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Taco night. Everyone’s favorite night. Everyone except for Sam, that is. Sam is a picky eater, and she has never enjoyed taco night. Her parents always say the same thing to her at these dinners.
“Sam, you can’t just eat tortillas and cheese. You need to add some protein!” her stepmom would always remark.
Sam had no idea what protein was. All she knew was that stuff felt wet and bumpy in her hand, and there was no way she was eating it.
This caused serious mealtime struggles at the dinner table and Sam’s picky eating got worse!
We know how her stepmom feels. It’s difficult when you think your picky eater isn’t getting what they need. We want to help you get out of these food battles. Reversing picky eating is a long term process, and we’re going to help you tackle it! Here’s everything you need to know to help teach your child to eat beef. You’ll find out:
- How to serve beef to picky eaters
- The benefits of beef for kids
- How to talk about beef to help your child try it
- How to help your child understand what beef does in their body
- A food activity that will help your picky eater learn to be more comfortable with beef
How to Serve Beef to Picky Eaters
Beef, like other foods, can be inconsistent in its texture. Different cuts of beef can look and feel very different from each other. These differences can make it challenging for picky eaters to learn to eat beef. Different beef textures also require different levels of oral motor chewing patterns. Typically, ground beef is easiest to chew, followed by shredded beef. “Whole” beef, like steak, is hardest to chew and sometimes present as if it is picky eating based on texture but it can be an oral motor skills gap. Ground beef can be a good starting place, and working your way through the different cuts and textures of beef will be key. Don’t be discouraged if your child tries beef one day and refuses the next. Keep exposing them to the food and serving it in different ways to encourage your child to try it.
When you’re serving any food to a child, especially picky eaters, our recommendation is that you don’t pressure a child to try it. When Sam’s stepmom told her that she “needed” to eat beef, Sam immediately resisted. Her stepmom meant well, and she didn’t realize that her concern for Sam’s nutrition was actually pressuring in disguise!
There are several ways that pressure is accidently used at mealtimes. Here are a few examples:
“When you finish your beef, you can have your tortilla.”
“You need to have a balanced meal. Eat your ground beef too.”
“You have to eat it, or you can’t have gummies.”
Once you start removing pressure from your meals, you may see it helps your child learn to like new foods on their own timeline.
Additionally, serving small portions of new foods may make them less intimidating for a fussy eater. We refer to small portions as micro portions. In Sam’s case, she may have been more willing to try beef in her taco if it was a small amount of beef. Her stepmom could have continued to serve larger portions over time as Sam got more used to the food.
The Benefits of Beef for Kids
Beef is great for children because it provides so many different essential nutrients. Beef is high in protein, which helps our children’s muscles and bones grow. It is also high in zinc. Zinc is important for supporting kids’ metabolism, digestion and nerve function.
Another benefit of beef is that it’s a good source of iron for children. Iron is an important transportation agent inside the body that helps red blood cells carry oxygen to the lungs and other tissues.
With so many essential vitamins and nutrients packed into a high-protein food like beef, it is no surprise that Sam’s stepmom thought it was really important for her to have some in her taco.
How to Talk About Beef to Help Your Child Try It
Picky kids tend to lean on negative language when talking about food. “This is too brown!” “It looks slimy.” “It smells funny!” This negative language doesn’t improve their picky eating. It contributes to them remaining picky. Also, this attitude toward foods makes it difficult for picky eaters to learn to try any new foods.
What’s the solution? Give them new words to use! You can help your child use new words through your own actions. This is called modeling. Using a wide variety of neutral words (neither negative nor positive) when speaking about foods or meals will be key in this strategy.
When you use positive words to talk about foods, a selective eater could be suspicious and think you are trying to trick them into eating something yucky. If you use negative words, your picky eater surely won’t be tempted to try it. Neutral words assist children in understanding that they could learn how to enjoy a new food one day.
Changing the way you speak about foods won’t immediately get your child to try beef. We find it to be an important part of the strategy in getting your child to eat beef in the long run.
Here are some terms you can use to describe beef to your picky eater:
- Fine (if ground)
- Tiny (if ground)
- Strong smell
Instead of talking about why she wanted Sam to eat the beef, her stepmom could have said, “This is ground beef. It is brown and fine. It is wet and has a salty taste.”
How to Help Your Child Understand What Beef Does in Their Body
How we talk about foods with fussy eaters (or any children!) can have an impact on whether they try a new food or not. For example, if you say, “this food is good for you,” your child may decide they don’t want to eat it before they even try it, just based on the fact that you said it was good.
Trying to convince a child like Sam that she needs to eat beef usually doesn’t end in the child eating the food. In our experience, it leads to a mealtime struggle. You can instead reduce these struggles by starting to talk about what foods do in your child’s body when the conversation naturally arises.
