Imagine this: You’ve spent the last hour or so preparing supper for your family. The main dish is perfectly seasoned, the vegetables lightly steamed, and savory brown rice is ready to serve. You sit down with your family to enjoy the meal you’ve lovingly prepared and the first thing you hear from your one of your kids is “I don’t like this” or “What is this?” or maybe a polite “Um, no thank you.”
Been there before? I have. It’s disheartening, isn’t it? Having a picky eater in the family can cause tension and feelings of parenting failure at the table. As parents, we want the best for our children. That includes the food they eat. We want them to be healthy. But what do we do when they won’t eat what we’ve made? When they get the title of picky eater?
With four kids I’ve had my share of ups and downs in the feeding department. I love it when my kids pop a fresh picked cherry tomato in their mouth, or when they get excited about trying a new food after only a whiff of it, or when they get to work on their own creations in the kitchen. It’s not as much fun when they don’t like what I’ve chosen to prepare for that meal, day, week – you get the picture. Thankfully, they eat pretty well. Yet each of my kids have had their picky moments, some more than others. Over the years my husband and I have tried several things to help curb the pickiness. Here they are:
1. Your job is to feed and the child’s job is to eat. As a parent you’re responsible for providing nutritious food choices and determining when and where the child eats. The child’s job is to determine how much they eat of whatever is provided, or even if they will eat. This is a short definition of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, and it’s probably one of the best things we did. If they’re picky, they may decide not to eat at a meal. For most kids, that’s okay. They’ll likely eat at the next planned meal or snack. And you’ll have gone through it with a lot less stress than if you try to force them to eat. We did, however, require them to remain at the table during the meal.
2. Don’t short-order cook, but be sure to always have something on the table that your child will eat. If you prepare food for your child that’s different from what everyone else is served, it will just encourage the pickiness since it was rewarded. Be matter-of-fact when they refuse a food instead of drawing attention to the behavior, and let them decide what to eat of whatever else you have on the table.
3. A word of encouragement is okay, but don’t force or cajole your child into eating. Food battles are rarely won. It causes tension and stress at the table, and it’s never a win-win situation. Bribing them with dessert or candy only elevates the value of those foods and reduces the value of the food you’d like them eat.
4. Be an exemplary role model and let your child see you trying new foods. If you’re picky about your foods, your kids will see that and likely copy you. So try new foods, even foods for which you’ve previously said you didn’t like.
5. Try making disliked foods a different way. I
hated disliked beets ever since I was a young child. But last year I tried roasting them with other root vegetables and herbs. They were delicious. Maybe your child would like their food cooked instead of raw, or raw instead of cooked, or just seasoned differently.
6. Offer new foods frequently. Most children are wary of trying a food they’ve never seen before. But familiarity breeds greater acceptance. The more they see it at the table, the more likely it is they’ll try it.
7. Have your child help with the planning, selection, and preparation of meals. They’ll be more likely to eat it if they’ve had a hand in bringing it to the table. Or get them gardening. They’ll be excited to try the foods they’ve grown.
8. If you’re married, be sure you and your spouse are in agreement with how to handle eating issues in your home. A unified front is much stronger than one with one parent forcing the child to eat or short-order cooking, and the other not bending to the child’s wishes. Get alone with your spouse and talk about it so you have a plan that you both agree upon.
9. Be patient. Your child will likely outgrow this pickiness if you handle it with love and care. But also be aware of and respect their preferences too. After all, we all have food items we don’t care for and would be hesitant to try.
10. Look into other resources. There are numerous books available about how to feed children. Two of my favorites are Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense and How to Get Your Kid to Eat: But Not Too Much – both by Ellyn Satter. Like me, she’s a dietitian. But she specializes in this area and gives wise advice for how to feed kids – including dealing with picky eaters. A new book that’s on my list to read is Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen. The authors are both dietitians (one of them a pediatric dietitian) and have kids of their own. Their blogs have a lot of excellent information in them so I expect their book to do the same.
If you have a picky eat, don’t get discouraged. Try some of the tips above and start guiding your child to a healthier attitude toward food. If you, like me, have been through it or are in the midst of dealing with a picky eater, what have you tried that’s helped? Leave a comment below and share your story. I’d love to hear about it.
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