August 07, 2019
Picky eating is so ubiquitous with little ones it can seem like a normal part of childhood. We all know kids who eat a limited variety of foods, demand it prepared only a certain way, refuse to try anything new, have strong opinions about what they don’t like, and throw tantrums at mealtimes. Most children are occasionally picky; adults are, too! But having a child who is always finicky about food can cause a lot of worry for parents because nourishing our children is one of the most important tasks we have.
Worried your baby is going to hate veggies? Feeling frustrated about your picky eater? Does mealtime feel like a battle with your kids? The good news is that there are ways to prevent or correct picky eating and take the fighting out of feeding. Here are some recommendations from doctors and parenting experts plus strategies that worked well with my son.
Children need consistent, predictable routines that allow them to feel safe and comfortable while learning and growing. Setting routines around food feeds into the positive power of predictability while establishing a normal schedule for eating. When Killian was a baby starting solid food, his pediatrician told us to set the same time for meals every day. His doctor explained that adapting Killian to a routine of when he eats was more important than what he eats. (Killian was breastfed until one year old, so most of his nutrition was coming from my milk.) Just like his nap and bedtime schedule, we developed and stuck to a meal schedule which has continued through his toddler years.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner should happen at the same time every day no matter what age your children are. Snacks should not be provided randomly but at set times, like mid-morning and after school. Do not give your kids juice, because it is sugar water that makes them feel full and less inclined to eat at the scheduled times. Your mealtime schedule should be adhered to by the whole family. It is important for parents to prioritize eating dinner with their kids (even if that means a much earlier dinnertime than you prefer). As the parent, you need to enforce that mealtime is not up for discussion. You set the schedule.
A great piece of advice I received from a veteran Mama of three is to introduce lots of different proteins, fruits and vegetables as soon as my son was old enough to start baby food and keep it up through his toddler years. Little ones are learning and developing taste preferences until kindergarten age; capitalize on this time by offering a wide variety of options. I made most of Killian’s baby food using the Beaba Babycook. Per my pediatrician’s instructions, I would introduce one new food at a time, this way I could see if my son had any adverse reaction to it.
Once I established which foods his tiny tummy tolerated well, I combined them into meals. Introducing new textures, smells and colors is important. The more variety you give your little ones as babies, the more they will be inclined to continue to eat lots of different kinds of food and try new ones as they grow older. At any age when providing new food, explain what it is, where it comes from and why it is good to eat. This can help encourage your little one to give it a try.
Many parents make the mistake of making a “kids” dinner for their little one or cooking different orders for each family member. When your child is eating baby food, obviously this is a necessity. But once new foods are introduced and tolerated, you can begin to feed your babies and toddlers whatever the whole family is eating so long as the consistency and textures are age-appropriate. For example, if you are having chicken and vegetables for dinner, your baby can too! Just mash it up so it’s smooth like baby food. If you are having a salad, dice and steam some of the veggies for your toddler. If you are having meat or plant proteins, cook and finely chop a small portion for your child.
As they grow older, you will not have to take these extra prep steps but you will have laid the groundwork so your children understand that everyone gets the same meal. Making one healthy, nutritious meal makes your family cook’s life a lot easier and can save money at the grocery store.
Kids have preferences about what they like to eat but frequently refusing food is rooted in a power struggle about exerting independence, not because they simply “don’t like” something on their plate. Food pickiness may be a sign of fear or a behavioral reaction. Then parents get frustrated and anxious while kids more stubbornly refuse. This can turn mealtime into a battle which ultimately leads to the child regarding eating as a hostile event.
One method for diffusing this unpleasant dynamic is known as the Satter division of responsibility in feeding, which encourages parents to determine what, when and where of feeding but allows kids to decide the how much and whether of eating. Using this principle, parents dictate what their kids are offered to eat and the time and place when mealtimes and snacks happen. But it also gives some control to your little ones, providing the freedom to decide how much they eat. This shows that you trust your little one to eat until he is full, which also benefits their desire to be in control. Proponents say this method encourages children to learn to eat what is provided, expect predictability and learn to behave well during meals.
When meal planning and cooking, let your little ones have a say. Children, just like adults, have opinions about what they want to eat and asking for their input can negate some of the power struggle around food. Provide two choices of a healthy meal that the whole family will enjoy. For example, should we make roast chicken or fish tacos for dinner? Should we do granola and yogurt or eggs and avocado for brunch? When putting out a snack, offer a healthy variety like grapes, apples and carrots.
Even if they only eat one of the options, they are empowered by making a choice. It is important for little ones to understand that their opinions are valued and important but that does not mean pizza for every meal. Parents are always in control. There is a balance between involving your children in meal planning and allowing them to be dinnertime dictators.
Experts say bribing children with food – especially sugary treats – is a bad idea.
This includes coaxing kids to eat their dinner with the reward of dessert. Not only does it set up a paradox with food (cake is better than vegetables), but most desserts are high in sugar which is the last thing kids in America need. An extra story before bedtime or 10 minutes of additional playtime are more beneficial ways to reward picky eaters. I am not saying that all sweets should be banned from your child’s life, just that moderation is key.
My family enjoys dessert a couple of times a week. But it is the exception, not the rule and certainly not something that Killian expects every night. If dessert is part of your family’s daily routine, do not say it is a reward for good behavior and balance ice cream with healthier options like fresh fruit and organic plain yogurt.
Kids are not going to love everything at first bite. Remember how your baby used to spit out those pureed sweet potatoes that he now loves? It can take a dozen or more introductions before a little one will try and potentially enjoy a new food. Introducing new things when your little one is a baby primes their palate and temperament for continuing to try new food as they grow. If your child is already a picky eater, introduce new fare by accompanying it with things you know they like. Give them some carrots with a slice of pizza; add hummus to their pretzels; put some of their favorite cheese on top of broccoli. Encourage them to try just one bite and tell them it is OK if they do not like it.
Above all else, your little one requires something in his belly so you may need to abandon your effort and let the pizza get eaten without the carrots. But do not abandon the cause! Keep at it again and again until trying – and eating! – new foods is something that becomes normal for your children.
Little eyes are always watching. Kids learn by imitation and model the behavior they observe. Show your kids that you practice what you preach by choosing healthy foods and beverages. Drink lots of water. Eat fruits and vegetables. Don’t stock your pantry with sugary, processed items. Prepare and eat wholesome, nutritious meals. Have things like French fries and ice cream in moderation. Making healthy decisions will benefit your children’s health and your own.
The good news if you have a picky eater is that it is usually confined to early childhood, with most kids growing out of it by first grade. Limited picky eating is not shown to have substantial adverse effects to a child’s health. But doctors warn that extreme picky eating in children can lead to short- and long-term health issues including nutrient deficiencies.
Developing a healthy relationship with food at a young age is really important so children do not develop weight problems and disordered eating later on. If you are concerned about your children’s eating habits and nutrition, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician for an evaluation. Extreme picky eating can be a sign of something more complex and serious, like food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders or ARFID.
There is no substitute for the expert advice and guidance provided by medical professionals when it comes to the health and wellbeing of your kids.
Is your child a current or reformed picky eater? What suggestions do you have for other parents who are struggling to feed their kids? Share with me and other parents in the comments section, below, or tweet me at @thePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.
For more information plus healthy, kid-friendly meal ideas that the whole family will enjoy, follow me on Instagram at @KatiesKidsLife