Picky eaters are annoying.
They can ruin a meal like no other and can take any fun out of planning for the next eating experience. Chances are, at some point, they have been unintentionally enabled.
Typically parents will try all sorts of means to get the “difficult” one to eat. Short-order cooking, forcing them to eat the offending food, allowing them to fix something different for themselves and even letting them skip meals all together will only encourage the picky eating behavior.
Following are tips for slowly working toward ending the food battles, and ideas for preventing your up-and-coming eaters from being picky, too.
First off, you need to have regular meals at regular time. If meals are the exception then eating also becomes an exception and kids do not learn the expectations.
A major expectation for meals is to eat what is served. Kids should not be expected to eat all of everything, but should be counted on to at least taste what is provided.
Secondly, kids need to be hungry when they sit down to eat. Therefore, there should be no snacking before mealtime. Snacks are certainly allowed, but the timing is tricky so they do not interfere with the appetite for the next meal.
Meals are not a time to hassle over what is eaten. A parent’s responsibility is to serve appropriate foods at appropriate times. Your child’s responsibility is how much they eat and even whether or not they eat.
You should not interfere with the volumes they consume because they need to learn when to stop eating on their own. You need to trust their ability to learn what and how much to eat. The more you interfere with their choices and amounts, the more resistance you are likely to experience.
Once you have done your job of putting the meal on the table, sit down and relax. Enjoy your meal and the kids are more likely to enjoy theirs.
Appropriate meals are balanced and offer three to five food groups. They should include a vegetable or fruit, preferably both.
For the picky eater it is a good idea to offer one item that you know they will eat that fits in with the meal. It could be bread, rice, potatoes, carrots, chicken, salad or sliced apples.
If they fill up on this one item, so be it. The next meal they will likely move on to something else. Just like they trust you to provide three meals a day, you can trust them to eat.
Getting them to taste the other items is fair, but do not force them to eat. Remember, the goal is to get them to eat healthy for the long term, not to get them to eat all of their split pea soup at any one meal.
Kids over time will eat a variety of foods. You just need to be patient and remember the long-term goal. It can take eight or more times for a food to be offered before it will eventually be eaten. Preparing offending foods in different ways can also promote taste testing.
Engage your picky eater in menu planning, meal preparation and grocery shopping. Have them pick something from the produce section that they will agree to at least taste.
Also be sure to reflect on your own eating behavior. Your children will model what you do. If you are always dieting, voicing dislike for various foods and eating foods you don’t want them to eat, they will clearly get a mixed message about what they should be eating.
When it comes to mealtime you need to all be eating the same foods. Do not prepare something else for yourself or them.
To summarize: be patient, ensure regular meals at regular times, keep offering offending foods with expectations for them to be tasted, make meal time pleasant and don’t allow the picky eater to openly complain about foods they do not like.
Finally, if your picky eater remains very choosy in their food selection, you cannot be blamed. You have set the appropriate foundation. As they mature they likely will at least be well-mannered, maybe even flexible, picky eaters who do not totally annoy their future friends and family.
Michele Lucas is a registered dietitian at Providence St. Mary Medical Center and the mother of two children.