My kids are picky eaters. It has been exhausting many nights at the dinner table trying to convince them that the colorful healthy foods are good for them. My oldest has been picky from the baby food stage, my second started around 2 years old, and the twins do not like much meat and a few vegetables.I breastfed all of them, but did have to switch my oldest to formula after 5 months. I made my own baby food, which sounds really fancy but actually is easier than buying it at the store in my opinion. My children have always been offered foods that we ate and with minimal seasoning.
My two oldest children really became strong-willed against eating certain foods around 3 years old. (The three-nager stage!) We know from child development research that this stage (from 3 to about 5 years old) is one where children have a greater understanding of their personal will.
Meal time became a battle ground. It has been a struggle for us, to this day, but we keep goals in focus for what we want to teach our children about eating…not just to get them to eat tonight, but for their long-term health and nutrition mindset.
Over time my oldest became more open-minded and willing to ‘try’ as he has gotten older…and as we have stood our ground to keep our goals, while accommodating his tastes-to a degree. This is my list for dealing with and teaching a picky eater to be more open-minded without compromising your role as the adult.
6 Tips for Teaching Picky Eaters
1) I will not be a short-order cook:
We feed our children what we eat. This rule is RARELY broken. On the ‘clean out the fridge nights’ or nights when time does not allow for a balanced meal to be cooked, the kids may get to choose what they want (peanut butter sandwich, no doubt). But, 29 days out of the month, they eat what I make and serve. This is not a restaurant.
(I know this sounds harsh, but you’ll see he gets a lot of say indirectly in what I make as you read further…intentionally.)
2) Think of “whole day” not “whole meals”:
I look at the ‘whole day’ of meals not just one meal at a time when balancing nutritional content.
We are a high metabolism family, which means we eat very frequently over the course of a day. Small meals/snacks every 2 hours is what works for us. That means, sometimes, there isn’t a balanced meal on our plates every time we sit down to eat.
For breakfast my kids eat frozen waffles, cheerios or peanut butter on toast. I may add some applesauce or peaches to their plates, but often the fruit gets bumped to the mid-morning snack.
For lunch, then, a sandwich and some veggies will do (veggies often get bumped to snack), and then crackers or cheese or both is the afternoon snack if nothing is left over from lunch.
About 2 hours before we eat dinner (or about an hour before I start making dinner) I feed them a snack again-crackers and peanut butter, apple slices, or a granola bar, etc. Their moods are much better during the ‘witching hour’ of 4-5pm if they have this metabolism boost before dinner.
I am very careful with how much they get at this snack before dinner, though, so their appetites are not too diminished. Many times it is a small handful (their hand, not mine) of cashews, for example-just enough to get them to dinner.
3) Know your child’s appetite:
Over time I have learned how much food (on average) my kids can eat. If I am serving something new or that I know will be a difficult food, I will put a smaller portion on their plates to respect their lack of interest in the food while not compromising my desire to feed them a well-rounded diet.
If I know it is something that they like, then I will put a little more hoping he will eat it all, but allowing him to leave some on his plate if he can not fit it all in his belly. Sometimes I get full before cleaning my plate, so it is unrealistic for me to expect anything other than that for my children…as long as I know they are not using ‘full’ as a way out of eating what they should.
4) Model a healthy diet:
You are the first and most important example of eating habits, so unfortunately (or fortunately) that means your best option for teaching how to be a healthy eater is to be one yourself. Having children opened my eyes to better nutrition, and it has benefited my health in the process. I did not eat very healthy while pregnant with my oldest son, and I do attribute some of his picky behavior to that.My oldest daughter is a much more open minded eater, and I ate better while pregnant with her, so in my scientific reasoning, there is a lot of evidence to support that diet-while-pregnant can affect the food preferences of children…in our experience anyway.
5) Be persistent AND flexible:
I don’t buy into the fads or quick fixes about changing the habits of a picky eater. I think some children (and adults) just have different palates, and therefore have a more narrow selection of foods they are willing to eat. My husband is somewhat picky, as an example.
6) Use the “one more bite” concept:
When you start to see resistance from your child, tell them to at least try a bite of the food they don’t want to eat. If they have eaten some, but want to choose to be finished (and you know they could eat more and are just trying to get out of it), then tell them to eat “one more bite.”We use this when we know we have pushed as far as we can on a particular night. We had a 4 year old willing to go to bed hungry if it meant he could avoid eating ‘green stuff,’ so a couple of nights he went to bed without dinner. We don’t feel guilty about that since our goal is instilling a value of proper nutrition, and flexibility in exploring new foods.(Honestly, this happened about twice. We generally do not get to that point since he has become more flexible with time.)
7) Let your child have a say too:
Realize what foods they do enjoy, and make them a lot!
We have a small array of veggies that are in our fridge all of the time-red bell pepper, peas, carrots and mixed veggie medleys with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc. This does not mean we only serve these vegetables, but they are the ones that I know are edible or at least less disgusting to my son. He will eat these when encouraged, so I serve them frequently.
6 Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters
1) Instead of raw veggies (if the crunchiness is an aversion), quick steam them in the microwave.I place raw carrots in a ceramic dish, add a teaspoon of water, and cover the bowl with a plate. I microwave it for 1-2 minutes and then they are soft enough to be tolerated.You can do this with any item. (Works well for infants and toddlers just getting used to table food too!)
2) Try shredding veggies into mashed potatoes or rice, before cooking, if you have a child that will eat those.The cooking process will soften the veggies and they will ‘color’ the starch which is fun.3) Teach about foods and nutrition. We say, “This will help you grow up to be big and strong so you can stay healthy and have a lot of energy to play.”4) Teach about making healthy choices and moderation with sweets.
3) Eat how you want your child to eat. Serve healthy meals as often as possible.
Parenting stretches the adults and the children that are involved. Be persistent, consistent, flexible, and know that other parents are going through this too!
Enjoy your time at home!
Melissa Matters says
Awesome tips! The 'Don't be a Short Order Cook' is one my pediatrician told me a long time ago. I agree that the 3 to 5 stage is when kids are the pickiest.
So true. Thanks, Melissa! Those picky eaters can be challenging, but like you mention, after age 5 they mellow out a bit.
Jamie, it is funny how siblings can be so different-we experience that in our house too. I am glad that some of the ideas in this post may be helpful with your picky eater as it has been with mine! 🙂
Jamie F says
What a great reminder! My oldest son eats just about everything! (we also home made baby food) my youngest however, I feel like all he eats is cheerios and crackers. It's not literally this bad, but often times I feel like he's going to wilt away from not eating! I love the concept of healthy day not healthy meal! Thanks again!