Oh, the joys of meal times with a toddler! Just what you need when you get home from a long and stressful day at work, right – to go into battle with your child over peas or because carrots touched a piece of chicken on the plate. And you’re lucky if a tantrum doesn’t show its nasty head. Yup, we’ve all been there – some studies show that almost half of all parents classify their kids as picky eaters, while other studies show that the same can be said for two thirds of all kids! Well, the good news is that picky children don’t often become picky adults, so these situations are temporary, even though they may seem never-ending all too often.
To get a better understanding of why the child gets picky (and, hence, create a better pea-war strategy), it helps to know that, unlike for us, for our kids ALL foods are new foods; they are tasting, smelling and feeling new textures day in-day out. It can be helpful to keep one more thing in mind: when kids are first trying a new food, from the moment of the food’s introduction, the average amount of times it takes for them to eat it is 10 times. That’s about 9 unsuccessful tries. Now, this puts things in perspective – it means that there is nothing wrong with you, your parenting skills or your cooking, it’s simply – normal and to be expected.
However, to avoid the trap of you having a tantrum during a meal refusal, here is some specific advice you can actually use. Believe it or not, getting picky eaters to eat a nutritious meal doesn’t have to be a battle, but it does require some battlefield tactics on your side. We moms can do anything, right?
- Make mealtimes fun
The first step is getting your child to associate mealtimes with enjoyment: if mealtime is fun and happy, your child will want to repeat it. On the other hand, if kids know that they will be forced to eat foods they don’t like, they also know that you will express anger or frustration if they don’t eat it. This often leads to a very counter-productive situation which can breed anxiety and make the picky-eating stage last a lot longer than it would. You could arrange foods on the plate in a way that you can make up a story about them: “This carrot saw this broccoli and said it will chase him away from you, so quickly, quickly – let’s hide it in your mouth”. You can also check out this video – it shows how you can make food into more fun, familiar shapes:
- Stick to the routine
Try to serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day. This will introduce a rhytm for your child where he or she should be getting hungry at those times. If your child chooses not to eat one of those meals, don’t stress about it too much – a nutritious snack will be fine at those times; think yogurt, a boiled egg or some cheese.
- Remove distractions
Kids have a lot of energy and are quite curious, so getting them to sit still for 15 minutes of just eating can be a challenge. Make sure electronics are off during mealtime and keep the focus on food: you could offer broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. You can cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters, make sure the food is brightly colored and offer a choice (AKA an illusion of control) to the child: “Would you like a blue or a red plate this evening?”
- Be patient with new foods
If your child accepts a new ingredient or a meal readily, that’s fantastic! If not, there are steps you can take to make the acceptance easier. You can encourage your child by talking about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture — and by taking a bite yourself. When introducing new foods, it’s a good idea to serve them alongside foods that your child already likes. Just keep offering healthy choices and they will become familiar and preferred over time.
- Don’t make separate meals
It’s convenient to just give a slice of pizza to your child, especially when you are at your wits end, but preparing a different meal for your child after he or she rejects the original one might promote picky eating and it gets harder and harder to get back on the right track.
- Get kids in the kitchen
Why not let your children join you when you’re cooking? It will help them feel in control and they will want to eat what they helped cook! When you go shopping together, have kids pick out fruits and vegetables and put them in the basket. You can wash them together, they can hold the bowls for you, stir the sauce for a bit and help set the table.
- Remember: your child wants to be independent
Hearing “no!” at mealtimes, pushing away the plate is a way for a child to feel in control. What you can do about it: resist the urge to turn meals into a power struggle. This might encourage an unhealthy relationship with food later on. Also, don’t fall in the trap of bribing or bargaining with the child: “You can have a muffin if you finish this first.” Instead, try to convince your child that certain foods will help him with his goals (“Eating a banana will make you run even faster!”).
- Camouflage the foods
“It really tastes yucky.” Heard that often? So did we. It’s no surprise that children prefer sweet flavors. Keep in mind though, that 1 in 4 people are born with a gene that makes them more sensitive to bitter tastes, so don’t insist on any certain food for too long at any mealtime, rather re-introduce the food over and over again. If that doesn’t work, don’t give up on that asparagus or cauliflower just yet – make a cream soup, puree or veggie tots.
- Trust your child’s appetite
If you’ve done everything and your child insists he or she isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal. Just like us, our child might not have much of an appetite on a certain day. Limit snacks and juices throughout the day, so that the child won’t fill up on them. Make sure meal portions are small i.e. appropriate for their little tummies. Remember that your child will always ask for more if hungry – kids never voluntarily put up with hunger and are not shy to ask you for food.