Tips For Picky Eaters And Their Parents
By: Andrea Stokes, RD, Julie Mancuso, Owner of JM Nutrition, nutritional counselling service by registered nutritionists and dietitians, Terence Boateng, BASc, BSc, RD, CSEP-SEP, MHSc
In this post:
Strategies and tips for picky eaters
Reasons why these picky eating tips work
Parents, are you looking for tips for picky eaters? Our nutritionists and dietitians have compiled an extensive list of picky eating tips for parents.
Mealtimes can be challenging when there are picky eaters at the table. If feeding picky eaters in your family has led to frustration, stress, and concern over their nutritional intake, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are strategies to help bring the joy back to mealtimes. The following picky eater tips for parents are designed with kids in mind, but they can certainly apply to fussy eaters of all ages.
Tips for picky eaters
1. Keep the peace
One of the more important tips for picky eaters and their parents is to avoid turning mealtimes into a battleground.
This means taking the pressure off picky eaters.
How do you do that? Resist the temptation to bribe, coerce or convince them to eat.
Avoid making comments on what anyone is (or isn’t) eating. Instead, make mealtimes a time to enjoy your family’s company and connect with one another.
Keep in mind, kids are able to pick up on your frustration and anxiety over what they are eating. This makes the dining experience more stressful for everyone. Undoubtedly, doing so can swiftly cause the kids to rebel.
Harvard Health reports that research shows when parents are more strict and demanding when dealing with their children’s refusal to eat certain foods, the more likely the picky eating behaviour.
2. Know your responsibilities
When it comes to feeding and eating, we all have certain responsibilities.
A good motto to follow is: “You provide, the child decides”. This is one of the most powerful tips for picky eaters and their parents.
Essentially, parents and caregivers are responsible for when, where and what to eat. That is, parents set meal times, decide where to eat and provide the foods for each meal.
Kids, on the other hand, are responsible for whether or not to eat, and how much to eat. This allows children to take ownership of their feeding habits without feeling pressure from parents. At the same time, parents still retain some control over mealtimes.
While it’s much easier to establish these roles early on, this is an approach that you can take at any stage of your child’s life.
3. Avoid making separate meals for picky eaters
This is one of the fundamental picky eating tips for parents. It’s highly endorsed by current research as well as many organizations and publications. Super Healthy Kids considers this tactic as one from which to steer clear.
Even though kids have ownership over what they choose to eat, it doesn’t mean you should cater to requests.
Be sure to include at least one food item in each meal that your child usually likes to eat, but avoid making a separate meal for picky eaters–even if they choose not to eat any of the foods provided.
Reason being, if picky eaters know they can request a favourite food any time they want it, it’s unlikely they will be open to trying and experimenting with new foods.
4. Eat together
It can be helpful to encourage everyone to eat together at the table, even if your picky eater isn’t interested in eating at that time. He or she can still be a part of the social connection that dining together as a family brings. The more he or she sees others enjoying the foods provided, the higher the comfort level of trying these foods on his or her own.
If you have a toddler in your family and you find it’s a fight to pull him or her away from play time to eat, you might want to consider letting him or her continue to play while the rest of the family starts the meal. Typically, if the child is hungry, he or she will come to the table in a few minutes on his or her own.
Remember, the less conflict around meal times, the better.
5. Close the kitchen… for a while
One of the more simple tips for picky eaters and their parents is to simply close the kitchen for a set amount of time after meals.
The purpose here is to avoid the trap of picky eaters skipping dinner, only to raid the snack cupboard later in the evening. Remind your child that the kitchen will be closed for a few hours after dinner, so to avoid feeling hungry later he or she should make an effort to eat now.
This type of rule won’t necessarily be an instant solution, but over time it will encourage kids to regulate their appetite accordingly.
6. Keep it coming!
Parents often throw in the towel on certain foods, simply because their fussy eater is refusing to eat them.
This can actually further cement the idea in kids’ heads that they don’t like certain foods–even foods they’ve never tried but that parents just assume they won’t like.
