Kids are notorious for a lot of things, but their often-picky eating habits may be the most frustrating. Like, I get wanting to eat nothing but pizza all day, but kids seem to get fixed on the most random foods — hot dogs with no bun, plain Cheerios, bananas.
When food aversion is severe, parents worry that their kids aren’t getting enough of the vital nutrients they need to grow and thrive, but it seems nearly impossible to convince a stubborn eater to expand their diet… until now.
Author Bee Wilson recently wrote about a groundbreaking study published in the journal Appetite in 2007. Keith Williams, now the director of the feeding program at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, developed a method of introducing kids to new foods that could hold the key to breaking the cycle of picky eating.
In his study, Williams was working with two autistic children with extreme food aversion, aged 3 and 5. He used repeat exposure to introduce the kids to new foods one tiny, tiny bite at a time. For instance, he’d give them a single grain of cooked rice or one pea instead of an entire meal full of new foods.
Another method used was the “probe meal.” For this, Williams would give each child about a tablespoon of three or four foods, including some foods they already liked along with the new items. Then, they were told to eat something, but were allowed to stop after 10 minutes and were rewarded with positive attention for any bites of food they did eat.
Gradually, the portion sizes of the new foods were increased, and by the end of the study, one of the kids was eating 65 different foods, the other, 49.
It’s an extreme method in some ways — one that takes a lot of time, patience and creativity on the part of a child’s caregiver. But broadly, the exposure method can be applied to any kid to make their eating habits more diverse, from the extremely food-averse to the slightly picky.