Do you feel like you have a picky eater? Or at least a more selective eater? Picky eating can be super stressful for everyone involved. And a child’s fluctuations in appetite, as well as, preferences can sometimes make it hard to make sure your child is fed and develops a healthy relationship with food.
Goals for feeding kids should include feeding them nutritious foods, but also helping them explore food, understand fullness and hunger, all while avoiding power struggles. These strategies can really be beneficial for all kids, but will particularly helpful with pickier eaters to encourage variety without fear and minimize food battles.
Don’t shy away from offering new foods
Giving a variety of foods can be a step in helping kids expand their palate and overcome pickiness. When offering the same foods over and over because you know they will be accepted, your child may get bored with those foods, and start dropping even previously loved foods. Also, as time goes on without being offered new foods, they become less and less willing to try new foods.
So how do you offer new foods to your child who is picky? There’s two important things to keep in mind: Consistency with offering new foods and repeated exposure. You also, however, want to make sure to overwhelm. So I suggest offering a new food or what I call a “still learning” food (which is a food you may have tried, but is not yet one your child eats without complaint) at least everyday. And maybe your child will not eat a new food or tolerate on their plate. That’s ok. You can start by putting in on another plate next to their plate, and work your way to having in on their plate. From there you may play with the food with your child, smell it, lick it, get comfortable with it. This is all part of the offering of new foods.
Introduce foods multiple times
As I mentioned above a key part of offering foods is to offer it again, and again and again. Oh and again. You get the picture. Repeated exposure is key. The first 10 times maybe they didn’t eat it, but it’s still helpful if the food is on the table. They see you eat it, or they start playing with it. This all counts as exposure. It’s helping to decrease any fear associated with the food and increase chances your child will start to eat it.
Another part of this, is that the food can be served in different ways. So exposure doesn’t have to be steamed broccoli, it can be roasted broccoli, broccoli in a stir fry, in a soup, in a casserole, in an egg dish. So maybe your child tried steamed broccoli and it wasn’t their favorite, it’s good to mix up the preparation and show your kids that foods taste different when prepared differently.
Be a role model
Kids are little sponges and they also respond more to copying what you do rather than being told what to do. So for that reason eating with your kids and eating the foods you would like them to consume play a huge role in what they will be interested in eating.
“We are apt to forget that children watch examples better than they listen to preaching.” – Roy L. Smith
Set a eating schedule and stick to it
Eating at predictable times can help your picky eater know what to expect and decrease anxiety around eating. It’s still important to be flexible, as the goal is to establish a healthy eating pattern and not force your child to eat certain foods at specific times. Involve your child with deciding one what times of the day meals and snacks will be offered and what some of the foods they would like to see are.
Offer 1 meal, but give multiple foods
While you want to have foods your child will eat, you also want to avoid making a special meal just for them. This can reinforce picky habits and make it even harder for them to want to try new foods. I suggest making a meal that has at least 1 or 2 foods they like, plus some other foods that they may be less inclined to eat. You can serve them a small amount of everything, and if it’s a meal that is usually all together, you can serve it disassembled for them. You can also serve meals family-style and allow everyone to serve themselves. This gives your child some control, but also keeps some structure to mealtimes.
Serve small portions
Serving small portions is less overwhelming for kids, and decreasing overwhelm can be an important strategy for picky eaters. So start with a small amount of food, which may be just a very small piece of a food they don’t typically like. This allows your child to ask for more if they want.
Make food fun
Making food fun encourages curiosity and helps your child feel more comfortable around foods. For you this might be slightly more work in preparation or maybe some more clean up. You will also want to get comfortable with your child playing with their food and potentially making a mess.
So what does making food fun look like?
- Presenting food in different shapes (use fun shaped cookie cutters or a spiralizer to make “snakes” or “worms”)
- Use lots of brightly colored foods
- Use dips and sauces
- Make scenes or designs with the food (a silly face, a rainbow, a tower, ants on a log)
- Use plates, silverware and other utensils that are brightly colored or have a fun design
Involve your child
A child is much more likely to be interested in trying a food that they have helped grow, pick out, or prepare. This is another strategy that lowers the fear around the food and also increases exposure. My youngest was recently raving about his Brussels sprouts he made (helped peal, cut and season), and until that dinner he may have tried a bite or two over the years.
Ideas for involving your child, include planting a garden with a few vegetables they chose, bringing them with you to the store and asking which fruit or vegetable sounds good for an upcoming meal, and having them help with a few tasks at dinner, like tearing up lettuce (or using a kid knife to cut), mixing, seasoning, and helping plate the food.
Avoid forcing them
Try to turn down the pressure and anxiety at meal times by not forcing your child to eat. Talking negatively about their behaviors, to much pushing them to eat, or paying too much attention to their eating, creates more pressure and stress around eating. It can reinforce behaviors rather than improving them. There is a strategy called the Division of Responsibility, created by Ellyn Satter and can be very effective in giving parents and children some guidelines on roles. In this strategy the parents responsibility is what is fed, when it is fed and where it is served. The child is responsible for the whether they eat and how much they eat.
Labeling foods as “healthy” and “good” vs. a “treat” and “bad” sends mixed messaging to your kids. “Healthy” doesn’t mean much to a young kid. And “good” and “bad” can be internalized as the child is “good” or “bad”. It’s better to talk about foods in terms of what they provide us, in terms of vitamins and minerals if you child is old enough for that concept or what they do for us, such as building muscle, building strong bones, good for our brains, good for our hearts, etc. Within this context every food has something it does for us. So even candy gives us energy. But we can further explain to kids why candy isn’t always the best choice, instead of saying it’s “unhealthy”. Candy may give us energy, but it will not keep us full long, so this is why at meals and snacks we want to have foods that have fat, protein, and fiber.
Give it time
It is fairly common for toddlers and preschoolers to go through a more picky phase. Children tend to outgrow pickiness. But how you handle it may make a difference in what life looks like on the other side. Follow these strategies and it may start to help to minimize pickiness and move towards a more openness with eating and trying foods.
Dealing with picky eaters can be challenging, but it’s important to remember it’s normal. If your child is picky it should eventually pass, but in the meantime, be patient, be a role model, get creative, and keep your own emotions in check. Lowering the stress and pressure around eating for everyone, will make mealtimes more enjoyable. The more your child enjoys mealtimes, the more the resistance will decrease.
More support for picky eaters
If you are feeling like you need support, I would love to help. Launching soon, is my Feeding Thriving Toddlers course, which will have a self-paced option as well as the full program with weekly group calls to trouble shoot all the challenges everyone is having. If you don’t want to miss out, make sure you are subscribed to my Newsletter! You can also schedule a call with me to see if 1:1 coaching would be more helpful.