Having a picky eater on your hands can make you want to pull your hair out at every meal or give up and call out for pizza. It’s not only frustrating, but you may also worry that your child isn’t eating enough or eating the right types of food to help him grow. You may also be concerned that your child will continue to be a picky eater throughout his lifetime.
Although it’s one of the most common obstacles parents face, getting your child to eat well, try new foods and become little foodies isn’t as hard as you may think.
1. Focus on the goal
Instead of looking for new recipes or ways to sneak vegetables into meals, it’s important to keep the lessons you want to teach your child front and center.
“One of the most important things parents want to teach their kids is how to eat a variety of foods and what we instead teach our kids is to expect a monotonous diet,” said Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert in Jersey City, N.J. and author of “It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating.”
2. Switch it up
Although you might be well intentioned, it’s no easy feat changing habits. Many parents think that the only way for their kids to be more adventurous eaters is to introduce new foods regularly but that approach usually fails.
Instead, continue to offer the same foods your child already eats but don’t repeat one food more than once a day or two days in a row, something Rose calls the “rotation rule.” If you talk to your kids about the plan, they will understand that you eat different foods on different days.
“If you do that even with the foods kids are accustomed to eating, it still changes their mindset and it lays the foundation for actually introducing new foods,” Rose said.
3. Let them taste
Research shows that children need to be exposed to new foods 15 or 20 times before they will accept it, yet this research is widely misunderstood, Rose said. You might think you have to serve the same meal over and over again until your child will eat it but when these studies are conducted, kids are actually exposed to just a pea-sized sample of a food.
When introducing new foods, let your child look at the color of the food, and smell and touch it but never say “Take a bite and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” Asking them to do so only sets them up to reject the food when what you want them to do is just consider it.
4. Nix negotiations
If you tell your child that he can have dessert after eating his vegetables, it makes the vegetables look less desirable.
Rather than segregating foods as “good” or “bad,” teach your child that all parts of the meal are important, said Dr. Anthony F. Porto, a board- certified pediatric gastroenterologist, assistant professor of pediatrics and associate clinical chief at Yale University, and author of “The Pediatrician's Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers: Practical Answers To Your Questions on Nutrition, Starting Solids, Allergies, Picky Eating, and More (For Parents, By Parents).”
5. Ease up on expectations
Instead of expecting your child to eat a quarter of a cup of vegetables, rein in your expectations and put just one or two bites on his plate. The goal shouldn’t be how much you can get him to eat, but to help him create a life-long habit of eating vegetables.
6. Don’t be a short-order cook
If you already prepare a separate meal for your child or give in when she pushes back, it can be hard to break the cycle. One way to slowly get out of the habit is to integrate a food she already likes as a side dish in the meal you’ve prepared. Eventually, she may get curious about the other foods at the table and want to taste them too.
7. Have structure
A study out of the University at Buffalo found that preschoolers whose parents set rules about what their children can and cannot eat have healthier eating habits than those raised without rules.
Give your child guidelines on how often he can eat treats to minimize power struggles.
“Otherwise, feeding decisions feel arbitrary and in an arbitrary world we’re encouraging our kids to fight with us because they don’t know why one day they can have a sweet [and] the next day they can’t,” Rose said.
You can also try to use tickets your child can turn in when he wants a treat, which is a good way to keep track.
8. Stop with the “health talk”
It’s natural to tell your child how carrots are good for her eyes but a study in the Journal of Consumer Research found when parents talk about the benefits of eating a healthy food, kids are less likely to eat it. Instead, talk about how yummy the food is.
9. Offer appetizers
If your child tends to get hungry in the late afternoon, either serve dinner early, offer dinner-quality snacks or put out a tray of veggies which he’ll be more likely to eat than at other times of the day.
10. Host a play date
If your child eats better when she’s at daycare or at someone else’s house, invite her friend over for a play date and offer new foods. If your child sees her friend eating, she may be more apt to try it too.
11. Don’t stress about missed meals
Depending on your child’s age, explain that a certain amount of meals and snacks will be served each day at regular times. It’s then his choice to either eat or not. If he refuses to eat, don’t sweat it: chances are he’ll make it up at the next meal.
12. Offer dessert for breakfast
Breakfast can be a hard sell for kids, especially those who prefer sugary cereal over eggs. Rather than fight about it every morning, try serving dessert for breakfast, Rose suggested.
Allow your child to eat a pastry one day and a chocolate chip muffin the next, for example. Once you get her to eat, then it’s more likely she’ll eventually eat a healthy, well-balanced meal for breakfast. Or if healthier options like yogurt with fresh fruit are also considered dessert in your home, getting your child to eat it for breakfast will seem like a treat and an option you can also live with.
13. Be positive
If you take the stress out of eating, you’ll have less power struggles and your child will be more likely to try new foods. Take your child grocery shopping, cook together and eat meals together. Make food fun by cutting food into shapes, making fruit kebabs or arrange food into creative designs.
Putting an end to picky eating doesn’t have to be a power struggle every time. Offer a variety of healthy foods, empower your kids to make choices and always remember that your goal is to raise a child who will always be a healthy eater.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.