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How to Deal With Picky Eaters
I Don’t Want To! You Can’t Make Me!
Children are growing and changing every day. That means their appetite and what they're willing to eat is also changing. What they liked this morning may be a "no-go" by supper time or they may develop a food fixation. For toddlers, you may find they're particular about how their food is prepared or arranged.
Before I had my own children, I spent nearly 25 years helped others raise their children, doing everything from baby-sitting to being a live-in caregiver. So, I’m no stranger to picky eaters. They come in many guises, such as the child who:
- Doesn’t want the food to touch each other;
- Refuses to eat foods of a certain colours;
- Will only eat foods of a particular colour;
- Suddenly doesn’t like something they used to eat before;
- Says their food tastes “yucky”;
- Won’t eat meat because of the texture against their tongues;
- Complains they’re full after two bites;
- Insists they’re “allergic” to their food.
Some of the food issues are simple enough to handle, like leaving space between food items on the plate so they don’t touch each other. Others require a little more work. For example:
If your child won’t eat pasta with tomato sauce on it, learn another way of preparing it. Pasta can be made up several delicious ways, including without sauce at all. My brother preferred simply having his pasta coated in butter. Some children will even go so far as to allow the butter to be seasoned with salt and basil or a bit of soup mix powder. If your child likes cheese, see if they would like some cheese on top. Sometimes gooey melted cheese is all it takes to make a picky eater happy.
Part of being a parent is having patience and understanding. It means appreciating that your child is an unique individual with his or her own preferences and desires. Your job is to make sure they get the nutrition they need, but the dinner table doesn’t have to be a battle ground.
Remember: Your child is not deliberately being a jerk to mess with you. They have a legitimate dilemma and need your help in solving it.
Solving the issue of a picky eater requires the parents to recall what it was like being a child, sitting at the dinner table. Were you allowed to select which items you wanted on your plate? Or, how much food you were given? Do you remember being full and having an adult tell you that you must finish everything on your plate before you could be excused? Or, having to eat a yucky food? Well, you’re the adult now. Keep those memories in mind.
At the most, offer 2 choices for younger children and 3 for older ones. Any more than that will overwhelm your child. Remember the KISS rule: Keep It Simple Sunshine!
The Power of Having Options
First and foremost, I encourage parents to get their children involved in meal preparation. No one likes to feel helpless and kids at meal times are often held hostage by adult preferences and portions.
When a child doesn’t have options about the food they put in their mouths, they can start to feel resentful. Meal time becomes a hassle as all sorts of quirks or even rebellions pop up. I’ve found that the fastest way to overcome a majority of meal-time challenges is to give children options.
You want to make sure that the options are healthy and that your children aren’t overwhelmed, so be sure to limit what is available. This is a simple matter of asking your children things like:
- What would be fun for supper tonight? Chicken leg with our special barbecue sauce or breaded pork chops?
- Do we want peas or corn with that?
- Are we in the mood for lettuce salad or pasta salad?
If your children can’t agree on an item, find a fair way of making it happen. For example, have them pick a number that you’re thinking of and the one that is closest gets to choose. Remember that if you do this, allow the other child(ren) to have their turn to decide something so everyone has an equal say.
Recipes Kids Can Help Make
Yummy and nutritious meals:
- Hearty Cottage Pie
- Gluten Free Crêpes (Let your child put on the filling and roll!)
- Easy Cheesy Nachos
- Wiggly Noodle Stir-Fry
Quick and easy desserts:
For information on kitchen safety when cooking with children, read Setting Kitchen Rules.
Cooking with Kids
Once you’ve decided on what to make, let your kids help in whatever capacity it suitable for their age and skill level.
- Chopping veggies;
- Setting table;
- Adding food to the pan or pot;
- Setting timer;
- Fetching ingredients;
- Reading recipe aloud;
- Adding seasonings;
- Making juice;
When children feel pride in the food that’s been made, they are more likely to eat it without a fuss.
