Do you have a picky eater at home? Are you feeling frustrated or defeated by the constant mealtime mayhem? Do you worry about your child’s nutrition? If so, you are not alone! In fact, up to 35% of toddlers and preschoolers are described by their parents as being picky eaters.
The good news: In most cases, picky eating is a normal part of your child’s development. Plus, if you serve a good variety of healthy foods every day, chances are they are getting the nutrition they need for good health.
Just like learning to read, children have to learn to accept and enjoy different foods. This can take time! Children also like to test boundaries and express their independence, which unfortunately can come out at mealtimes. Although frustrating for parents, there are things you can do to help your child learn to like new foods and keep mealtimes positive.It’s important to remember YOUR Job and Stick to It!
Parents: Your job is to decide what to serve for meals and snacks and when and where they are eaten.Children: Get to decide if and how much to eat from the foods you serve.
Eat Meals Together, Without DistractionsFamily meals are SO important! They really do form the basis for kids to learn to be good eaters, plus they have many benefits besides nutrition. If your family eats together even some of the time, you’re on the right track! If family meals aren’t the norm in your home, make this a top priority to fit in at least a few family meals each week. This can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
One Meal and One Meal Only!Repeat after me: “I am not a short order cook”!!!
So many well-meaning parents who are concerned that their child hasn’t touched their meal will jump up from the table to make their kid a peanut butter sandwich, or cook up some noodles with butter, just so they eat SOMETHING!
But let’s face it, kids are smart. If they know they will get one of their ‘safe’ foods if they simply refuse to eat, then this will quickly become a habit. The downside with this habit is your child won’t be motivated to ever try anything new, so it reinforces the picky eating. Not to mention, it disrupts the family meal time and is extra work for you!What parents can do: Make one meal for the whole family, but always make sure there’s one or two foods you know each family member will eat (e.g. basket of bread, carrots if they’re a favourite veggie). This will put your mind at ease that your child will not starve, and gives them the opportunity to work toward accepting new family foods. You will also need to set some rules so your child knows that the kitchen is not open again until the next meal or snack time (see next point on planning snacks!).
Plan Your SnacksSet yourself up for success at meals by helping your kids come to the table hungry. Children who graze on snacks frequently through the day or drink juices or milk between meals risk coming to the table already full. For some children, just a few crackers or a bit of milk can fill up their small tummies.
What parents can do: Remember parents, you are in charge of the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ for eating. As a guide, children (and adults) need three meals and up to two or three snacks a day. Keep snacks at least an hour or two before a meal to avoid the spoiled appetite. If your child is asking for food in between a regular meal or snack time, gently turn down the request and offer water only. After all, a hungry kid is a good thing when it comes to mealtimes!Persistence Counts!
It is quite normal for it to take 15 or more times of being offered a new food for a child to accept it. Just because your child has rejected a food in the past, doesn’t mean it should be filed in the “does not eat” category forever. Your job is to continue to provide opportunities for kids to become familiar with and try new foods. There may be foods your child truly does not like, even after many attempts, and that’s OK!
What parents can do: Continue to offer your child’s not-so-favourite foods on occasion, but don’t pressure your child to eat them. Just having the food on the table and available to them, or putting a small amount on their plate will help them become more comfortable with that food.Give your kid permission to explore food by touching, licking, smelling, or pushing it around on their plate. Trying a food and politely spitting into their napkin is OK too!
When There Might be More to ItThere are times when picky eating can be more extreme and can impact your child’s health. If your child accepts less than 20 different foods, or refuses all foods from one food group, seek further support from a healthcare provider.
Some final thoughtsHealthy eating and having a positive relationship with food has lifelong importance. Keep a relaxed, positive attitude towards meals and feeding your child. With patience, time, and good role-modelling, all children can grow to be healthy (and maybe even adventurous) eaters.