Legend holds that I was a picky eater as a young child. I can remember being skeptical of some new items (calamari was a particular challenge, and to this day I don’t really like the be-tentacle’d pieces). While some of my childhood food aversions have survived to present day (I’m looking at you, cream cheese), for the most part I am today a pretty adventurous eater who you can take to any type of restaurant. Looking back on my own childhood battles at mealtimes, I have some opinions about how to shape a picky eater into a brave one. So does science.
The New York Times has an interesting series called The Picky Eater Project in which its health bloggers look at different ways to coax fussy kids to try (and enjoy) new foods. In the most recent entry, they detail how enlisting the kids to help shop and select foods helps them to be more willing to try those foods at dinner. Design psychology suggests that involving fussy eaters in making dinner selections might overcome aversions in a few ways:
Support for autonomy helps motivate kids to taste. Offering children some say in what they will be eating for dinner increases their motivation to take a bit by supporting their sense of autonomy. This is also why structured choices can work well for kids: “Would you like to eat the broccoli or the spinach?” Even though the options don’t include the child’s top choice of candy, he is still being made a willing participant in the decision.
Seeing ingredients demystifies new food. To help people overcome barriers to behavior change, it’s important to understand what those barriers are. For some picky eaters, the aversion to new foods comes from uncertainty about what is in the dish. Seeing the ingredients in fresh form helps kids to understand what’s going on their plate, and may make new foods seem less “yucky.”
Enlisting kids in shopping creates cognitive dissonance. Once a child has participate in choosing what’s for dinner, refusing to eat it becomes trickier. Cognitive dissonance happens when we perceive our own behaviors as inconsistent. As a general rule, people don’t like cognitive dissonance and work to avoid it. If a child has helped select a meal and then refuses to eat it, this could trigger an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance.
In my case, overcoming picky eating was just a matter of time and maturity, but if you want to speed up that process with your little one, I’d be curious to hear if offering them a choice in the dinner selection helps.