Allow your child(ren) to have a say in the portions they are served at meal time. Sometimes adults forget that a child’s stomach is the same size as their fist. That’s all the food they should be getting in one sitting, otherwise you risk stretching their stomachs and causing health issues. Keep servings small. If your child wants more, they can go for second (or third) helpings.
Techniques to Avoid
Over the years, I’ve also seen some horrific solutions that parents have come up with, such as:
- Physically forcing food into the child’s mouth and putting a hand over the mouth until the child swallows;
- Allowing the child to eat something that isn't healthy instead of their supper just so the child will eat; and
- Making the child sit at the table until the food is eaten or it’s bedtime.
If you find yourself using heavy-handed methods, please STOP! You are harming your relationship and your child.
Stress can ruin the appetite, especially when we have a rigid idea about what and when mealtime should be. A child’s level of activity and stage of growth development will cause their needs to fluctuate. This ebb and flow of appetite can drive a parent to distraction. Try to roll with things and keep mealtimes relaxed.
One way to do this is to create a pleasant atmosphere. Turn off the television and make meals "family time". Talk to each other about positive things to keep the mood upbeat. Tell jokes. Have your child list things that made them happy that day.
When people enjoy the company they're with, they tend to stay longer at the table and eat more. So, keep your child engaged.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
No offence to Mom and Dad, but there is a chance that certain foods aren’t being cooked in a palatable manner. For years, I thought I hated venison and lamb. Turns out, I just didn’t like how my parents cooked them. One of the great things about food is that you can always try again with another preparation method.
Dealing with Veggies
If your child finds cooked veggies “yucky” or "slimey" then you may be overcooking them. I’ve heard from many adults who recalled their distaste for certain vegetables originating from the mushy feel and bland flavour of overcooked veggies. Be careful to only lightly steam or pan fry veggies, otherwise you will cook the flavour and nutrition right out of them.
Make it Fun!
Make food more fun by including healthy dips and spreads or constructing meals that require toppings. Options for dipping, spreading and topping can include:
- Peanut butter or other nut butter;
- Jam or other preserves;
- Spreadable cheese;
- Salad dressing;
- Tofu dip;
- Tomato sauce;
- Pureed fruit;
- Bacon bits or pepperoni slices;
- Raisins or other dried fruits;
- Pickles ...
You can do this for snacks such as fruit slices and veggie strips or make a light meal of toast, rice cakes, bagels or crackers. With a simple bagel and a few toppings, your child can make a mini-pizza. Rice cakes spread with peanut butter becomes the base for a fun picture your child can make with raisins.
To ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need, make snacks available to them throughout the day. A favourite way of doing this is to make a Snack Tray by placing healthy bite-sized finger foods in an ice cube tray, muffin tin or other container with compartments. These foods can include:
- Fruit cubes;
- Hard boiled egg slices;
- Steamed veggies;
- Cheese cubes;
- Dry cereal; and
For younger kids, keep the tray within your child’s reach so they can access it as they go about their activities. Remember that these things only have a table-life of about an hour or two. For older kids, you can keep their trays in the fridge.
A Quick Note on Food Allergies & Intolerance
One thing that can create a “picky eater” is food allergies and intolerance. If your child has a reaction to specific foods, it may not be big enough for you to notice. It may be as subtle as a tingle or burning of their mouth, lips and tongue. For others, it is a reaction in their digestive system (gas cramps, burning tummy, “squishy gut”, etc.) Younger children don’t have the understanding or ability to communicate when something is “off” so they will simply push away the offending food and perhaps even fuss or cry. An older child may say that the food is “weird” or “funny”. They may also say something like, “It makes my tummy hurt.”
Now that you’ve had a chance to look over different solutions for dealing “picky eaters” and perhaps taken a stroll down memory lane about your own “pickiness” as a child, I hope you’ve found some useful solutions. And, I suspect that somewhere along the way, you may have discovered:
Your children aren’t really "picky”. They just know what they like and how much food they can handle.
© 2012 Rosa Marchisella