Picky eaters come in all shapes and sizes and so do their parents. I define a picky eater as someone who limits what he or she is willing to eat, won’t try new foods and won’t give a rebuffed food a second chance. Food allergies or sensitivities, sensory issues or an honest dislike of a particular food (but not hundreds of particular foods or entire food groups) are not the same as picky eating. If a child’s eating habits are causing trouble at your dinner table, here are 12 ideas to help you return the family meal focus to conversation and togetherness rather than battles over whether young Johnny will eat “just one bite.”
1.If you don’t want your child to eat it, don’t bring it home. When it comes to food one of the pillars of parenting is to protect the home environment. Attention to this non-coercive measure can prevent eating issues in the first place, or help defuse problems that have already developed. You decide what foods are welcome.
2. Institute a “one-meal rule.” If you don’t want to be a short order cook, making a separate meal for different children, stop. Keep the messaging positive: Tell your kids that the house rule is now one delicious dinner for everyone. Parents need to parent,Food related responsibilities in families should go like this: Parents are in charge of what foods are offered at home, and children can choose to eat it or not. If a child rejects the food, it is not the parents’ responsibility to offer something else. It’s fine to make sure the meal includes at least one thing that’s generally acceptable (even if that’s just plain pasta), and you should decide in advance what’s acceptable to you after dinner for a child who didn’t eat (a choice that’s distinctly different for toddlers than for teenagers).
3. A little hunger can go a long way. Snacks are fine but don’t overdo them. If children arrive at the dinner table hungry, they are more likely to eat what is in front of them. I routinely put salad on the table before the entree and found that salad eating spiked as a result.
4. Shop and cook together. Involve your children in every step as much as possible. Take them to the grocery store and ask them to pick any vegetable/fruit they want. Have them help you cook. Depending on their age, this can mean counting out cherry tomatoes to add to a salad, stirring, and later making a meal on their own. Even setting the table instills ownership.
5. Meet them where they are. If your children love roast chicken, don’t start the “one-meal rule” by making exotic pork dishes with a lot of sauces. Make basic food you know they like. This way it will not feel like deprivation. Additionally, make sure they can personalize parts of their meal: If you’re making burritos/omelets/burgers, have all the fillings/toppings in little bowls so they can choose what to add.
6. Don’t force them to eat anything. There are many schools of thought about this. Some people feel you should make them “just take one bite.” I don’t agree and think that this has a very negative implication and tends to backfire. Instead say, “Wow, these roasted brussels sprouts/shredded carrots/spinach pancakes are amazing.” Children who won’t taste don’t get nudged or judged. The 10th time you serve them, your child may, unprompted, take a bite.
7. Talk about what it takes to grow and cook food. Breed respect. When children understand that someone had to plant a seed and harvest a vegetable even before it gets to your kitchen, they will more fully appreciate what goes into making a meal. Even better, plant a little garden.
8. Be consistent but not rigid. Be sure everyone knows what the rules are, but if your rule is a home-cooked dinner every night and you’re exhausted, cut yourself some slack: get take-out. Eat breakfast for dinner. Pull everything out of the fridge and see who can make what.
9. Be a good role model. Children take their cues from their parents: if you don’t like something, don’t pretend to like it but express your pleasure that someone – even you — went to the trouble to prepare it.
10. Play. Experiment. Try different food “games” outside of dinnertime. We’ve had a lot of success with games where everyone can make a lot of choices and mix and match:
Vegetable Tasting Extravaganza: trying many vegetables, each prepared in multiple ways.
Raw Vegetable and Dip Experiment: trying different dips with different raw vegetables
11. Don’t refer to anyone as a “picky eater” or make a big deal out of their “picky eating.” If your child doesn’t eat carrots, don’t stop serving them, or when your child is a guest at someone else’s, don’t say: My child doesn’t like carrots. If you define them, it makes it much harder for them to change.
12. Use positive peer pressure. When my children were in pre primary school, their friends ate whatever my kids ate when they came to our house. I literally never had a child say: “I don’t eat hummus. I don’t like carrots.” Seeing a peer eat an unfamiliar food automatically makes it safer. You’ll be amazed at how many children will eat something because they see another child eating it.