It can be really alarming to realize you have a child who is a picky eater. Are they getting the nutrition they need? Are they getting enough calories for their growth?
It can be baffling, too, if you’ve had older children whom you raised in the exact same way, giving them all the same food choices, who eat healthily and enjoy everything.
And it is hard not to take it personally. But that is when you are most in danger of straying into the minefield of eating power struggles. Immediately things become much more complex. The secret is not to end up in the struggle. You won’t win.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Approach new dishes calmly: Present the food on the table and by all means describe it as delicious but don’t tell them they will love it. Praise them generously if they try a bite and at the end of the meal, take uneaten food away without comments.
2. Do not make dessert conditional on eating the “dreaded” food.
3. Keep mealtimes for all the family to eat together as much as is practical and turn off TVs and all distractions, including cell phones. Talk and listen – make it a fun experience.
4. Show your children that you are eating everything too – don’t give them different food.
5. And don’t whip up something else if they are refusing to eat what is in front of them. Simply take it away – they won’t starve before the next meal!
6. Avoid snacks right before mealtime. If it’s hard to get them to eat when they ARE hungry, it will be impossible if they are not!
7. Have the children help prepare food. This is a huge one! This gives kids ownership. Have them shop for the ingredients with you and have them select produce of all different colors. Teach them how to tell if fruit and vegetables are fresh by touch and smell.
8. Serve food at mealtimes family-style, and encourage them to help themselves to as much or as little as they want from each dish.
9. Vegetables are often ground zero for disagreements, so try and find ones that are less bitter initially. Don’t be afraid to let them use dips. My son used to consume broccoli like a champ, but only if smothered in ketchup. I decided it was worth the trade off! And then I tried to steer towards lower-sugar ketchups.
10. If meat is the battleground, ask yourself if you can just live with other protein sources initially. Cheese, hummus, yogurts, eggs and beans are all good sources of protein.
11. Choose to introduce new flavors at the right time; avoid trying new flavors when they are tired or cranky.
12. Keep trying! Sometimes it takes several tries for the child to accept the new flavor. Try different ways of preparing it.
Sometimes there are no easy answers. Maybe your child is just not that interested in food. It is worth remembering that their appetites can ebb and wane according to their growth spurts. The key component is to avoid confrontation.
I have to say, I did not always follow this advice myself with my own kids. While we tried most days to sit down at the dinner table all together, having multiple children with multiple schedules sometimes made that impossible. A few days after one such occasion when I served the children separately I noticed a terrible odor and finally made a discovery in the medicine cupboard where my own “picky” eater had secretly been hiding his Brussels sprouts. I will leave it to your imagination what weeks-old Brussels sprouts smell like! My point is we are all trying to do our best raising healthy children. We do what we can.
Above all – stay sane!