Is Your Child a Picky Eater? Try These Tips

March 20, 2021

picky eater

Whether you fed your baby purees or are a proponent of the baby-led weaning method, your child will likely go through a picky phase when it comes to eating food. In some cases, that may mean refusing to eat anything other than chicken nuggets. In others, your toddler may rather play than eat anything at all. Fortunately, with a little support and assistance, your child’s food preferences will often mature over time. Knowing this, of course, doesn’t make mealtime battles any less frustrating. If your child is a picky eater, here are some tips that may help:

1. Let your child decide

Picky eating habits are more likely to develop when parents punish, bribe or reward their children’s eating behaviors. Though you as the parent should decide what food to serve at a meal, allow your child to decide whether to eat the food on the table and how much (if any). Research shows that when you approach feeding this way, your child learns to listen to his body and make healthy food choices. It also leads to fewer power struggles between parent and child around food.

Include a variety of balanced foods including one food you know that your child likes, as well as one food you want them to try. Then, give your child space by avoiding any sort of pressure at the table. The “one bite” rule or offering dessert as a reward for eating their meal can tarnish their long-term relationship with food.

2. Set a timer

It’s important for meals to be served at a table. Not only does this help prevent choking, but it can also help your child focus for enough time to actually eat something. Be sure you limit distractions, such as turning off the tv and putting down your cell phone. Even if your child chooses not to eat the food you serve, require a mandatory length of time for sitting at the table for meals. Set a timer for a few minutes, then gradually work your way up to a goal of 15 minutes. And remember, part of teaching healthy eating habits is to help kids focus on eating when they’re hungry and until they are full rather than on finishing every bite on their plate.

3. Eat together

Sitting down for meals together has a variety of benefits. Family meals are proven to strengthen family bonds and lead to healthier food choices. You are able to lead by example, and it’s more enjoyable for your child when you eat together versus telling them they need to sit at the table alone for 15 minutes. A happy, more relaxed child will often eat more or be more willing to try new foods.

4. Focus on exposure

In marketing, a common principal states that a prospect needs to “hear” the advertiser’s message at least 7 times before they’ll take action to buy that product or service. But for picky kids, it can sometimes take 100 or even 1,000 exposures to a new food before they will eat. Your child may not try something the first time you serve it, or even the second or third time. And that’s okay. Keep serving that food regularly until it’s no longer “something new” and one day they may surprise you. Remember, your child can’t try something that isn’t there.

5. Make it fun

Introduce new foods by seeking new and creative ways to make them more fun and less intimidating. Mini cookie cutters, food picks, and even new eating utensils such as forks, spoons or chopsticks, can make eating more interesting. Other ways to incorporate fun including playing fun food games like building a vegetable tower or tic tac toe with peas and carrots. Anything that encourages your child to touch the new food will bring them one step closer to eating it.

6. Don’t be a short-order cook

Serve one meal for everyone in the family; no exceptions. Remember, it is your role as the parent or caregiver to choose the foods that are served at each meal. Incorporate at least one thing that everyone likes. Catering to each individuals food preference may seem easier right now, but it will quickly become exhausting and in the long-term can actually encourage children to take much longer to try new foods.

7. Get your kids involved

Kids are more likely to taste a dish if they helped plan or prepare it. Flip through some kid-friendly cookbooks together and let your child pick out new recipes to try. Then let them help you grocery shop as you talk about life skills such as how to choose produce. At home, involve them with age-appropriate tasks such as measuring ingredients, stirring and chopping. This kid-friendly knife and cutting set from Amazon is even safe for toddlers.

8. Manage Sweets

Sweets and treats shouldn’t be banned altogether. They also should not be used as forms of reward or punishment. As with any food, it’s important for kids to have access to sweets, but parents need to teach kids how to eat them sparingly. Kids don’t naturally understand nutrition needs and eating schedules, they are something that has to be taught. Give kids guidelines about what that means — one dessert per day, three meals a day, one afterschool snack, or whatever the eating schedule is. Forbidding sweets entirely can backfire, potentially leading kids to overindulge or abuse them when those foods are available— unhealthy eating habits that can carry well into adulthood.

When to Seek Help

Picky eating usually is a normal developmental stage for toddlers. However, it may also be an indication of larger challenges such as sensory processing or food intolerances that they are unable to communicate yet. If you are concerned about your child’s diet, talk with your pediatrician, who can help troubleshoot and make sure your child is getting all the necessary nutrients to grow and develop. To schedule an appointment call Holly Springs Pediatrics at (919) 249-4700.