Picky eaters. We all know them. Maybe you’re even one of them. From an outsider’s perspective it might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re the parent of a picky eater and every meal becomes a battle, it can be exhausting. As the parent of one picky eater and one adventurous eater, I can attest to the fact that you cannot always control what your child chooses to put into their mouth. Each child is different, and so must each approach be.
Think you’ll lose your mind if you have to make one more box of mac and cheese? I’ve been there mama.
Part of my child’s picky eating is due to throat trauma in early life, and because of that and her subsequent tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, we as a family have had to learn a new way of approaching eating. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.
1. Know your child and work within her limitations.
There are picky eaters, and then there are what professionals refer to as resistant eaters or problem feeders. A picky eater likely will not starve themselves, but a resistant eater could. If your child is losing weight or not gaining properly, it is time to see a healthcare professional. If you need help, ask for it. There is no shame in that.
2. Strive for pleasant mealtimes.
Mealtimes should be pleasant and enjoyable, not a source of constant stress. This goes for everyone in your family, including your picky eater. If you are constantly pleading with your child to just taste a food, or forcing them to sit at the table until they have finished, there is no way they are going to enjoy mealtime, and neither will the rest of your family. Negative associations with food and mealtimes will persist and can lead to even more disordered eating, so even if it drives you nuts, try not to make every mealtime into a drama. Trust me, your family will thank you for it. And it doesn’t hurt to turn on the “Peaceful Piano” Spotify playlist in the background either.
3. Always offer at least one accepted food.
This one might be a struggle for many of you out there who started out with the idea that your kids would eat whatever you eat, no exceptions! Believe me, I was there once too. I’m not advocating for making a separate dinner for your picky eater every night, but if you know she accepts rice with soy sauce, consider adding that to her plate along with the chicken and veggies the rest of the family is having. Often times, just seeing an accepted item frequently paired with a different item can lead to trying new things.
4. Don’t make meal timing unrealistic.
A four-year-old should’t be expected to sit at a dinner table for more than 15 minutes, max. Younger children, even less. Don’t drag out dinner and make your kids sit there for 45 minutes while you enjoy your glass of wine. It isn’t fair to their little attention spans and you’d probably enjoy that wine and conversation with your spouse more if they were off playing anyway.
5. Consider changing your child’s physical environment.
If you have a child that needs a lot of sensory input, perching her on a big chair where her feet dangle may feel extremely uncomfortable. Consider using a booster, even for older children, or even eating on the ground or letting your child stand to eat. It can also work for toddlers to take “drive-by” bites, where they play while they eat. It might not feel like a normal mealtime to you, but children do not always work within accepted adult boundaries.
6. Try serving meals family style.
Offering your child a chance to serve themselves gives them autonomy and self-confidence, and may lead to more adventurous eating.
7. Offer kid-sized portions.
Many families don’t realize that a child-sized portion should be much smaller than an adult portion, and end up putting way too much food on the plate. Remember that your child’s stomach is much smaller than yours. It sounds obvious, but we often don’t realize just how much food we are asking our kids to eat.
8. Don’t discuss food or eating styles at the table.
The more you discuss what is “good” eating or “bad” eating, the more likely your child will be to resist. This can be especially difficult for parents who have more than one child, but resist the compulsion to comment on how well another child is eating. Saying “Look how good Joey is at eating his broccoli,” can often have the opposite of its intended effect. Offer the food without comment and then discuss other things, like your favorite part of your day or what you are looking forward to over the weekend.
9. Try a “no thank you” bite or have your child kiss the food goodbye.
This is a good way to encourage your child to bring a new food to their lips, even if they don’t actually take a bite or agree to just take one. Remember, it can take up to 10 times of seeing or trying a new food before a child accepts that food.
10. Relax, and don’t worry about what everyone else has to say!
This includes me, too! If your mom is on your case and wants you to put your kid in time out because they won’t eat, tell her to back off. If your grandpa says they made you sit their until you finished your dinner plate, tell him you do it differently now. Your goal is to find what works for your child and your family, and ultimately encourage a positive, healthy relationship with food. Do that however you see fit, mama!