Does your kid ask for the same thing at every meal? Does she refuse to eat if her fruit is touching her chicken nugget? These scenarios are familiar to parents of picky eaters, and to be honest, to almost all toddler parents.
It’s stressful to worry that your child is not getting good nutrition or that outsiders judge her daily diet of macaroni and cheese.
Maybe it would help to understand why children are reluctant to eat new things. As Dan Pashman, host of the podcast The Sporkful, has observed doesn’t it make sense for a child to be wary about putting unfamiliar things in her mouth?
If we left our picky eaters to survive in the wild, they would be more likely to avoid poisoning.
Expect children to go through a slow, iterative process before fully accepting a new food. Over the course of several exposures, they might first only look at the new food. Then as it becomes familiar, they will touch, play with, lick, or bite and spit out before actually eating it. Think of any interaction with the food as progress.
Try to understand how bizarre and scary a new food experience may feel to your child. Remember the first time you tried raw oysters? Oh, you have never tried raw oysters? Well, why not? Because they are terrifying and weird? That’s how some kids feel about vegetables or meat or lumpy things.
If you want to do a deep dive on all the expert advice, Amazon currently sells hundreds of books about picky eating. You could read through them until your kid graduates from college, but all that advice boils down to a few basic strategies.
Decide who is in charge of each part of the mealtime process
Feeding specialist Ellyn Satter advocates a “division of responsibility”in the adult-child eating dynamic.
According to Satter, parents should choose and prepare food on a regular schedule, make meals pleasant, and be an example of good mealtime behaviour. A child is responsible for deciding how much to eat, learning to eat what’s offered, and learning to behave well at meals.
Offer one meal for the whole family
The key is to make sure that meal includes one thing each person likes. From there, your tone and actions both set the example and encourage an open mind about trying new things.
Stick to a schedule
If meals and snacks are at the same time every day, your child has a chance to get hungry and has less opportunity to demand something off the menu. (In theory, anyway.)
You want your children to see others enjoying a variety of foods and gain courage to try new things. Maybe it’s impossible to get the whole family to eat at the same time every night. When can you come together? Two dinners a week? Sunday mornings? Even eating most meals with one parent or sibling can help.
Make food fun
As much as I would love to have mess-free meals, my reluctant eater is free to play with her food. She needs to touch it and smash it to learn to accept different textures. Less messy ways to keep it fun include serving dips with veggies, or arranging food in shapes and faces.
Allegedly, kids like frozen vegetables. I can’t wait to try this tip. Imagine your picky child happily eating frozen peas, and you don’t even have to cook them, then wait for them to cool down, then pick them up off the floor, then skulk away defeated.
Use a “taste plate” for new foods. Sometimes a full serving can be intimidating. With a taste plate, you can offer just a bite of different things (and be sure nothing is touching!)
Don’t force it
Creating negative feeding experiences will only backfire. I coerced many spoonfuls into a 6-month-old’s mouth only to end up with a toddler who refuses to use a spoon. That is not to say we as parents are to blame for picky eating. But it is good to know what actions can help or make it worse.
You know, “If you taste your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” Experts say this trick will only reinforce a kid’s belief that vegetables are undesirable and dessert is the real goal. I have to be honest, I have said many times, “No you can’t have a cookie/popsicle/ice cream until you finish your dinner.”
I can’t even wrap my head around the alternative: “Here’s your cookie and tomatoes, but I have no opinion about which of them you eat and in what order.” Again, I am not an expert, just another mum trying to figure it out.
As Pashman told us, “Don’t stress so much about it! We just did an episode of The Sporkful podcast called “In Defence Of Picky Eaters. Especially among kids ages three to six, picky eating is so common you can hardly even call it picky. Provided your child is growing and the paediatrician says they’re ok, it’s pretty normal.”
But do trust your gut. If you are concerned your child is not growing, is nutrient deficient, or has sensory or development issues that go beyond “picky,” definitely talk to your paediatrician. Problems that extend beyond normal choosiness include OCD, anorexia and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). A professional can either reassure you things are fine or refer you to feeding specialists who can take a closer look.