Having a child who is a picky eater can be hard. You want them to get the nutrition they need and have a good relationship with food, but it’s hard to know how to foster that when the child refuses to eat, well, pretty much everything.

It helps to understand why some kids are picky eaters. Picky eating usually starts around age 2, which is when children start walking, grabbing things, and generally having more control over what they put in their mouths. Evolutionarily speaking, there’s a good reason for children to be picky eaters (they’ll be less likely to poison themselves). The picky eating stage – which usually peaks around age 6 – is generally about children trying to categorize which foods are safe and acceptable. They’re just trying to make sense of it all in their minds.

French researchers at the Paul Bocuse Institute and Aix Marseille University reviewed several methods to help fussy eaters become more comfortable trying and eating new foods. The good news is, there are lots of effective strategies to try, many of which are reviewed in their article. In today’s post, I’m going to keep it simple and focus only on the ones that involve how you plate your child’s food. These are some of my favorite tricks because  you don’t need to spend a lot of extra time or effort to make them happen. Some times the littlest tweaks can add up to make a pretty big difference.

1. It’s All in the Presentation

Fostering a good relationship with food for your picky eater is all about helping them better identify foods as being safe – and delicious! Studies show that children who are picky eaters rely chiefly on sight to determine whether or not they will like a food. So, the more appealing we can make a food look, the more likely your child will be to eat and enjoy it.

Think about all those late-night food commercials that convince you to eat foods you normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. You can thank a team of marketers, food stylists and talented videographer for that. But you can also learn from it. I’m not saying you need to plate food like a master chef, or anything even remotely close to that. But sometimes a little extra care in how you lay it out can take a food from “meh” to “that doesn’t look so bad after all.”

2. What All Graphic Designers Know: White Space Matters

Has your child ever freaked out because the food on his/her plate was touching each other? My kids have. And while it’s enormously frustrating, respect it. Remember that kids don’t have the same years as experience with food as we do. They are still trying to compartmentalize what different foods taste and feel like. When foods are touching – it makes it harder for your child to figure out and that can be stressful.

There should be ample space between each food – more than you think. As a graphic designer would say, “Never diminish the importance of white space.”

Another solution is to simply put each ingredient in its own plate or bowl. A while ago I bought a bunch of mini bowls (sort of like these) and, I swear, they have been the best money every spent.

3. Easy on the Sauce

Don’t cover a new food in a sauce – it makes it harder for your picky eater to understand what the new food looks like. Plus, it seems a little deceptive and mealtime should be about building trust.

If your child has a favorite sauce (like marinara), it can help act as a “flavor bridge” to get them to try and like a new food. But start off using the sauce as a dip.

4. Keep Things Varied

Studies show that children ages 5-12 prefer plates that have a variety of food items, and a variety of colors (as long as there is lots of space between each food item). In fact, one study found that kids prefer plates that have six colors and seven foods on it [read this post for more on that].

This is great because diverse, colorful plates tend to be packed with nutrition. Furthermore, a monotonous diet can actually lead kids to begin to dislike foods that they eat every day.

5. Give It Eye-Appeal

Children strongly prefer food that has been somehow modified to look more appealing. I admit, I have ZERO patience for those adorable little bento-style lunches that take tweezers and hours of time to make. So I typically take a more efficient approach. I often make mini kabobs with toothpicks (using whatever veggies, meat/cheese I have on hand). Or if you’re feeling a little more ambitious, you can use cookie cutters [read this post] to shape fruit and veggie slices, or even sandwiches.

Do you have any plating tricks that help your child eat better? Share in the comments below.

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