Kids go through so many phases, and almost every parent will say that at some point their child was a “picky eater.” So, we’ve put together ten ways to help you survive this stage, no matter how long it is, so that you can stay sane and also help your child develop healthy eating habits.
Lower your expectations
Often our expectations for what and how much our children should eat is just wrong. And then we end up either pressuring them to eat that amount, or we feel like failures. So, if you readjust your expectations to something realistic and achievable, you will both feel better and happier, and your child will feel less intimidated by what is expected of him. Win win.
Reduce Portion Sizes
Another often mistaken assumption is how much our children need to eat. Especially when dealing with picky eaters (or new foods in general), two bites is often enough. Children feel intimidated when overwhelming portions are put in front of them, and since there is no chance they can finish it parents end up either angry or frustrated. If you know broccoli is a challenge for your child but pasta isn’t, put 2-3 florets alongside and ½ cup of pasta and you’d be surprised that they may just take a bite of the veggies.
Space out meals and snacks
There can be so many reasons why a child is not eating well. But often times, the simplest solution is that they aren’t very hungry. I often find that my kids don’t need that afternoon snack and instead we go straight to dinner, even if it’s about 4:30. They have had the longest break since eating, their bodies need nutrients to get through the end of the day, and a snack will most likely turn into a grazing fest, or trickle right into dinner and ruin their appetite (just like your mom warned!).
Don’t be a short order cook
As hard as it is to see your child not eat a meal, offering them a second meal after they refuse the first does so many harmful things to their eating habits. Most importantly, it suggests to them that they can do this every day, and then they will never eat what you put in front. It will also end up making you way more exhausted and frustrated, usually ending in battles. What’s the solution if you don’t want your child to go to sleep hungry? There are several options (see blog post: What To Do When Your Child Refuses Dinner) but the best is to simply and calmly say “I’m sorry this isn’t your favorite dinner but it is what’s for dinner tonight. Would you like to choose dinner tomorrow?” I find this calm response often encourages a few bites and a happier mealtime attitude.
Resist counting bites or forcing food
When we force bites or any kind of eating, we create a very negative environment around mealtime. Which is the opposite of what we are trying to do! We want mealtime to be a happy, stress free time for the family. We want our children to develop a healthy relationship with food, one in which they learn to listen to their own bodies, understand when they are hungry and when they are not, and know that eating is not a pressured event.
Avoid comparing your child to other kids
Just as with everything in life, all children are different and unique. Each child goes through their own experiences and we must honor that individuality. Comparing your child to other kids is both an unhealthy mindset for a parent, and it’s certainly the wrong mindset to teach our children. Teaching our children that they are their own people starts from us as parents.
Notice your reactions and watch your words
Kids are sponges, and they are acutely aware of our reactions as parents. If we seem stressed or angry, they notice. Since mealtime should be a happy, free choice environment, it’s important that we control our reactions. Which can be easier said than done! When a child is picky or refusing a meal, it can be extremely frustrating. I recommend taking 2 deep breaths, or even excusing yourself for a moment if you feel frustrated. Children mimic parents so if you are calm, they are likely to be calmer.
Focus on things other than mealtime
One of the main reasons we send Picky Eater Table Topics in our first delivery is because so often mealtime conversation centers around what the child is and is not eating. That’s no fun! Try putting the plate of food in front of your child and then starting a normal conversation, as if you were dining together. Talk about their day, their interests, what makes them happy or sad, etc. You can always use our Table Topics, and if your children are too young for that, try looking at a picture book together.
Offer a variety of food during the week, even if they refuse
While it can be very tempting (trust me, I know!), to serve the same hot dog and plain noodles that your child is guaranteed to eat day in and day out, you are not helping them develop sustainable and healthy eating habits by serving that every day. Even if they are refusing foods, be sure to consistently offer new ones. They will start learning that variety is part of eating and eventually they will even start trying it!
Eat with your child
Eating should not be a show or performance. So often (especially with younger kids) we plate the food, put it in front of them, and then just stare at them, waiting for them to devour it. Ever try making yourself a plate and sitting down with them, so they feel like mealtime is an activity and not a show? You’d be surprised how simple yet effective this strategy is.
Joanna Parker is a mom of 3, founder of Yumble, and certified Youth Nutrition Specialist.