Mealtime Madness: How to Deal with Picky Eaters

Don't worry, parents. Easy tips for overcoming picky eating are on the way.

Picky eater

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It’s 6 p.m. and you’ve worked hard to shop, plan, and prepare a healthy dinner for your kids. But as you’re asked, “What’s for dinner?,” you can’t help but feel that an all-out battle is about to ensue, one where your normally happy, adorable children start whining and making faces at the food you worked so hard to put on the table. Sound familiar? If you find yourself in this situation, or any that makes you resort to tactics like sneaking, coercing, or begging your children to eat at meal times, follow these picky eating tips.

Develop a routine

Are meal times and snacks around the same time each day, or are they available on demand? Eating on demand is only necessary for infants, who need to be fed constantly to get enough nutrition for their rapidly growing bodies. But as your baby approaches the toddler years and growth slows, you should create a routine with regular meal times and snacks every two to three hours.

It is important that children have regularly-scheduled meal times and snacks instead of grazing throughout the day so that they know when to expect their next meal and develop a healthy appetite. Remember that children are born with the innate ability to recognize hunger cues and eat the appropriate amount of food when they are hungry. Over time, though, this intuitive ability to recognize hunger can become stifled if food is constantly available, or if  you use common strategies like requiring your child to eat all of her vegetables before dessert or clean her plate before leaving the table.

Introduce new foods.

Alleviating fear of new foods is key to overcoming picky eating. To get your child comfortable with new things, try offering four or five different foods at meal times, with several of the choices being foods that your child knows and loves. You may have to do this many times before your child will even try the new food options, and it may be tempting to “hide” foods through techniques like pureeing broccoli and incorporating it into chicken nuggets, but try to avoid doing this. Long-term eating behaviors are shaped during childhood, and it is important for a child to become familiar with foods in their natural form.

Don’t eat on-the-go

Always have meals and snacks at a table (not in the car, stroller, or in front of the television), and aim to provide a relaxing environment for your child. This structure helps keep your child focused on the meal and instills good, life-long eating behaviors. Plus, seated meals are a good time to eat with your children and be a role model. Show enjoyment for foods you’re offering your kids and avoid showing distaste for a food; a child will quickly pick up on cues that you don’t like a food and model your behavior.

Make a dessert game plan

Here you have a couple of options. You could offer a small portion of dessert with the meal, or you could try offering dessert sporadically, avoiding making it something that is expected after the main meal. If there is no dessert that night, fruit can always be offered as an option if your child is still hungry. In any case, make sure that dessert is never used as a reward. This encourages children to pay more attention to external cues (like what you expect them to do) and less attention to internal ones, like hunger.

Adopt a new mantra

Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician who wrote The Division of Responsibility in Feeding, an internationally-accepted model for feeding children from infancy to adolescent years, developed this mantra: I decide what and when, and my child decides whether and how much.

You may find this mantra easy enough to say, but it can be difficult to follow when you are faced with a child that refuses to eat anything. But if you develop a feeding schedule to make sure your son or daughter is coming to the table hungry and prepare healthful meals, you have to trust your child’s ability to decide whether to eat and how much.