The goal is to share facts about the food that click in a child’s mind. When we help them make the connection that food does something in their body, they can understand more about the new food, and sometimes, it becomes less scary.
Will talking about what foods do in the body inspire your fussy child to try something new right away? Not usually. But it is one step in the process of your child learning to try a new food.
Here are some examples of things to say about beef:
Age 0-3: Brown foods give you energy to run and play.
Age 3-5: Beef gives your body the power it needs to help your bones grow.
Age 6-11: Beef has something called protein. Protein helps you grow taller and gives your bones and muscles their strength.
Age 12-18: Beef has protein that helps your muscles and bones grow. It also has iron, which is important for helping red blood cells carry oxygen to the lungs and other tissues in our bodies.
When Sam’s stepmom talked about the beef, she emphasized that it was a protein. Sam is just a kid and doesn’t know what a protein is or why she should care. Instead, her stepmom could have said, “Beef has something called protein, which helps you grow and build strength in your muscles.” Sam may have had an easier time understanding that explanation and been able to focus on how beef works inside her body.
Beef Food Activity
Food play activities are one way kids can have fun while they learn to accept new foods. When picky eaters look at, touch, smell, and eventually taste a new food, they may be learning to like it.
Food activities also desensitize the body’s sensory system. When a sense is new to the brain, the brain may automatically perceive it as a danger and may trigger the fight or flight system. “Desensitize” means that your child’s body becomes more used to the food. Then, when your child is with the food, it doesn’t seem SO brown, SO wet, or SO salty to them. When your child’s body and brain gets used to the food, they may be able to learn to taste it. They may also learn to like it as well.
Food activities can be as simple as letting your child stir a part of the meal in the kitchen. They can also be more involved if you have the time and energy for it!
Don’t expect beef activities alone to convince your child to learn to like beef in the next few weeks. This process can take patience, don’t give up! Selective eaters have to go through many stages of being with beef, including looking at it, smelling it, tasting it and touching it, to learn to accept it. Start small with looking and smelling activities, then work up to more interactive activities like touching and tasting the food.
We’ve got a fun beef food play activity for you to try below. If you need more food activity ideas broken down by age of child (0 to 10-years-old) and stage of learning to like new foods, you may enjoy our food activities guide: Food Play Every Day.
Here is a beef activity that Sam’s parents could do to teach her to eat beef.
Nacho Construction Site
- 1 cup finely ground cooked beef
- Scoops tortilla chips
- Spoons, bottle caps, Legos or mini construction toys
- Spread the finely chopped and cooled ground beef onto the plate. It will act as the terrain for the construction site.
- Add tortilla chip scoops. Fill some of them with ground beef as an invitation for your child to dump it out, move it, fill it, etc.
- Place a spoon, bottle caps, Legos or some small construction toys on the plate to encourage interaction with the ground beef.
- You can add other nacho toppings that your child typically enjoys if you think they are ready. Try making up fun names for them. Shredded cheese can be “hay for the farm” and corn niblets can be “building blocks” or let your child decide what they are and how they fit in!
- If you take the tortilla chips, bottle caps and “mini” toys out and replace them with larger scoopers or toys, you can do this activity with children under 4 as well!
For variations and more ideas, get Food Play Every Day: 102+ Food Activities for Kids!
Thanks for Being Part of Our Community That’s Teaching Kids to Eat More Foods!
About Kids Eat in Color
Kids Eat in Color gives parents the tools they need to teach their kids to eat veggies and try foods without a battle! From introducing new foods to a picky eater, to reducing meal-time stress, to taking off some of the burdens of meal planning, shopping, and cooking, we are here for parents.
Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN
Alli Delozier, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Laura Petix, M.S., OTR/L
Erinn Jacobi, M.S., OTR/L
Stefanie Kain, B.S., M.Ed
“Every Bite Counts – Feeding Beef to Your Baby.” Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner. Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/nutrition/beef-in-the-early-years.
Kubala, Jillian. “Zinc: Everything You Need to Know.” Healthline, November 14, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/zinc.
Wartenberg, Lisa. “How Much Iron Do You Need Per Day?” Medically reviewed by Katherine Marengo. Healthline, December 9, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-iron-per-day.
Cronometer. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://cronometer.com/#foods.
Cherry, Kendra. “How the Fight or Flight Response Works.” Edited by Steven Gans. The American Institute of Stress, August 21, 2019. https://www.stress.org/how-the-fight-or-flight-response-works.
Martin1, Laura J. “Red Blood Cell Production – Video.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 13, 2020. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/anatomyvideos/000104.htm.