Parents (and now grandparents) are thumping their heads against the wall trying to get picky eaters of all ages to eat anything, but especially healthy foods.
It’s not just about toddlers but older kids too.
I struggled with my kids and now with my grandchild to get them to eat all the nutritious foods I wanted them to eat. I got crying, screaming and tantrums when I tried to offer meals that I thought they needed and might – hopefully – want.
Whatever influences we think are driving our children’s’ food choices, the reality is that we have to try to navigate the maze and provide healthy foods that are appealing to them while avoiding the ‘junk’ foods that are on their wish lists. Usually two to six years is the hardest time, as their tastes for bitter or sweet foods is being developed and understood.
Strategies to Overcome Picky Eating
As not only a dietitian but a mom and grandmother, I never want my meal times to be battlefields. Eating together as a family should be enjoyable, not stressful. It should be a time of togetherness, communication and nourishment. The trick is achieving this especially with toddlers who are trying to express independence and learn about their own tastes.
Many young children also have to overcome fatigue, growth spurts and teething pain when it is time to eat, which many parents should try to recognize as a source of poor behavior.
Try things more than once, don’t give up on them from one refusal. Here are some other strategies to try:
1) Don’t force them to eat if they aren’t hungry
Your child may not be hungry when you are ready to eat. Encourage them to sit at the table and have a drink or a bite of a favorite item. They will eat when they are hungry.
They may not meet their nutritional needs that meal or that day, but by the end of the week they will. Don’t reward with sweets or use phrases that set you up later like “eat for me” or “you are going to bed if you don’t eat now”.
They need to learn to recognize their own hunger and find foods that are healthy are tasty too for their future health.
2) Don’t fill their plates!
Give small portions with a mix of bite sized pieces and pick up foods that won’t overwhelm them and spoil their interest. For example, give a few bites of scrambled eggs and a ½ slice of wheat bread with fruit cubes they love for breakfast.
They can practice utensil skills and pickup other foods all while getting a little bit of a variety of foods.
Giving one or two items they don’t want will just turn them off, but eating one appealing food could spur them on to eating other things too.
3) Eat together and be the leader!
When families eat together, kids have you to role model good eating, manners and will eat more. When you sit down at the table it is a good idea to disconnect from the electronic world by turning off the TV and putting cell phones on hold until the meal is completed in order to give the mealtime all the attention it deserves and reduce distractions for youngsters.
Don’t cause family meal times to be a fight, it should be a bonding time.
4) Don’t let them fill up on fluids before they eat real food
Hold the beverage until after they eat some of their food. Give milk or 100% juice at meals and water between meals to quench thirst.
5) Avoid sporadic meals
Set a schedule for eating meals and snacks then stick to it as much as possible.
Don’t allow them to get too hungry before a meal so they are frustrated by the time food is ready. This will also avoid snacking on ‘junk’ foods that are easy to quiet a hungry child.
6) Get imaginative!
Find fun ways to serve foods that will bring the joy!
Use your cookie cutters for pancakes, toast and sandwiches. Make shapes out of the meal by using colorful veggies to build protein trees (meat is the trunk, broccoli the leaves). Cut foods into interesting shapes like carrot coins one day and small carrot sticks another day.
Keep the rainbow on the plate. Use fun cups and plates to make it an adventure! Faces are fun too!
7) Be persistent
Encourage your child to sit at the table even if they don’t eat what is served.
Don’t make them a special meal. They will learn that what is served is good to eat and will eventually realize the food is being enjoyed by others at the table and try it for themselves. They will become familiar with the foods you provide and start eating them.
If you make them their own favorite chicken nuggets every night, there is no incentive to try new foods.
8) Let older children plan and prepare meals
With older children you can involve them. Let them look through recipes and cookbooks to plan their own meals. Then let them help you with the grocery shopping and meal preparation.
When they are part of the process, they soon learn about nutrition and the effort it takes to make meals for the family. Because the foods are their choice and made by them, they will eat with pride.
Even young children love to help out in the kitchen! Let them wash the vegetables, set the table, mix the pancakes and other tasks to bring the meal to the table. Now it becomes real fun not a struggle.
None of these strategies will make your family meals perfect overnight. Just as you worked into a sleep routine, eating without tension will take time and consistency.
It will not always be easy, but the habits you develop will be healthy for your kids and peaceful for your family!