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This article was reviewed by a team of experts, including Alli Delozier, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist. View full list of reviewers below.
Justin was visiting his grandparents for the Thanksgiving holiday. Per tradition, Justin’s grandmother had prepared a huge Thanksgiving meal for the family.
She began serving everyone at the table from bowls and plates scattered around. When she made her way to Justin’s plate, he placed his hands over top to keep her from scooping the mashed sweet potatoes onto his plate.
Justin’s grandmother asked, “Justin, do you not want any sweet potatoes?”
Justin remained silent and kept his hands hovering over the plate.
“Have you had sweet potatoes before?” His grandmother asked.
“No. It looks like clay!”
“Sweetheart, I assure you, this is not clay. Sweet potatoes are very delicious! I will just put a spoonful on your plate. Just give it a taste, you’ll see!”
Justin watched with fear as she scooped some mashed sweet potatoes onto his plate. As she walked away, Justin placed a piece of bread over the potatoes to hide them from sight. He finished his meal, leaving the sweet potatoes untouched.
Have you had a similar experience? Do you have a selective eater who won’t try new foods? We are here to help you and your picker eater navigate these situations and thrive at mealtimes. This is our guide to teach you how to get your child to eat sweet potatoes. In this article, we seek to inform and provide insight into:
- The benefits of sweet potatoes for kids
- How to serve sweet potatoes to picky eaters
- How to talk about sweet potatoes to help your child try them
- How to help your child understand what sweet potatoes do in their body
- A food activity that will help your picker eater learn to be more comfortable with sweet potatoes.
The Benefits of Sweet Potatoes for Kids
What’s the buzz about orange-fleshed sweet potatoes? Here are a few benefits sweet potatoes offer kids and picky eaters:
Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, an antioxidant which gives them their orange color and vitamin A. Vitamin A contributes to eye and vision health.
Sweet potatoes contain manganese, which plays a role in brain functionality and health.
Sweet potatoes also contain vitamin B6, which is associated with supporting a good mood.
With sweet potatoes offering so many health benefits, it’s no wonder Justin’s grandmother loves to serve them at her family meals – they provide many important nutrients!
How to Serve Sweet Potatoes to Picky Eaters
Sweet potatoes can be served in many different ways, but are usually best served hot. The most common is sweet potato fries, mashed sweet potatoes or baked sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes can be made into pies as well. If you have a picky eater who is hesitant to try sweet potatoes due to texture issues, try switching up the way they are served.
Additionally, you can try serving “micro portions” when introducing new foods like sweet potato to kids and toddlers. A micro portion is a serving size of food that is really tiny–usually as small as a thumb or pinky fingernail. This method works to introduce the food in a non-threatening way, while also decreasing food waste that sometimes results from fussy eaters refusing to eat.
Finally, we highly encourage feeding kids with a no-pressure approach. Putting pressure on kids to eat foods can often cause them to refuse the food even more. Pressure can be presented in a lot of different ways, and sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint what counts as pressure. Here are some examples of things adults say to try to pressure kids into eating new foods:
“Please, just eat what’s on your plate.”
“I made it just like you like it. Just try it.”
“If you eat your vegetables you will get dessert.”
Remember Justin’s grandmother’s words? “I will just put a spoonful on your plate. Just give it a taste, you’ll see!” She had the best intentions, but the unintentional pressure she put on Justin to eat his mashed sweet potatoes backfired.
How to Talk About Sweet Potatoes to Help Your Child Try Them
The words you use when talking about food have a big impact on a picky eater, even when the words are positive. “Try this sweet potato mash; it’s so good.” If the child does try it and dislikes the food, “good” will not be a helpful word to use in the future.
Also, they may now believe that you are tricking them into thinking something is “good” when it turns out that it was “not good” to them. We want to avoid this.
Negative words are also unhelpful to a picky eater. When picky eaters use negative words (“yucky, that looks like dirt!”) they are more likely to remain picky. It confirms how they think they feel, so they will continue the behavior.
It is important to replace positive and negative words with neutral and descriptive words. Neutral words describe the characteristics of the food and do not assign the food a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ value. It’s important to be objective.
Here are a few examples of neutral words to describe sweet potatoes:
- Orange/brown/tan or purple inside
- Brown skin
- Soft or crunchy
- Rough outer skin
Justin’s grandmother could have said, “Sweet potatoes have rough skin and they are sometimes orange inside. Sweet potatoes become soft when we cook them.”
How to Help Your Child Understand What Sweet Potatoes Do in Their Body
Keep in mind that the way we explain, describe and talk about food is impactful. A strategy we recommend is explaining what a particular food does in the body in a way that your child can understand. You can help bridge the gap between the food they eat and their bodies. The connection is powerful long term and can encourage your child to try a new food.
Here are a few examples of how to approach the conversation based on age range:
Age 0-3: Orange foods help keep your eyes strong.
Age 3-5: Sweet potatoes help us keep our eyes strong.
Age 6-11: Sweet potatoes make our eyes strong so we can see better in low light.”
Age 12-18: Sweet potatoes contain vitamin A, which helps you see better and prevent issues related to seeing overall.
Justin’s grandmother could have added, “Sweet potatoes have vitamin A, which helps our eyes grow strong.”
Sweet Potato Food Activity
Food play is an important tool for picky kids and selective eaters. It provides many avenues of exploring, learning, and engagement with food. Food play is important for its role in desensitization.
Desensitization is a term used to describe the process of becoming less “surprised” by a stimulus based on how it looks, smells, sounds or tastes. Desensitization works by allowing the child to interact with the food and become immersed in how it may feel or look. Essentially, the food becomes more familiar.
What could food play look like? Here is an example of a sweet potato activity for kids.
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: 102+ Food Play Activities for Kids.
Sweet Potato Tub Wash
Age group: 18+ months
- Scrub brushes (could be unused toothbrushes)
- Bag of sweet potatoes
- Mashed and diced sweet potatoes (for more texture options)
- Fill a sink or bucket with water.
- Have your child empty the bag of sweet potatoes into the sink.
- With your child, use the brushes to wash the sweet potatoes.
- Prepare other forms of sweet potatoes (if desired).
For even more engagement with older kids, turn it into a little competition and see who can scrub the sweet potatoes the fastest. They may also be able to use child-safe knives as well!
We encourage you to praise your child for helping prepare a meal with you. Praising the behavior of preparing here can positively associate the act of contributing to family meals without actually putting any emphasis on the food or the act of eating.
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
Johane Filemon, RD
Laura Petix, M.S., OTR/L
Erinn Jacobi, M.S., OTR/L
Stefanie Kain, B.S., M.Ed
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