Of all the anxiety-producing tasks that parents are required to perform for their children, one of the hardest is feeding them a nutritious diet. Picky eating is very common among children and is a significant source of worry among parents. It can take many forms. Some children will only eat a very limited selection of foods. Some are unwilling to try new foods. Others will only eat them prepared in a certain way. Vegetables are often seen as the enemy with the dinner table acting as the battleground. Parents beg, plead, negotiate, or command their children to eat, usually with limited success. I know firsthand just how frustrating and anger-inducing it can be to fight day after day to get your child to eat a variety of healthy foods, only to be met with the strong will of a child who refuses to comply with your mealtime demands. So how can you change your mealtime script? Here are 12 practical tips to transform picky eaters.
1. Always include “safe” options
When children are faced with a plate full of unfamiliar foods they can feel overwhelmed and panicked. This can lead to a refusal to eat anything. To prevent this from happening, make sure there is always at least one food item on their plate that you know they like. By always including this “safe” option, you allow them to start their meal feeling relaxed, making them more likely to try new foods.
2. Keep portions small
When adding new foods to your child’s plate, make sure the portions are really small. By small, I mean one or two peas, one or two pieces of pasta, or one slice of cucumber. Any more than that and you risk your child not wanting them to even be on their plate.
3. Take it slowly and don’t give up
Be prepared to take things really slowly. At first you just want your child to tolerate having the new food on their plate. The second step is touching the food, then sniffing it, licking it, and finally eating it. But that process might take weeks. Take it slowly. Don’t give up. Keep putting the new food on their plate. It might take a week before they will touch it, and then another two weeks before they will sniff it. That is ok. As long as they have their “safe” food options to keep their tummies full, you can let them take their time with new foods.
4. Keep it low key
Try to create a pleasant eating environment that does not focus on the food. Don’t watch your child’s every move to see if they are going to try something new. And if they do try something new, try to refrain from clapping and celebrating this milestone. Drawing such attention to your child’s eating habits can make mealtimes and new foods even more daunting. Keep it low key. Notice what they eat, but save the high fives until after your children have gone to bed.
5. Get your children involved
You have probably heard this many times before, but it really works. Getting your children involved in the food preparation will make them more inclined to try new foods. It won’t necessarily mean that they like them, but just trying them is a huge achievement. Let them help choose vegetables at the farmers market or the store. Encourage them to help prepare food in the kitchen. Give them some choices of what to eat for dinner. You don’t have to let them chose the main meal, but they could help decide on the vegetable side dish (do you want carrots or broccoli tonight?)
6. Hide some, show some
Some people are against hiding children’s vegetables. They argue that by hiding them, you are not teaching your children to enjoy eating fresh produce. Others argue that hiding vegetables is a great way to ensure your children are getting the nutrients they need. I do both. I hide some vegetables in other foods to make sure my children are getting their vitamins and minerals. For example, I make breakfast pancakes with spinach or mac and cheese with cauliflower in the sauce. But I also like to keep some vegetables visible. I want to normalize vegetables and remove the villainous persona they seem to have amongst young people. So in addition to the hidden vegetables, I also include fresh, whole vegetables at every meal. They often get ignored, but they are there for when my children are ready to try them.
7. Eat family style meals
Family style meals involve putting food on platters in the middle of the table and allowing diners to help themselves. This is an excellent way to encourage picky eaters to try new foods. It gives you control to choose the foods that are made available to your children at mealtimes. It then hands control over to your children to decide what and how much to eat. Just try to keep the ingredients separate. For example, if you are planning on making a large salad or tacos, don’t combine the ingredients. Place them on the table in separate bowls. Children are often put off by foods that are mixed together, or they will refuse to eat a whole dish because there is one ingredient they don’t like.
8. Have meals with friends whose children eat
Even better than family style meals are family style meals with friends whose children are adventurous eaters. When children see their friends chowing down on a delicious corn on the cob, they are more likely to give it a try themselves. Outdoor summertime BBQs are an excellent time to try this out.
9. Encourage mindful eating
Mindful eating involves paying attention to all aspects of eating, including both internal and external sensations. The idea is that, by paying full attention, we eat when we are hungry and we stop when we are full. Encouraging your children to be aware of their hunger and fullness cues allows them to control the amount they eat. Talk to your children about how their tummies feel before, during, and after a meal. When they declare that they don’t want any more food, you can ask questions like “is your stomach telling you that you are full?” or “is your stomach still making the hungry growling noise?”. This helps your children become aware of their hunger and fullness cues. Your role is then to respect your children’s ability to read those cues and not force them to clean their plates.
10. Keep children hungry for meals
While it is important to respect your child’s hunger and fullness cues, it is also important to make sure they are hungry for their meals. If your child complains of being hungry one hour before dinner, it is fine to give them a healthy snack. However, if your child complains of being hungry 15 minutes before dinner, then you have two options. The first is to explain that they should be hungry because it is almost mealtime and that it is too late to snack now. The second is to offer them some chopped fruit or vegetables that would otherwise be a part of their dinner. That way if they do start to fill themselves up, at least it is nutritious and it is part of their meal anyway. What you don’t want to do is let them snack all afternoon so that they aren’t hungry for dinner.
11. Model healthy eating
Children love to mimic their parents. In fact, they learn more from copying us than from listening to our words. If you eat a nutritious and varied diet filled with healthy fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein, and whole grains, chances are they will start to copy you… eventually.
12. Take comfort in the healthy foods they do like and don’t force them to eat others
If your child likes cucumber and tomatoes, but broccoli makes them gag, let them eat cucumber and tomatoes. If they only eat fruit but won’t touch vegetables with a 10-foot barge pole, let them eat fruit. Take comfort in the nutritious foods they do eat, and try not to force them to eat foods that they don’t like. That is not to say that you should not keep offering them, but don’t push them to eat something they really don’t like. Try to make mealtimes pleasant and relaxing.
The bottom line is that feeding picky eaters is extremely common and incredibly frustrating to deal with. Mealtimes often become a battleground between well-meaning parents and strong-willed children, making the problem even worse. But with time and perseverance, these 12 practical tips to transform picky eaters can help encourage your child to become a more adventurous eater.