How to Get Picky Eaters to Eat
As a parent, how often does this scenario happen in your home? You spent all afternoon making an incredibly delicious and well-balanced Pinterest-worthy dinner, only to have it completely rejected by your kid as if you are trying to feed him dog food. If this happens often, you might have a picky eater on your hands. Maybe you feel like you have tried everything to get your picky eater to eat and they still only want a few favorite foods or seem to not eat at all. How can you get a picky eater to eat? We put together some of our best picky eater tips to help you cope, but also maybe get them eating.
It takes 15-20 exposures to a new food for some children to even want to taste it. This can be frustrating for adults who just want the child to try just one bite. But, remember that to a child the whole world is new, so there is a lot of comfort in familiarity, so it’s not a surprise they want what’s familiar. The food becomes familiar, they may be more likely to try it. To make a food familiar continue to put the food on their plate, but don’t argue with them about eating it. Instead, just talk about the food, how it smells, tastes, etc. so they can get used to it being there. Remember, this can take a lot longer than you would like, so be patient.
Don’t Get Upset
Picky eating is frequently about control. When a child sees you lose your patience or get angry that only puts more attention to the problem. If they don’t want to eat something, don’t react, just take the food away. The more casual you are about their behavior, the less likely they will continue to do it because they are not getting a reaction from you.
If a child hates peas, they cannot be expected to eat a whole bowl full of peas just because it’s what is being served for dinner. Instead encourage them to try just one pea and consider that a success if they do. The next time you serve peas, they won’t be quite so foreign and they may be willing to eat two. You really need to start that small.
Build on Success
A strategy that is frequently used in food clinics to get children to eat is called food chaining or graduated exposure. If a child likes a particular food, let’s say a specific type of mac and cheese, the first step is to introduce a new shape of noodle in the mac and cheese, then maybe switch to a different brand, then add some veggies or protein. So, when you start with a food the child already likes and just start to add in variation, they are more likely to continue to try new things.
Maintain a routine
Keep mealtimes and snacks at around the same time every day. If a child chooses to skip a meal, they can still have a snack at the prescribed time. This will help regulate their appetite and also give you some peace of mind knowing that a nutritious snack is coming up and they won’t starve.
Don’t get into the “just one bite” and you can have a dessert, watch a movie, or play with a favorite toy. Food is not currency and should not be used as a negotiating tactic by you or your child.
Avoid Liquids Before Meals
Allowing your child to drink milk, juice, or even water too close to meal time can fill up their tummy and prevent them from eating their food. Instead, take away any sippy cups about 30 minutes before meals and don’t give them any beverages until they have had at least a few bites.
Please add avoid sugary drinks ….
Be Wary of Too Many Snacks
Although children do need one or two snacks per day for a healthy diet, try to avoid too many snacks, particularly close to meal time. Have snacks built into their daily eating schedule instead. Fruits and vegetables make great snack for kids because they aren’t quite as filling and offer a ton of vitamins and minerals.
Pay attention to natural hunger patterns.
Start to notice the times when your child is hungry. Do they always want food around 4pm, but dinner isn’t until 5? Consider moving dinner up or adding in a heavier snack around 3pm to prevent them from ruining their dinner. Also, it is normal for a child’s appetite to fluctuate based on growth or activity level, so don’t be surprised if one day they eat like a horse and like a bird the next.
Don’t Be a Short-Order Cook
There is no piece of advice more important than this one. Parents tend to panic if a child refuses to eat and start to offer a whole host of other foods trying to get them to eat something. This only encourages picky eating to continue because the child learns that if they reject food, they can have something else. If a child doesn’t want to eat, move on to the next activity, do not make or offer something else. They will make up the calories missed at the next meal.
Sit at the Table
Young children in particular have very short attention spans, even for eating. If they are not required to sit at the table to eat, they may just continue to play and forget about eating all together. Make meal time an event all of its own where everyone sits down together to eat. At the same time, don’t expect them to sit for long, usually once they are satisfied they will want to go back to playing.
Model Healthy Eating
Children learn by imitating others, so when they see you eating healthy, they are more likely to eat healthy themselves. A healthy diet is good for the whole family.
