Got a Picky Eater? Try "Flavor Training" Nutritionist Mia Rigden breaks it down.

By Mia Rigden | Photo by Stocksy

When it comes to raising healthy eaters, it’s a long game. Getting your kids to eat vegetables, or try new foods can feel like an uphill battle, and sometimes it seems easier just to give in or stop trying. Trust me, I get it. Just because I am a nutritionist, does not mean I don’t have to work to get my son to eat broccoli sometimes. Here are a few tips to help you through the process, whether you’re just starting your family or looking for ways to get more nutrition into your kids’ meals.

Babies: Start Early with Flavor Training

Children are born with a predisposition for sweet and salty foods, and an aversion to bitter and sour foods, characteristic of many vegetables. This is an outdated evolutionary advantage, stemming from a time when food was lacking. In the modern world, children have access to an abundance of sweets and processed foods, which can lead to dependencies and health issues later in life. 

The first 1000 days of a person’s life are critical for developing healthy eating habits that will continue well into adulthood. During this time, children are introduced to new flavors and learn from their parents how, what, when, and how much to eat. 

Flavor training starts with prenatal nutrition and continues with breastfeeding. When the mother eats a variety of healthy foods and diverse flavors, the baby starts to get familiar with them. This continues when feeding begins a few months after birth. The “flavor window” generally lasts from 4-18 months, and is when a child will most likely accept new foods. Exposing them repeatedly to different flavors, textures, and foods during this time helps to establish flavor preferences. 

Research shows that exposure to sugar prior to the age of two can create dependencies later in life. This includes natural sugars like honey and maple syrup. If they’re too young to ask for it, don’t give it to them. It’s unnecessary, and once the sugar floodgates open, it can be hard to rein it in.

Toddlers: Be Persistent, But Not Pushy

Babies will eat just about anything, but toddlers are a whole other story. If the flavor training window has passed, there is still hope! All parents (myself included!) can relate to the frustration of their child not wanting to eat what’s on their plate or liking a food one day and not the next. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t want to eat vegetables or develops strong preferences for particular foods, like sweets. It’s important to be persistent but not pushy. If you give up, they’ll never have the opportunity to try, and if you push it too hard, they may start to resent it. Keep offering new foods and encourage them to try them, but don’t force it. They might surprise you one day!

Getting your child involved in the cooking process is another way to encourage them to try new foods. Let them press the button on your blender to make nutrient-dense smoothies, sauces, and more. Talk to them about the ingredients you’re using and why they are good for them. Highlight the different colors of fruits and vegetables to get them more excited about them, and take them to the store or farmers’ market so they understand where food comes from. If you have the space, try to grow something, even if it’s just fresh herbs, so they can make the connection between the soil and their plate. 

It’s okay to hide some vegetables, like cauliflower in a smoothie or spinach in a pancake, to ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need, but make sure they also see what a healthy plate looks like. 

Aim for Balanced Meals

Blood sugar management is a hot topic for adults, but it matters for children as well. If their diet is mostly sugar and refined carbs, they will experience the same energy fluctuations and cravings that we do and will be more irritable as a result. This isn’t fun for you or your kids! To combat this, try to get protein, fiber, and fat in every meal, even if you’re having pasta, toast, or something sweet.

Model Healthy Eating Habits

Children model the behavior of their parents. If you don’t eat vegetables, they won’t either. Regardless of your child’s age, sitting down for family dinners is an excellent way to demonstrate healthy eating habits. And when dining out, try to share dishes instead of or in addition to ordering off the kid’s menu, which is generally bland and lacking in nutritional value and flavor. It may not feel like they are watching, but they are!

Mia Rigden is a Los Angeles-based board certified nutritionist, trained chef, and the author
of The Well Journal (2020) and Foodwise, a comprehensive, encouraging guide to healthy
eating with 100 original, nutritionally-balanced and flavor-enriching recipes launching in
January 2023.