Having a picky eater at home can feel a bit like running on a hamster wheel. We are racing to figure out ways to improve food choices but often getting nowhere. There are a million ways small children can be picky about food – textures, flavors, when, where, and so on. However, there are simple ways to improve eating and behaviors around food with no drama.
First, let’s discuss what picky eating is: the spectrum of behaviors and preferences related to food consumption. For one mom, a “picky eater” might be a kid who doesn’t enjoy her favorite spicy Mexican dish. For another family, it might be a child who refuses to eat all fruits and vegetables. In the context of this article, picky eating is more than just a food preference or two that doesn’t jive with the family’s typical food choices. If a kid loves vegetables but maybe doesn’t like soy sauce, you are way ahead of the curve. Give as little lip service to “disliked” foods as possible and carry on. If more often than not meals are a trying time, here are some simple and subtle ways to make improvements.
Consider the Environment
The very first job we have as parents is to set up a positive eating environment. The places, times, and atmosphere of eating are critical to consider. If the environment food is consumed in is consistent and positive, the child can read those cues and move more constructively toward good eating behaviors.
- Timing – meals should be served at regular times throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Snacks should be limited to once or twice per day as grazing fills their little bellies and reduces hunger cues.
- Place – obviously not every meal or snack is going to be able to be consumed at the kitchen or dining room table. However, meals should definitely be served while seated at a table or counter whenever possible. Snacks might be a bit looser in terms of where they are served but should definitely be separate from play spaces and activities.
- Distractions – as adults we can tune out a TV show or toys or books while eating, but that is much more difficult for children. During meals the TV and electronics should remain off, toys off the table and out of sight.
- For additional information on promoting a positive eating environment, check here.
Keep Language Positive
Our kids listen to our words even when they appear to not be paying attention. Using positive language around food is really helpful to encourage better food choices and behaviors. Saying things like, “Wow, great job trying that new food.” or “Look at how nicely you are sitting at the table tonight.” gives our kids clues to the behaviors we are looking for. Trying to limit negative language is extremely helpful in reducing the “battle ground” feel of picky eating. Unless there is a dangerous or unsafe behavior occurring, ignore the not so great stuff and aim to use positive language to notice the good stuff.
Playing with food when there is no expectation of eating is a great way for kids to use their other senses to learn about food. Use pasta to make necklaces. Fill a baking dish with dry beans to make a construction truck zone. This is also a huge opportunity to get kids in the kitchen to help cook. Kids as young as 2 years old can help pour measured ingredients into a bowl or put sliced fruit onto a plate. During these times of play, children are actively learning how foods feel, smell, and look without ever taking a bite. Food play is a great way to reduce anxiety about new or disliked foods.
Expand the Definition of “Trying”
For an adult, trying a new food means taking a bite, chewing, swallowing, and assessing whether or not we enjoy the food. This is about ten steps into a child’s experience which makes it essential to expand our definition of trying. Kids obviously first use their sight to see the colors and general texture of a food. They use smell to assess odors. They use feel to see if the food is wet, dry, cold, hot, and so on. Before a food enters their mouth, they might use their lips to further assess the texture or temperature. They may lick a food to introduce the taste before a food is chewed or bitten into. All of these steps are part of trying. Not only is it absolutely critical to use these various steps to limit anxiety around food but it is a huge opportunity to try foods with no drama and no pressure. Talk about what the child notices along the way.
It is well established that it can take 10-15 exposures to a food for it to become acceptable. Got a kid that doesn’t eat broccoli? Still put one or two pieces on their plate and offer up a chance to “try” it as noted above.
Use Favorite Foods to Your Advantage
If a kid’s favorite food is goldfish crackers, use them to help try new foods. Sandwich a piece of chicken between two goldfish or dip a cracker into a new sauce. Pairing a new food with a favorite food makes the whole process less intimidating.
No Short Order Cooking
If you have a super picky eater at home this can feel like crazy talk. We all want our kids to eat, grow, and be healthy. However, short order cooking (making the child something separate from the family’s meal) is one of the fastest ways to derail progress in expanding food choices. Yet, it can feel pretty bad to watch a child eat no food at a meal. The simplest solution is to make sure that each family meal includes at least one “safe” food. For example, dinner for the whole family might be served with a whole grain dinner roll or apple slices or a side of brown rice. Some of these very simple kid food favorites are appropriate to provide but as part of the whole family’s meal, not just for one child.
Rewards That Are Not Food Related
If you have a truly picky eater at home it can be easy to bribe them with dessert or a favorite snack. However, rewards unrelated to food are better for teaching healthy eating habits as well as preventing their bellies from filling up on sweets. A super great reward is time with a parent or family member. If a child has an exceptionally good meal, perhaps that earns them playing a board game with mom or dad. Or if a child has been able to stop throwing fits at the dinner table that could earn them an afternoon with grandma. There are a million ways to reward positive steps toward healthy eating but food should not be one of them.
After following steps to improve eating, change may be subtle at first, but long lasting change will be the result. If picky eating persists, further consultation may be necessary. Occupational therapist, Bethany Ellwanger, helps us understand when picky eating is more than just a phase here. Picky eating is very common among toddlers but can become worse or last for extended periods of time if not properly addressed. The steps outlined here promote improvements while erasing the drama. Peaceful family meal times are more than possible.
Cole is a wife and mom of three. She has been a Registered Dietitian since 2005. Her journey through self-mastery and anchoring herself in her family has been the most important and on-going practice of her life. Cole loves being active with her family, yoga, cooking, and spending time in nature.