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Try these strategies to help picky eaters get better nutrition

It’s not unusual for children to be selective or “picky” eaters and go through challenging eating phases that they eventually outgrow. Selective eating can be a risk for nutritional deficits and weight concerns. So what happens when kids don’t outgrow selective eating? Is it possible for adults to overcome the challenges of selective eating?

The root causes of selective eating vary among individuals as does the potential severity of pickiness around food. The causes may be psychological, resulting from traumatic experiences such as choking or foodborne illness. Negative childhood memories, such as being forced to eat certain foods, can leave long-lasting negative effects. Plus, a lack of familiarity and exposure to foods can contribute to selective eating.

While environment and experience play a role, scientists believe that genetics affecting sensitivity to taste and smell are also an important factor in shaping food dislikes. For example, certain gene variants impact how strongly individuals taste bitter flavors. In addition to taste and smell, food texture is an attribute that can pose a barrier to eating some foods.

It’s possible that our food preferences begin before we are born via our mothers’ dietary patterns and the foods we are exposed to in utero. This exposure to foods continues through the consumption of breastmilk. Repeated exposure to foods, especially when there are positive social and cultural influences surrounding the foods, improves one’s chances of accepting foods.

While disliking some foods or flavors is quite normal, it can be frustrating when the list of disliked foods is longer than the list of preferred foods. This can make travel and dining with friends and family, among other lifestyle factors, quite difficult. Plus, steering away from nutritious foods can make consuming a balanced diet nearly impossible.

If you or someone you know struggles with selective eating, here are some strategies to consider:

Grow from Your Comfort Zone

Stress and anxiety about food can make it hard to learn how to accept and even enjoy new foods. Try creating a list of foods you don’t usually eat, but might be willing to try. These are not the foods that are totally detested or incredibly scary, but foods that are right outside the comfort zone. Maybe you identify as someone who hates vegetables but have eaten cucumber in the past with no problem. It’s possible you dislike beans but would be willing to give them another try in a soup or chili. Once you create a list of foods to try you can start to build confidence and positive experiences around eating new foods.

Consider Food Preparation Characteristics

Sometimes it’s not that the food is totally unappealing, but the texture, smell or cooking method contributes significantly to how the food is experienced. Keep in mind that hot, cooked foods typically have a stronger aroma than cold and raw foods. If a food is off-putting, consider if the cooking method or seasoning could be altered to increase acceptance. For example, steamed Brussels sprouts are a commonly disliked food, but roasted Brussels sprouts with a lightly sweet sauce is a big crowd-pleaser.

Reduce Stress Around Eating

Putting pressure on yourself or being pressured by others only makes eating less enjoyable. Busy meals on the go or crowded dinner parties are less than ideal times to diversify your palate. Instead, trying new foods might be easiest when alone or with someone who is supportive and nonjudgmental. Keep mealtime relaxed and calm and include a new or questionable food alongside other foods you enjoy.

You may consider reaching out to a healthcare professional such as a therapist, registered dietitian or your physician if selective eating is a significant concern and barrier to achieving proper nutrition while maintaining a healthy relationship with food and body.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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