Dealing with picky eaters can mean that meal times are fraught. You end up stressed, maybe you worry your little one isn’t getting the nutrition they need and the thought of a calm, enjoyable family dinner seems like a fantasy. The feeding relationship between a caregiver and a child is complicated and involves more than we can cover in one article but here are some tips and tricks for dealing with picky eaters - that don’t involve sneaking in veggies!
First off, keep in mind that picky eating, to some degree, is normal. Most kids go through a stage or stages of being fussy eaters. Children, especially around toddler age, don’t have much autonomy in their lives and one of the only ways they do is over what goes into their mouths. Exerting this autonomy is a way that they push the boundaries, an important part of them developing independence.
The biggest tip for moments when those boundaries are being tested is to not to take it personally. It may be difficult not to let your emotions or expectations get in the way but if we make food a big deal, it may always be a big deal. Eating and variety are new experiences for young children and they may need to be exposed to food a number of times (even up to 20!) before they eat it. So next time you wonder if you’ll have the kid that only ever eats crackers, don’t worry, the next day they might not want that anymore and be ready to eat something else. In fact, fostering a pressure-free eating environment may actually open the door to your child trying something new.
Always offer at least one food that you know they will accept, don’t give them 100% new foods or dishes
Try switching up how you prepare foods you’re exposing them to from time to time
Stay in Your Lane
The majority of problems I see in clients and the family feeding dynamic arise when the roles are unclear. Ellyn Satter, dietician and authority on family feeding simplifies this in her Division of Responsibility in Feeding model. You as the parent/caregiver are in charge of what is offered when it’s offered and where it’s offered. The child is in charge of if and how much. When children have too much say in the what, where and when or the parent is trying to control the if and how the result is usually a power struggle. This idea may sound radical but remembering the principles of responsibility means that you can avoid making food into a control issue and it totally takes the pressure off both you as a parent and your child in feeding and eating.
If your child tells you that they’ve had enough of their food you could ask them if they’re sure and if they understand that “the kitchen is now closed”, no other food will be on offer
If they ask for something that isn’t being served, cereal at dinner time, for example, you could say “we will find a time for you to have that, but for now that isn’t on the menu”
Watch Your Language
Although it’s a difficult task in our current diet-culture, try to avoid using words like“good” and “bad”, “healthy” and “unhealthy” when talking about food to children. Instead, why not try naming the foods on their plate and describing their colour or texture, maybe compare it to something they know - “this tomato is red like raspberries”. It’s totally normal to want to child to eat broccoli because you know it will be good for them but putting veggies, or any food, on a pedestal isn’t going to do you or them any favours. Kids will either get the message that eating veggies is praiseworthy, and they will do it to please you, or, they will rebel because of the emphasis placed on them.
Try to model a healthy way to consume all types of foods, an all-foods-fit approach
Try to relax and enjoy your own meal at meal times as this encourages your child to enjoy theirs
Foster Body Trust
Trust that your child has the innate ability to know when they are hungry and when they are full. You can foster a relationship where they can listen to and honour those internal cues. If you work on nurturing that, the nutrition bit will come in time - the other way around just doesn’t work.
At about age 3 ½ or 4 you can involve kids in menu planning and cooking
Have reliable, structured meal and sit-down snack times whenever possible and try to time snacks far enough away from meals that your little one arrives at the meal hungry enough for it
Feeding little ones can be really hard and at the end of the day, all you can do is the best you can with what you have. You’re doing a great job! If you want to know more about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility check it out here. If you want more tips and tricks for feeding your family minus the fuss or you’re just looking to improve your own relationship with food, get in touch or visit my website www.wholelifenutritionco.com.
Caton, S. J., Ahern, S. M., Remy, E., Nicklaus, S., Blundell, P., & Hetherington, M. M. (2012, 10). Repetition counts: Repeated exposure increases intake of a novel vegetable in UK pre-school children compared to flavour–flavour and flavour–nutrient learning. British Journal of Nutrition, 109(11), 2089-2097. doi:10.1017/s0007114512004126
Satter, E. (2007, 09). Eating Competence: Definition and Evidence for the Satter Eating Competence Model. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39(5). doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2007.01.006
Zeinstra, G. G., Koelen, M. A., Kok, F. J., Laan, N. V., & Graaf, C. D. (2009, 09). Parental child-feeding strategies in relation to Dutch children’s fruit and vegetable intake. Public Health Nutrition, 13(06), 787-796. doi:10.1017/s1368980009991534