Japan Today
Picky eating in Japan is less common than in other countries, which may be partially attributed to the food culture at Japanese schools and day cares.
Picky eating in Japan is less common than in other countries, which may be partially attributed to the food culture at Japanese schools and day cares. Image: msg/Pixta

Prevent picky eating by kids with these top tips from Japanese day care facilities

By Victoria Lindsay

After my daughter was born in Tokyo, my husband and I began to discuss what type of childcare we’d want for her once I returned to work. After touring a few facilities, we settled on sending her to hoikuen, or Japanese day care. As Americans, we were eager for her to have an opportunity to learn Japanese from native speakers, as well as other cultural customs that would allow her to adapt and enjoy growing up here.

While much of our motivation to send her to hoikuen came from a desire for her to learn Japanese, I quickly found that the knowledge she gained from day care was more than just language-related. In addition to social customs and independent life skills, she and her peers learned about food, nutrition and proper eating behavior from the communal meals and snacks served each day.

One thing that stood out to me as a dietitian was the apparent lack of picky eating among her classmates. While I had heard that rates of picky eating were low in Japan, I was able to observe this firsthand during a parent observation day at my daughter’s hoikuen.

When lunch was served, I was surprised at how enthusiastically the children ate, even when served foods like vegetables. Seeing the children embrace a wide variety of nutritious foods made me reflect on how different my experience was when observing students eating lunch back in America.

If you struggle with picky eating in your household, consider using the following Japanese day care-inspired tips to increase food acceptance and promote a positive relationship with food.

Please note that for some children, these approaches may not be a good fit, particularly for those with certain medical conditions, developmental delays or severe selective eating. If your child has complex eating or feeding issues, consider seeking professional help from a trusted pediatrician, dietitian or feeding therapist. In addition, please note that these observations are based on my experience and may not be true for all hoikuen or other childcare facilities in Japan.

1. Consider the visual appeal of the meal

Small portion sizes and colorful plates like the ones used at this Japanese day care may appeal to picky eaters. Image: Victoria Lindsay

One of my initial observations after watching meals at my daughter’s hoikuen was how appealing the food was presented to the kids. Each food item was carefully plated in its dish, and the dishes used were small with pops of color or tiny cartoon characters on them. This gave the meal a fun and inviting effect, which was a far cry from the styrofoam trays used in my childhood cafeteria growing up.

In addition, I noticed that the portions served to the children were very small. While many parents fill up their child’s plate in hopes that they will eat it all, large portions of food may overwhelm young children. This can increase the pressure on selective eaters, which may result in resistance to try or to eat their food.

If you find that your child balks at new or different foods when they are served to them, try decreasing the portion sizes so that the food looks and feels less intimidating.

2. Implement structure at meals

Minimizing snacks and having a predictable meal schedule may encourage children to eat more and try new foods. Image: M-image/iStock

One effective strategy for getting kids to come to the table hungry and ready to try new foods is to implement more structure when planning meals and snacks. While parenting does require a degree of flexibility, having a dependable meal schedule helps children learn when to eat.

At my daughter’s hoikuen, children are only served snacks once a day in the afternoon. This means that when lunchtime rolls around, most kids are hungry after playing outside and are ready to sit down, focus and eat their meal.

In contrast, I often observe parents offering snacks several times a day in an effort to get their children to eat. This creates a negative cycle where the child won’t eat food at mealtime because they just snacked, which makes the parent offer even more snacks after meals.

Instead, stick to regular, predictable meal times and avoid providing excessive or unlimited snacks.

3. Look for positive eating role models

You can act as a healthy eating role model by letting your child see you eat and enjoy new and nutritious foods. Image: paylessimages/iStock

When observing meals at my daughter’s day care, I noticed the power of positive peer pressure as the kids ate. Looking around, a child eating with my daughter’s class might notice that all the other children are eating and trying the meal that was served. Noticing this may inspire that child to try a food they were hesitant about before because if everyone else is doing it, then maybe it isn’t so bad after all!

This effect was also observed by researchers in a 2023 study that looked at the lack of picky eating in Japan at in the Tokyo and Chiba areas.

To replicate this effect in your own home, try modeling the eating behavior you’d like to see in your own child. If you want your child to eat vegetables, then be sure to eat them yourself. Want them to be open to new foods? Try eating new foods in front of your child and talk to them about your experience.

In addition to modeling good eating behavior, you may also develop more empathy for what it’s like for them to sample unfamiliar food.

4. Give space for kids to eat and enjoy their meals

Forcing children to eat can backfire, so give your child space to explore their food without pressure. Image: Chairat Netsawai/iStock

Although the hoikuen teachers supervised the children as they ate their meals, I was pleased to see that they gave the kids space to enjoy the meal with minimal interference. I sometimes witness a well-meaning parent try to control their child’s meal by micromanaging every mouthful or applying pressure to get the child to eat “just one more bite!”

While the child may taste the food to appease the parent in the moment, continued use of this tactic often backfires. Instead of fostering a genuine enjoyment for the food, it may cause a negative association for your child as they may link the consumption of that food to force or pressure instead.

To avoid this, respect your child’s autonomy and allow them to explore their food without control, pressure or intrusion.

Although the meals that my family eat in our home don’t look identical to the ones at my daughter’s day care, I have enjoyed using these hoikuen-inspired food practices to support a healthy eating relationship for my child.

Wherever you and your family are, I hope that these tips can be useful when feeding your family, as well.

Victoria Lindsay, MS RD, is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant working at Tokyo Medical & Surgical Clinic and her Tokyo-based private practice. To get in touch, please visit: www.victorialindsayrd.com.

© Japan Today

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Yeah yeah yeah. Come tell us how perfect you are! Now when you’ve cooked cabbage, tomatoes,Brussels sprouts, broccoli etc etc and you’ve not got the time, or money to waste, and you’re a single parent struggling. Come and tell me how we can have all the same wonderful choice you have. That’s before you’ve even entertained the idea of food allergies. I do t think parents are going to serve food and spend money on buying the foods and then through it away. Sometimes you just gotta say…. Eat it up! I won’t force them to empty the plate, but sometimes you gotta get kids to try something they’ve never experienced before.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

It's interesting that feeding very young kids smooth peanut butter virtually eradicates peanut allergies in later life.

My children, growing up between here and the U.K,were fed literally everything,and now they have certain dislikes,but no allergies.

Certainly, being breastfed if possible is great,too.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Feeding children is not a science project. But this article makes some very good points. They are helpful and they just might work. My kid wouldn't eat a lot of different kinds of food but we didn't make a big deal out of it and she got on board when she was about seven. I wish I knew about the suggestions here. I bet they would have been helpful.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

First thing is stay at home and look after your child not hand them to these places where who knows what goes on.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

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