Children are notorious for being picky eaters. Whether they hate vegetables, only like foods that are red, or just don’t like their rice to touch the peas, children can drive parents mad with their demands, writes dietician Denise Fair. Read on to discover 7 crucial tips for parents of picky eaters.
We tend to brush off picky eating as part of “just being a kid”, and to some degree, this is true. However, extreme picky eating – including an inability to try new foods, deliberate slow eating and inability to eat a full meal unless they are distracted – can lead to lifelong bad habits, childhood obesity and nutritional deficiencies.
We tend to bend over backwards for our kids when it comes to food. With domestic helpers catering to their every whim, poor nutritional kids’ meals at restaurants and a plethora of unhealthy snack options at every turn, it is no wonder they are developing bad eating habits and consuming an astonishing amount of fats and sugars. So what can the parents of picky eaters do to help?
The first step in improving children’s eating habits is to redefine how we look at eating and divide up the responsibilities. First and foremost, parents need to be aware that they are the boss, even if the stubborn look on your three-year-old’s face says otherwise. Parents are responsible for determining when and what food is served. By setting rules and enforcing the consequences, your child will learn that mealtime is not a time for a power struggle. Stick to the rules you have set and do not negotiate them as this undermines your authority. Be consistent. Meals need to be balanced with lean meats, nutritious starches and vegetables. Variety is the key to proper nutrition and a healthy body. Children should eat at least 10 different vegetables, if not more.
Children are responsible for whether they will eat and how much they will eat. Your child should not be forced to eat or “clean their plate”. Children’s appetites and palates change daily and forcing them to eat doesn’t allow them to stay in tune with their internal signals of being full and may lead to overeating and childhood obesity. Help your child to be successful by giving adequate sized portions and keep distractions, such as toys and TV, away during mealtimes.
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Meals should be nutritious and one meal should be prepared for the whole family. Children can be involved in the menu planning; just don’t let them dictate the menu. Children should be offered small amounts of unfamiliar or disliked foods and encouraged to try them. Establishing a one-bite policy may help, but be patient and try to make mealtimes relaxed and stress-free. It can take up to 10 attempts of a new food for a child to accept it, and negative words won’t help them like the food any better. You are better off being a good role model and demonstrating healthy habits as children learn from their parents and take their lead.
Stop the Snacking
If your child is uninterested in food, it may be a result of simply not being hungry enough. Constant snacking and drinking juices all day destroys a child’s appetite. A hungry child is a lot less picky, so allow for adequate time between meals and snacks. Setting time limits for meals can also be helpful – for example, 30 minutes for meals and 15 minutes for snacks. Water should be offered during the day and juice should be limited to 250ml per day and be given towards the end of the meal. Although this may cause a few tantrums it can make a huge difference in a picky eater.
The eating habits children learn today will follow them into the future. That is why it is important to establish proper eating habits while they are young. Most bad habits and picky eating tend to be behavioural and can be managed by defining the responsibilities and setting rules. For extreme cases, and when children are unable to adequately gain weight, professional help should be obtained.
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7 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters
1. Don’t become a short order cook.
If a child is refusing to eat certain foods, parents may be tempted to provide a separate meal, but that only gives in to the behaviour. Kids are smart. If they know you’ll make them something else they already like, they’ll never take the opportunity to try new foods. Parents need to decide what the meal is going to be and stick to it. The child can choose to eat it or not. If they choose not to, that is fine. They won’t starve to death after missing one meal.
2. If your child refuses to eat their vegetables…
If a child continues to leave the vegetables on the plate even after encouragement, then start giving half portions of meat and starch with the adequate portion of vegetables. Tell them they can have the other half of their food when they finish their vegetables. This may take a few attempts as some kids won’t eat those vegetables, but after a while they will be hungry and will eventually give in.
3. Make mealtimes a sit-down event.
When kids are constantly eating on the go, they get used to fast-food items and other foods that can be easily taken on the road. These typically do not include a variety of fruits and vegetables. Plus, getting kids used to eating meals at the table gives them the opportunity to try new foods. Kids need to sit down for their entire meal – yes, even little ones. Changing this behaviour is very hard but you must be consistent. Remind your child that if they leave the table, the meal is over.
4. Plan your meals and snacks.
Allowing kids to graze all day long is an easy way to ensure that they won’t be hungry when it comes to time for dinner. This includes juices and milks. For a child who constantly sips juice (even watered down juice) or milk, they are getting just enough energy to prevent true hunger. Children should only drink water between meals and snacks. A child who’s not hungry is often picky and definitely not going to be willing to try new foods.
5. Don’t make a big issue of it.
Some parents of picky eaters don’t think it is a big issue, while some make it more of an issue than it needs to be. While correcting this issue is important and taking the tough love approach is best, it doesn’t mean parents have to go overboard. Stick to the rules set out (for example, trying new foods four times a week, not getting up from your seat, eating all the vegetables given) but don’t make this a fight. Stay relaxed, especially when things get heated.
6. Make it fun and get the kids involved.
It is important to talk to your kids about how their behaviour is affecting the family and how it will impact them later in life (i.e. they won’t be healthy, strong or grow properly). Then get them to be part of the solution. Let them help make your weekly meal plan, let them choose which new food they will try, take them to the grocery store and let them take charge of their new diet. Make sure to stress how important that food variety is to get all those vitamins and minerals.
7. Don’t reward or punish children with food.
While this seems simple, in practice it is very hard. We all do it – rewarding a child with ice cream when they accomplish something wonderful, taking a favourite treat away when a child misbehaves, or using food as a distraction to occupy and quieten a child. It is important that children only eat when they are hungry. This reliance on food for entertainment or self-gratification weaves a complicated web between food and emotions, one that notoriously leads to obesity and poor eating habits.
Though picky eating is a normal part of development, there’s no question that it can be a frustrating stage for parents to overcome. The key is to stay strong and be consistent with the rules you have implemented. A child will not starve themselves, they will eventually give in. However, if your child is highly anxious and demonstrates true phobias around foods, it is important to speak with a health care professional. While you may feel exhausted by your fussy eater, using these strategies will help you to have an easier and more enjoyable mealtime with your children. Healthy eating has lifelong importance, and the earlier kids can learn to embrace healthy eating habits, the better.
This article appeared in Playtimes April Issue 2016 and was updated in March 2020.
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