Common Sense Solutions for Dealing with Picky Eaters

Why picky eaters exist and what to do about them
little boy refusing to eat his meal
© Can Stock Photo / Zinkevych

If you Google “meal ideas for picky eaters” the results are endless. Even Oprah has suggestions. Maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way. Maybe instead of saying, “I have a picky eater, how do I get them to eat?” we should be asking why picky eaters exist and how we can prevent it.

The short order cook

Kids are natural actors. Their adorable pouty quivering lips can get anything out of us. That’s why so many parents find themselves making 4 different meals for dinner every night. It’s an assembly line. 3 plates. 3 orders. No onions or mushrooms in that one, this one can’t have any of the foods touching and the third has white pasta with white cheese. Sound familiar? Now you all sit down to eat, albeit 30 minutes late since it takes so long, and you’re just pooped. What would happen if you said calmly “this is what’s for dinner. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. It’s mealtime now, and later there will not be anything else available”?

I’ll tell you what: anything from whining and screaming, to the flinging of anything green. It will take getting used to, but the payoff is incredible. Less stress for you. Healthier meals for them. Better attitude as adults towards trying new things.

Going to bed hungry, as a result of their own choices, is OK sometimes. It reminds kids that there is no second dinner, even if they don’t eat the first dinner with the rest of the family. Eventually children learn that they’re part of a team. No one gets special treatment. Everyone is included. Kids sit at the table, stay at the table, eat some of their meal and clear their dishes, just like all of the adults in attendance (I hope). This built-in approach to food and eating doesn’t allow much room for pickiness, whining or petitioning for treats.

Are you rolling your eyes right now (or muttering some words that don’t belong in a magazine article)? No household gets it perfect every time. In fact just last week I found my three year old stuffing Swiss chard under his chubby legs. He tells me “I ate it Mummy.” Not a good day to be wearing shorts. According to Natalie Rigal, a psychologist and author of Winning the Food Fight, neophobia (food rejection) is normal. It’s what you do with that food rejection that matters.

Are snacks your undoing?

The word snack is often used interchangeably with treat. It shouldn’t be. Treats are “sometimes” foods (to be had several times per week). Eating chips or cookies for snack time will not provide lasting energy, while small servings of protein with carbohydrate (like walnuts and pomegranate seeds) will. Also, keep snacks on the small-ish side and 1.5 hours or longer before the next meal. If it’s 50 minutes before dinner, then the little tummies should wait. This is highly individualized, so use your parent-sense. If your child is accustomed to eating often, try to distract him between meals, offer him water and tell him when the next meal will be. If he is used to eating a very large snack make it a healthy choice and reduce its size gradually. Don’t rush to feed your kids. Delaying eating for a few minutes helps foster a healthy appetite. When your little one is hungry, she is more likely to eat dinner. But if she just ate crackers with peanut butter 20 minutes ago…hmmm not so much. Pickiness tends to diminish when you’re actually hungry. As the saying goes: Hunger is the best seasoning.

Adventures in eating: Trying new foods

It took my five year old 45 minutes to finally try a spoonful of the creamed leeks that I slaved over. Then he mumbled, “It’s yummy”. Following the “try everything on your plate” rule encourages children to be adventurous and will slowly develop their palate for a variety of tastes. They are allowed to dislike something, but only after they’ve eaten one spoon/forkful. And even then it’s no big deal. Children look to parents for how to react so be cool when offering new foods. If you make a big deal it will be a big deal. Let him make his own observations and stay neutral. Regularly introducing new foods in different ways can reduce resistance to the unknown and spark an interest in the adventure of new tastes. According to Rigal, exposure leads to familiarization because people find objects more pleasing as they become more familiar to us. She calls this the “positive effects of exposure”. In other words: try, try, try again. And again.

Food strategies that work

  • Make an example and try new foods. Get excited at a restaurant or market when you see something new and then eat a bite. If this sounds crazy, then I’d advise you make it your goal this fall to try one new food per week.
  • Eat together whenever possible. If older siblings eat what’s served, little siblings are more likely to follow suit.
  • Play blindfold taste games.
  • Cook together. Kids are more likely to eat what they make. It also provides an opportunity for them to learn how to cook and experiment with flavours. Invest the time now. It will pay off in the future.
  • It doesn’t hurt to cut foods into cool shapes, like toast or tofu into stars.
  • When your child refuses a food, remain calm. No big deal. Just try it next time. Never force a child to eat. Keep the environment relaxed and pressure-free.
  • Have a meeting and discuss how foods are healthy or not, and explain that some changes will be made; this is particularly effective with older kids who are more set in their ways. You can also offer 5 options of change, like no more individualized meals, or, fruit for snacks every day except Monday and Thursday. The kids choose 2 to start with and then add more in a month or two.

Practical Tips: What to say when...

  • Your child refuses to eat what you offer. “We have a try one bite rule. I urge you to follow it. If not, that’s your choice, but there’s no substitute.”
  • Your child complains of being starving 20 minutes after lunch (because she didn’t actually eat her lunch). “Sometimes I get hungry too if I skip meals. The next meal/snack is in 1.5 hours. You can have water to drink, otherwise you’re waiting until then.”
  • Your pride and joy demands cookies for snack time. Again. “Actually you had cookies yesterday. We don’t eat cookies every day because they don’t have nutritious ingredients that keep our bodies working properly. Cookies are a once in a while snack. You can have [enter fruit] and [enter nuts/yogurt] now, or you can wait until the next meal time.”

The number one tip: keep your resolve! Do what you say and stay strong. Patience, perseverance, and injecting a little fun will go a long way toward growing a more adventurous eater.

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