In my private practice as a pediatric dietitian I get questions all the time about feeding picky kids. At some point most parents will experience some type of picky eating behavior with their kids (and if you don’t, consider yourself lucky!) If your kid is a toddler, expect to hit a stage where something will be accepted one day and rejected the next. It’s common for toddlers to start expressing control at this stage. Older kids can go through a food jag where they over indulge in a food and later don’t want anything to do with it.
Picky eating can often be shown to be more complex then just a food jag and toddler stage. Kids with picky eating can have sensory or oral motor challenges that need to be addressed if they have strong reactions to tastes, smells and textures of food. There is also growing evidence that picky eating has a genetic factor, so you can blame yourself if you were (and still are) a picky eater.
I have worked with families with kids who have a selective eating disorder, eating less then 20 items at the age of 7. These are the families I would loved to of started working with when their child first started showing signs of being picky at a younger age.
When dealing with all kids who are picky eaters, how we respond to this behavior will certainly impact the feeding relationship and can either exasperate their picky behavior, making it worse, or remedy it by allowing the child to feel safe exploring foods. I have compiled a list of what I hope will be helpful “Do’s” and “Don’t” to get through the picky eating stage with your kids.
Offer a variety of healthy food options. As a parent it’s your job to buy the groceries, cook and serve the food. It’s the child’s choice to decide how much and whether they will eat.
Have a schedule. It’s important for a child to come to a meal hungry. Having a schedule with 2-3 snacks in the day that are spaced 2 hours before and after meals will help assure the child is hungry at mealtime. If a child is allowed to graze all day, they won’t come to the meal hungry. Eventually they will learn that if they don’t eat their meal, they won’t have a chance to eat again until snack time.
Be a role model. Eat family meals together and sit down and eat with your child as much as possible. Children learn by observing. They should be served similar food to what is on your plate.
Continue to offer rejected food. Research shows that it truly takes 10-15 food exposures prior to a child accepting a new food. Parents often stop offering a food after it’s been rejected five times. Food exposures include children helping to prepare the food, smelling the food, touching the food, having it on their plates or taking a bite and spitting it out.
Offer familiar accepted food with new or previously rejected food. Always have something on the table (or your child’s plate) that you know they like. This helps the child develop trust in the feeding relationship with seeing familiar foods they will eat.
Bribe or reward with food. This will not make a child like a food. If dessert is treated as a reward for cleaning the plate or eating vegetables a child will not learn to trust their own hunger at that meal and eat more then they need just to get dessert.
Push or force the child to try new foods or punish if they don’t. This only causes anxiety at the dinner meal and more avoidance of new foods long term. It’s the child’s choice to decide how much and whether they will eat.
Be a short order cook. Children will learn quickly that if they don’t eat their meal they can request anything they want.
Be bland. Children do like flavorful foods. Use herbs and spices when you cook in order to make food appealing and tasty. It could be helpful to take a cooking class or get a new cookbook if you don’t know what and how to cook.
Offer the same thing every day. Be sure to change it up. If the food was rejected at lunch, don’t pull out the same plate of food for snack 2 hours later. Add variety to your child’s meals.
Most of all remember my favorite 6 words at meal time. When your child says “Yuck!” All you need to say is “You don’t need to eat it” and enjoy you meal.
Do you have a picky eater? Get my 10 tips to help your picky eater accept new foods!
Are you struggling with a picky eater?
Get your 10 Tips to Help your Picky Eater Enjoy More Food.