and eating a meal won’t help another child who has to go without.

Although parents may succeed in having their child taste something new, there can certainly be negative consequences. First, he seldom, if ever, asks for more of the originally rejected food. And if the family is eating in public, his refusal to eat more than one bite can lead to embarrassment. One young child, forced to taste apple pie at a friend’s party, declared loudly, “I hate this dessert!” Once a child decides he doesn’t want what’s offered, he’ll seldom reverse his decision. Another negative effect of forcing children to taste food is the risk of establishing a life-long pattern of aversion. Many adults continue to avoid food they remember being forced to eat when they were young.

Basically, struggles over food are not so much about eating as they are about power. Parents try to make children taste something while children try to resist the pressure. They feel powerless when they’re not able to say, “I don’t want it”. And when they do try a bite of something they don’t want, they eat only because they feel they have no choice, or they want to please their parents, or they want dessert.

When a child resists food, he’s usually not being stubborn. It may be hard for him to tolerate a taste he finds unpleasant. Often, he decides that he likes or doesn’t like something based on its looks and consistency. Therefore, he may know at first sight that he doesn’t want to try something new. Occasionally, he may refuse food because he’s afraid that once he tries a bite, he’ll have to keep on trying more and more new foods.

Yet, despite all the negative effects and emotions involved in forcing a taste, parents get into mealtime struggles for a positive reason: they want their children willingly to eat nutritious foods. And there are ways to accomplish this without resorting to arguments. You can talk to your pediatrician or a nutritionist about alternatives for a healthy diet and consult books with advice and recipes for meals with a range of tastes. Try providing healthy snacks that children generally enjoy, such as homemade frozen juice bars, carrots, raisins, sunflowers seeds, or fresh fruit, and model for your child the kind of healthy eating habits you want him to adopt.

At mealtime, provide healthful food and leave him free to choose what he wants to eat. You’ll find that when there’s no coercion or arguing, meals are more relaxed and he’s more willing to try new foods. As your child gets older, his tastes will change, and he’ll eat different types and amounts of food. For pleasant and healthy eating, the best thing to do is offer a variety of good food without putting on the pressure.

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