Repeated exposure is key
It takes a variety of different foods, and repeated exposure to these foods, for kids to build their taste preferences. In fact, it can take 15 or more tries before a child warms up to a new food. And variety is key to success with picky eating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There may be many times that picky eaters refuse to eat a particular food, but at some point they may develop a taste or at least a tolerance for it. Kids’ palates tend to change over time as well, so foods previously off limits can become favourites as long as they consistently have the opportunity to try them.
Remember to keep the pressure off. Simply place the foods on the table or on their plate without trying to convince them to eat anything. The goal is simply to allow them to learn to experiment with and try out new foods, according to their comfort level. This is one of the most basic, yet critical picky eating tips for parents.
7. Easy does it
Serving small–sometimes even tiny–portions of fought-over foods cannot only save you from wasting your groceries, but will also make meal times less overwhelming for picky eaters.
If your child is not eating broccoli, a plate piled high with it is likely to make them go on the defensive, refusing it outright.
Instead, try plating a single broccoli floret, or even just a slice of a single floret. At the same time, keep extra portions of all the meal items available on the table, so the child is free to take more if he or she chooses. This can be an effective way to avoid picky eating behaviour.
8. Be a good role-model
Your kids, especially picky eaters, take notice of what you choose to eat and not eat. In fact, many of the eating habits we have as adults have been picked up from our parents.
Make this principle work for you and your fussy eater. Model the behaviour you would like to see. Be open to new foods. Maintain a positive attitude. And, feel free to let them know when you’re really enjoying what you’re eating!
9. Choose your words carefully
How we talk about food in front of children can deeply impact their own relationship with food.
Avoid referring to foods as “good” and “bad”. Keeping moral connotations away from food discussions will help ensure kids grow up with a healthy appetite for both nutrient-dense foods (e.g., fruits and veggies) and foods that are more treat-like (e.g., desserts).
Likewise, lecturing on the health benefits of foods may not likely land, especially with younger kids. You might want to try swapping “vegetables are good for you” for “orange foods help you see in the dark”, or “green foods help you to fight off sickness”. This way, the message resonates a bit more.
What’s more, make sure your kids see you eating the foods you’d like them to eat.
10. Keep desserts neutral
Certainly, this is one of the key picky eating tips for parents.
When it comes to desserts and treats, avoid using them as a bribe to encourage picky eaters to eat more of other components of their meal.
While well-intentioned, this tactic teaches children that their meal is a chore, while only desserts are truly tasty.
Furthermore, doing so indicates to children that the meal is something to endure and overcome to earn dessert.
In fact, it can often be an effective strategy to include dessert with the meal, instead of saving it for the end. This is especially helpful for kids who refuse to eat much of their meal, knowing that they’d rather wait until their dessert comes. When dessert isn’t framed as being so special, but instead equal in value to all the other foods served at that meal, kids are often inclined to eat a much wider variety of foods.
11. Beware of easy access to highly-palatable foods
Giving children easy, unrestrained access to highly-palatable foods laden with the three powerful ingredients of sugar, salt and fat can certainly compound the picky eating problem.
If you’re going to keep such foods in the house at all times, make sure to have a system in place:
- Keep a variety of healthy foods (including snacks) on hand at all times
- Place them in clear containers, while the less healthy snack option in opaque ones
- Make sure the healthier food options are within easy reach, while the unhealthy ones are more difficult to access. The out of sight, out of mind principle can work wonders with kids.
- In addition, make the food look appealing to your children and they are more likely to eat. In the culinary world this technique, which has been shown to work, is called plating.
- What’s more, provide your kids with structure and keep meals and snacks routine as best you can. Doing so can eliminate those impulsive reaches for those highly-palatable ingredients on which the child fills up, potentially decreasing appetite at meal time. This, in turn, can lead to refusal of food, which may look like picky eating.
12. Kids don’t want to eat vegetables?
For picky eaters, vegetables are often the most disliked food on the menu.
A major factor in determining whether or not a child will eat vegetables is what they are paired with. Vegetables paired with foods that a child really enjoys tend to be left on the plate, since they are in competition with favourite.
One way around this is to try offering vegetables as a pre-meal appetizer, when no other foods are available.
The next time you’re getting dinner ready, try leaving out a tray of raw vegetables and dip for your kids (and you) to snack on. You can still serve them as a side dish to your meal, but you won’t stress as much if they end up being left on the plate.
