“I don’t like it,” your 3-year-old whines, pushing a mix of peas, rice and chicken around his plate.
The family has just sat down to dinner. You slaved in the kitchen for 45 minutes to make a healthy meal for the family, and this is the thanks you get? You sigh and wonder if you’ll have to break out the cheese and crackers yet again.
Picky eating is tough. As a parent, you struggle with wanting to feed your child a healthy diet, but at the same time you may simply want them to just eat something. Mealtime may feel more like a battleground than a pleasant family ritual where everyone can enjoy some time together.
So, what can you do to help curb your child’s picky eating habits? Here are five steps you can take to help your child overcome their picky eating habits:
1) No Special Alternatives
The first step to ending picky eating is to stop giving out alternatives. That means you don’t take out the peanut butter and jelly or crackers and cheese every time your child doesn’t like their lunch or dinner. Resist the temptation to give your child an alternative because this will simply encourage their behavior. If you want your child to stop being so picky, you’ll have to stop caving to their demands for cereal, crackers, chicken nuggets or whatever the typical alternative is.
2) One Family Meal
You aren’t a short-order cook running a restaurant. Well, maybe you are at your job, but it doesn’t have to continue in your own kitchen at home! It’s happened to most parents. You say “Would you like a sandwich or macaroni for lunch?”. You get an enthusiastic response only to have the food rejected two minutes later. “I want a bagel,” your child begins to whine. Instead of continuing with this cycle, simply offer a single family meal.
Your one family meal can be anything you’d like, but be sure to include one side that you know your child will eat. For example, serve chicken stew with bread and apple slices. If your child doesn’t go for the stew, they can at least have a few apple slices and a piece of bread.
How will this help? In addition to alleviating your own stress about cooking, this strategy can help you teach your child to eat new foods. Studies show that watching an adult enjoy a food or meal may make children more likely to try it. Also, if kids consistently see a food or vegetable such as broccoli being served, they may be more likely to try it.
3) Your Child’s In Charge of Quantity
All parents want their children to have a healthy relationship with food. That means listening to their body when they’re full. Respect this by allowing your child to eat the quantity they want at mealtime or snack-time. You can encourage them to try foods and notice the delicious flavors of the food, but don’t force the bites. If your child’s hungry, they’ll eat.
To help encourage eating at meals, set snack times and amounts outside of meals so that your child won’t just ask for a snack 10 minutes after lunch. You can blame it on the clock if that helps. If you have lunch at noon, you might set snack time at 2:30, for example. Just like with meals, you can offer one or two healthy choices (think apples with peanut butter or cheese and crackers) and leave it at that. Your child gets to eat what they want, but after the snack is given, no other alternatives are allowed.
4) Enjoy Variety and Get Your Child Involved
Part of the fun of eating is trying new foods together as a family. Involve your child by having them help you pick out new recipes to try. Picniic even has a function where you can search for recipes to discover great, family-friendly choices. Then, sort the recipes into the ones you “loved” and the ones you’re waiting “to try.”
Don’t chase your child out of the kitchen. Encourage them to help out with age appropriate tasks like washing the lettuce, slicing cucumbers with a butter knife, stirring dressings and more! When you involve your child in picking recipes and cooking, they become invested in the process and are more likely to try the food.
5) Trust Your Child
Is your child going to starve? What if they don’t eat anything at all? Children who are hungry eat eventually, even if they don’t get their favorite meal. Trust your child that they’ll eat when they’re hungry. And remember, you can still serve their favorite foods from time to time. Mealtime should be fun and delicious! Feel free to add dipping sauces for vegetables and dress things up. Just incorporate favorite foods and dressings or sauces into your regular family’s meal plans.
Part of trusting your child also means you don’t bribe or beg them to eat. Instead, encourage them to eat and leave it at that. The more you pressure you put on child, the more likely it will turn into a power struggle, which isn’t ideal.
Follow these steps and before you know it, you’ll have kicked your child’s picky eating habits to the curb. Well, maybe not entirely, but mealtime will certainly cease to be such a battle. With clear expectations and consistency, your child will eventually start trying new foods and enjoy mealtime.
A whole new world will be opened up to you once you’re free of dealing with picky eating. As a family, you can begin a whole new routine of healthy eating that will benefit everyone. To help you get started, you may consider using a meal planner such as the one offered in the Picniic app. This way you can be sure to schedule your child’s favorites like macaroni and cheese each week, while also including some of your own favorite dishes! This makes creating your shopping list much simpler and will also reduce stress around mealtimes.
As you go through these steps, it’s important to remember that picky eating is sometimes more like a right of passage and isn’t something to take personally. Toddlers especially are sensitive to textures and flavors. It can also be unnerving to see them eat ravenously one day and then refuse meals the next. Relax, it’s normal. When your child’s hungry, they’ll eat! Of course if you have any serious concerns, contact your pediatrician.
Do you have a picky eater at home? Do you have any tips and tricks for other parents about making mealtimes more pleasant? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!