Although many adults may eat in front of the TV, this is too distracting for children. Turn off the television, tablet, or any electronics at meal time. Put away toys that are distracting if necessary. Meal time should be about eating, talking, and spending time together.
Most young children get pretty cranky before nap or bedtime. This may not be the best time to introduce a new food. The food may be more accepted at breakfast or as an after-nap snack, so consider your timing when you want your child to try something new. The better their mood, the more likely the trial will go over well.
Invite Over Friends Who are Good Eaters
Children model adult behavior but are even more likely to model the behavior of other children, especially if the children are a little bit older. If you have a friend with a child who is a good eater, invite that child over for a meal. If your child sees them eating broccoli, cauliflower, or other vegetables, they will be much more likely to try it also.
Make it Fun
At the end of the day, kids want to have fun and mealtime is no exception. Although it shouldn’t be so fun it distracts them from eating completely, there is nothing wrong with adding a little play into meal times. Shape foods into smiley faces or other fun shapes. Sing a song about the food before serving it. Or give the food a funny or different name that will appeal to your child’s sense of humor and encourage them to try it.
Sneak veggies into spaghetti sauce, mac and cheese, or casseroles. Top cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt with fruit. Make meals into times when your kid can also express their creativity by choosing what different options they want to add to their meal. So, make a taco bar, parfait bar, or soup bar. Put out various toppings and let them choose what they want to add, tailoring the meal to their personal tastes.
Appeal to Their Taste Preferences
Kids like food that is bland, sweet, and served cool or warm. They don’t generally like spicy, overly flavored, or bitter foods. They have more taste buds on their tongue than adults, so strong flavors can be overwhelming. Consider this when planning family meals and look for recipes that can accommodate their taste buds.
Young kids love to dip. Providing any type of dip at meals, whether it be ketchup, salad dressing, or any type of sauce, may encourage kids to try a new food. Maybe they will even eat a few veggies if paired with the right dip.
Meal plan together
If your child is old enough, enlist their help with meal planning. Allow them to select meals from a few different pre-determined options or allow them to make suggestions of meals they might like. The more control they have over what they eat, the more likely they are to eat it.
Grocery Shop as a Family
At the grocery store, ask your child to help you pick out fruits and vegetables for the week. Encourage them to pick something they have never tried or are curious about.
Get Their Help in the Kitchen
Depending on your child’s age, give them a task in the kitchen. Can they wash vegetables or stir something? Can they select veggies for a salad? The more they are engaged with meal prep, the more likely they will want to eat the meal. Also, being able to cook is a great skill to have as an adult too!
Grow a Garden
A child is much more likely to eat a fruit or veggie that they grew themselves. A garden also helps them connect to where food comes from. Even if you don’t have a backyard, many plants can be grown in pots on patios or even grow a few herbs on a windowsill. Caring for a garden also teaches them responsibility of keeping something alive.
Keep a Food Log
If you really feel like your kid is barely eating, keep a food journal of what they are willing to eat. This can give you an objective measure of what their intake is. You may realize they eat more than you thought or maybe less. But, if you have a record of what they eat and how much, you can use it to talk to their doctor about their eating habits.
Get Professional Help
If the picky eating seems to be getting worse or your child is truly only willing to eat less than 10 foods, you may need professional help. If they are not growing properly, that may also be a problem. Some kids do have issues with texture, swallowing, or other developmental problems that prevent them from eating properly. Ask their doctor as a place to start to see if they can refer you to a specialist if they think that is needed.
These tips for picky eaters are just a few suggestions to get started tackling the problem. The important thing is to try not to turn mealtime into a battle of wills. Fighting over food only results in a power struggle and may cause issues around eating. Instead you want to encourage good eating behaviors by providing tasty, quality food in a structured environment so you can have good eater for life. Many kids who are picky eaters are either struggling for control or just trying to get a reaction from a parent.
Although it’s very challenging to have patience, it’s important not to fuel this behavior. At the end of the day, it is the parent’s decision of what to serve, but the child’s decision about how much they will eat. For some children, these picky eating tips may not work, so sometimes a professional may have to intervene. But, for most families the key to a happy meal time is patience and consistency.