A simple, yet one of the more effective picky eating tips that can be readily applied to most situations.
13. Engage interest
No picky eating tips list would be complete without this one.
It is no doubt important to keep children interested in the foods they are eating or foods we, as parents, want them to try.
An effective way of doing this is to make the food more appealing by using foods of vivid colours or cutting them into shapes that the child may find interesting (e.g., animals).
Involve the kids in meal prep and cooking
If old enough, you can engage the child further by having him or her take part in the meal or snack prepping process. Doing so will add to the ownership the child feels at meal time. This method comes highly recommended by John Hopkins Medicine, when attempting to get the kids on board with eating healthy lunches at school.
Similarly, Registered Dietitian, Terence Boateng, recommends getting the kids involved in the cooking process as much as possible. According to him, this is one of the most significant picky eating tips for parents.
From his experience working with children one-on-one and in large groups, Boateng feels that even the most fussy eaters tend to want to try eating food they had a hand in preparing.
Boateng goes on to suggest to have kids google a recipe they think sounds good with at least one new food item. Once at the grocery store with their parents, they personally choose the item that goes into the dish. When it’s time to prep and cook, engage the picky eater by chopping, seasoning and cooking the meal, when safe and if age-appropriate. Doing so greatly increases children’s likelihood to try new foods.
14. Put on your chef’s hat
Not everyone has the passion, skill or time to don the chef’s hat and get creative with meals.
That said, however, if culinary experimentation is up your alley or should the inclination to do so strike you, it may be enough to help your child overcome picky eating.
Experimenting with different meals can help gauge what your child’s likes and dislikes truly are. Perhaps you will discover foods that your child gravitates towards through regular exposure to variety.
In addition, maybe some of the foods that we would like our child to eat more regularly can be sneaked into sauces, pastas, casseroles, stews, stir fries, smoothies and so on.
This allows your child to take in nutrients from foods that they normally would not consume.
Although it takes some effort, being creative is no doubt one of the most indispensable picky eating tips for parents.
15. Remain patient with picky eating
Another one of the key picky eating tips centres around patience.
According to Mayo Clinic, patience goes a very long way, when dealing with picky eating in children.
Some kids are more natural curiosity seekers than others. The former is probably more open-minded and eager to try different foods, or new foods for that matter. The latter, on the other hand, may not be as adventurous and simply labelled as a fussy eater.
For parents whose child demonstrates extreme picky eating behaviour it is important to remain patient. Perhaps the child needs repeated exposure before it is willing to try certain foods. Applying the frequency effect has been shown to work on some fussy eaters. Patience also goes hand in hand with encouragement. Staying positive and supportive throughout is key to changing behaviour.
16. Intolerances, sensitivities, allergies?
Perhaps we should have addressed this one first.
It is important to rule out intolerances, sensitivities and allergies your child may have to certain foods as the reason for their refusal.
Observe the child and his or her reactions to be able to gauge things.
You can also ask the child how he or she is feeling when eating or shortly after.
Anecdotal evidence like this can be of immense help when dealing with is often labelled as picky eaters.
17. Teach mindfulness
As a parent you can positively influence your child’s approach to eating from the onset.
When you feel the child is old enough, you can begin teaching it to be mindful about eating, paying attention to cravings and hunger.
You can even briefly talk about the food and how it makes him or her feel. Though this may sound strange to some, such an early introduction to the principles of mindfulness and intuitive eating can be of great help when the child grows up.
Without a doubt, picky eating in children can be challenging and quite frustrating for parents. It is our hope that some of the tips for picky eaters that our children’s nutritionists and dietitians provided will be of some help.
Are we missing any tips for picky eaters?
Should you have any other tips you’d like to share or perhaps add to the list, by all means, get in touch with us.
Andrea Stokes is a registered dietitian and contributing writer to JM Nutrition. She is based in St. John’s, NL, and specializes in intuitive eating, including picky eating. Andrea offers a practical, weight-inclusive approach to help you build a healthier and happier relationship with food, mind, and body, bringing back the joy to eating. Andrea operates her own practice called Mindset Nutrition and Wellness.