How to Handle Kids Who Are Picky Eaters
If you’re a parent, you’ll realize that every child is a picky eater at some time in their early life. It can start as early as one year old when they begin to feed themselves. It is the first time they have some control over what and how much they eat at a mealtime. It’s also a time where they are growing and learning at an amazing rate, so it’s natural they look for some stability and sameness they can relate to, and that is often seen in the food they eat. Sticking to the food they know, and an unwillingness to taste anything new and unknown gives them a consistency in their lives and a feeling of safety. At the same time, parents have to realize the appetite of small children can vary enormously. The stomach of a toddler is no bigger than a clenched fist, so it doesn’t take that much to fill it. Getting over this stage in a child’s development is important to allow them to cultivate a palate for tasting and enjoying familiar and new foods.
What parents should do
The research is there to show that the food preferences of parents are often passed on to their children. It’s sort of logical, we prepare the foods we like to eat on a daily basis, and those are the foods we expect our children to eat and enjoy as we do. As we have said young children like to eat foods which are familiar, and something new and untried may not go down well at dinner time. A child may have to face an unfamiliar dish or ingredient 10 times before they eventually try it. As a parent try to eat the range of foods you want your child to enjoy and appreciate. Showing your love of a particular dish can reinforce the acceptance of something new your child faces at dinner time. Try to get your child involved in the preparation of the meal, have them stir, measure, or pour. Participation in cooking takes away the unfamiliarity of a meal placed in front of them at the table. Try not to show your picky food habits to your child. Even as adults there are some ingredients or dishes we aren’t keen on. Try not to show your disapproval in your body language, such as scowling when faced with something you don’t like. Children like to imitate the behavior of their parents. If you eat something, then the chances are you young child will eat it too.
What you should know about why kids are picky eaters
There are a number of reasons why a child is a picky eater and is very choosy at mealtimes. Children’s eating habits can vary along with their development, so be aware of some of the primary reasons they reject and accept food.
Sensitivity to the taste, smell and texture: If this is the case with your child, try offering them a number of healthy options, along with what you know they like at each meal. Frequently offer them new foods to try, as they may have to be offered them a dozen times before acceptance. Keep a track on your child’s sensitivity. For instance, if they don’t like ‘mushy’ food try giving them apple slices rather than apple sauce, or provide a cracker to dip into the sauce.
Temperament: Your child may just have their own way of approaching the world, and they need to experiment before accepting something new. Try mixing new with what is familiar, and allowing them to experiment with the food by touching and smelling it. Try and get your child to eat just a small portion of the meal the rest of the family is enjoying. At the same time make sure there are at least one of your child’s favorite ingredients in the meal. Use dips such as hummus, ketchup, or yogurt to encourage your child to eat healthily. Getting them involved in the preparation of a meal helps remove any temperamental aspect of their eating habits.
‘Picky’ can mean toddlers just want to feed themselves. If this is the case get them eating ‘finger foods.’ Let young children have control of their own spoon, and where foods go on the plate. Placing food in specific areas of a plate can help with the familiarity toddlers need in their early development.
Active children who can’t sit still. Have your child come to the table with the meal already there, and keep the mealtime short, to about 10 minutes. Allow them to eat healthy snack options such a fresh fruit, whenever they want.
The 10 top tips for dealing with picky eaters
1. Your child’s appetite is just like yours. There is no need to force a child to eat if they are not hungry. Certainly do not bribe your child to eat certain foods, or to finish what is in front of him. This is likely to have the opposite affect you are looking for, and only reinforce the battle of wills across the dinner table. There is always a chance that this kind of behavior will mean children begin to associate anxiety and frustration with mealtimes and become even more belligerent when they are hungry.
2. Routine is everything. Certainly when a child is very young try and serve meals or snacks at the same time every day. As we have said before it is a time of huge changes for the child, and the sameness of meal times is another way to give them stability. If your child wants to miss a meal, then provide a nutritious snack to take its place. At meal times it’s important to give your child liquid in the form of milk or 100% juice. However, only offer water between meals, and not milk or juice, as this can easily reduce their appetite at meal times.
3. Have patience. Young children like to explore new foods. It’s not just the smell and taste but the texture that can be new to them. Don’t expect your youngster to devour something new at the first bite. Sometimes they will take tiny bits into their mouth, and then remove them. To encourage your child to eat something new, try not to concentrate on the taste, but highlight the color, smell, or texture. To go along with the idea of familiarity, serve something new with one of your child’s favorite foods.
4. Only cook a meal once. If a child rejects what is in front of them, don’t go on and prepare a separate meal of food you know they will enjoy. It’s just going to promote their pickiness and lead you down the road to becoming their short-order cook. If they don’t want to eat the meal have them sit until the mealtime is over, even if they eat or not.
5. Try and make eating fun. Children can be very tactile, and often like to use their hands to eat. Cater to that desire, and create meals with dipping sauces, or the pieces are in shapes. A bright and colorful meal can also make eating attractive to a child. Turn days upside down, and have breakfast for dinner.
6. Go food shopping together. When out at the supermarket, get your child to help you pick the fruits and vegetables. Try and stick to the healthy options, and don’t buy anything you don’t want your child to eat. When back home, it’s a nice idea to get your child involved in preparing the vegetables or fruits they have chosen. Have them rinse the vegetables, or maybe stir batter, and have them set the table.
7. You are your child’s best role model. If a child sees a parent eating something, it gives legitimacy to the food, and a child is more likely to follow their parent’s food habits.
8. Be creative in the kitchen. If your child has turned up their nose at a particular vegetable or fruit, why not chop it up and add it to say a spaghetti sauce, or a casserole or soup. Sometimes a food presented in a different way is all that is needed for it to become acceptable.
9. Focus on mealtimes. A mealtime is for eating, not watching the television or to be done between levels of a computer game. A child should have their mind on eating, so make sure the television and any electronic gadgets are switched off, and out of reach at mealtimes.
10. Bribery will get you nowhere. Don’t offer a sweet dessert as a reward for eating a meal. Using a dessert as a prize gives out the wrong message; that sweet things are the best foods. For a healthy balanced diet, try not to eat something sweet at every mealtime, or include fruit, nuts or yogurt in your range of desserts.
What not to do with a picky eater
Never force your child to eat, as this will most likely have the opposite effect you intend. Forcing a child to eat teaches them to rely on others to determine their eating habits, and does not lead to healthy eating or good self-esteem. Research has shown that forcing children to eat can make picky eating much worse.
Never nag your child to eat by encouraging them to eat ‘one more mouthful,’ or ‘eat it up and you’ll get a sweet.’ This kind of strategy never works in the long run. Children are quick to learn they can manipulate and get what they want and make deals for rewards, and it won’t stop at the dinner table and go onto tooth brushing, tying shoes, going to school, the list could be endless.
However, if you are concerned your child’s growth or development is being impaired by their picky eating you should consult your doctor. He or she can compare your child to the accepted growth charts to see if intervention is needed. A food log of what your child is eating can help with your doctor’s determination.
Remember, changing a child’s eating habits will not happen overnight. It is a slow process to get a picky eater enjoying almost everything place in front of them at the dinner table. Small daily steps are all that is needed to get your child eating healthily.