As parents, we want the best for our children, which includes feeding them food with all the colors of the rainbow. It doesn’t help when the pediatrician sends you home with brochures requiring your kids to eat one and a half cup of veggies per day. You’ll be lucky if she eats that for the entire week. This anxiety can pass off to an already picky child, making it worse.
As a mother with has had to deal with pickiness, I have read many books and have found a subset of strategies that worked well for me. If you are struggling with little success, here are proven techniques to get your picky child to eat more than french fries and chicken nuggets.
1. Turn dinner into a buffet-style meal
All you can eat buffet restaurants are associated with Chinese food, but there is a reason you go there aside from the cost. How many times do you add a tiny portion of something on your plate that you would never order at another restaurant? There is a psychological explanation. It’s low pressure, and if you hate it, there are other alternatives.
Your child might be 3 feet tall and have a brain that is smaller than yours, but she is still pretty smart. Children make decisions the same way you do. Place a few choices on a table and give your child an empty plate. Make sure the options include at least one of the child’s favorite food.
Sure, the child will reach for her favorite because let’s face it who wouldn’t? But, children are also curious. Make sure that the adults eat dinner with the child and that they are eagerly trying all the foods. Don’t be discouraged if the child doesn’t try any of the new foods. You can give a gentle nudge to try the other foods, but don’t send any signal that you are desperate.
2. Encourage playing with foods
This advice would make my mom groan. As a Jamaican woman, my parents strictly monitor what toys are and what are not. The most common phrase you will hear from a Jamaican parent (and certainly other parents as well) is ‘that is not a toy, don’t play with it.’ The same applies to meals.
Playing with your food was a no-no in my house. Ironically I was one of the world’s pickiest eaters. I was so picky that my mom was convinced I had a disorder, and I was subjected to medical tests of all kinds. There is one food memory I have from being a child, and its that the pressure of begging me to eat was anxiety-inducing.
But, experts agree that playing with food can resolve the anxiety of eating food. You don’t have to provide a large amount of food to waste, but a few pieces along with some experimental equipment like plastic spoons and forks can do the trick. To make for an even better activity, join in the fun as well.
Playing with food is a technique used in food therapy because it works well, and it’s proven. So go ahead, give your kids a celery stalk and have them poke and cut it with plastic tools. You can talk about the crunch or the smell and be sure to encourage tasting.
3. Prepare foods with your kids
Your kids are never too young to be a co-chef in your kitchen. Well, I take that back as newborns can barely hold their heads up. But, kids from age toddlers and up can participate in some way, even if it is just handing you the ingredients. The level of help you require will need to be adjusted based on age, but a 4-year-old should have enough maturity to participate in many cooking activities with some guidance and assistance from you.
Most children that work with you to prepare the food will at least taste it. don’t get too upset if they don’t want to eat a full plate. It is natural for kids to be cautious with foods, and it is a start that they are willing to take a bite.
4. Serve up a tiny portion. This will feel less overwhelming to your picky eater
If you are not using a buffet style for meals, you can add a small portion of new food to their plate. You can put yourself in their shoes for a bit and decide if you would go to a foreign country and order a full meal containing an unfamiliar food. Surely, you’d want to try a small amount first, or at least find out if it has familiar ingredients. You might be of the adventurous type where stewed animal feet is your thing, but don’t expect that of a 5-year-old (disclaimer: chicken feet was a staple in my house while growing up).
Children can identify sizes from an early age. A small teaspoon of food is a lot less overwhelming than a bowl.
5. Use creative cut-outs
Carrots and peas look a whole lot better when they are in the shape of a dinosaur or car. As a grown woman, that appeals to me so I can imagine the effect of a child.
You can try cut-outs on veggies, cheese, crackers, and more. I like this one from Amazon. You can also serve foods in plates with fun shapes when time is limited. This tractor shaped plate or this cool dinosaur one will be a hit with the kiddos. The idea is to make food feels more fun and less serious.
6. Limit unhealthy snacking
If your child attends daycare or school, you might be aware of how hungry they are at pickup. I am not trying to carelessly imply that children are not fed at school, but the timing of meals is usually such that they are ready for their next meal at the end of the day.
It is tempting to bring snacks for them. I have done it, and you might have done it, and it feels like the right thing to do. If you bring fruit, small pieces of cheese, or veggies, then this is a brilliant idea. But, foods like gummy bears, cookies, or crackers with empty calories are not healthy.
Snacks fill up a child, so if you must bring snacks, make it count, as her appetite will be reduced when it is time for dinner.
7. Keep healthy snacks within reach
If your child is old enough to peel a banana or wash her apple, then having a well-stocked fruit bowl within reach can encourage her to try fruits at her own will. You can also steam vegetables and leave them around for easy access. I use this party style condiment server to keep steamed veggies as fresh as possible.
Having a no-pressure zone at home will encourage the sort of experimenting that leads to better eating habits. Demonstrate that you are eating the foods and leave it to the child to do the rest.
8. Rotate foods options
My son will eat a variety of foods, but he will be quick to point out that he had this yesterday. As a working mom, I cant whip up a 5-star meal every day, but when I cook, it has to serve for two days. Ideally, this would be more days, but I am not a fan of eating the same foods for days on end.
But, the way I do add variety to our food and my son’s plate is by steaming a big batch of 3 different vegetables and store them into an airtight glass bowl such as this one. Each day I briefly reheat one and rotate during the week. Steamed vegetables are quick and easy, especially if you use an inexpensive steamer.
You can try this for any foods that are quick and easy to make, like brown rice, quinoa, etc. You can reheat during the week, and mix/match serve with protein options.
9. Be consistent
Consistency is difficult for me because I suffer from anxiety. When changes don’t show immediate benefits, I want to quit. My experience is precisely why I can tell you not to do the same.
Children are scientists, and we don’t give them nearly enough credit. It is an evolutionary trait designed to protect ourselves why humans will be a skeptic of foods when they are at a vulnerable age. Think about it, if we were not intended to be picky, then why are most kids picky eaters?
Our modern world shields us from problems that were real several centuries ago. Kids that are running around in the grand outdoors were protected from poison by being picky. Today we live in a well-shielded world, but the trait remains.
For our strategies to work, we must remain consistent in our efforts. A child will need to try a food several times for them to add it to their list of favorites. And if they don’t, that’s fine too as no one likes everything.
10. Add new flavors to the child’s favorite food
Every child has a favorite food, no matter how picky she is. You can use one of those to introduce new flavors. If your child likes carrots, for example, you can sautee with onions or serve it with different dips such as peanut butter. You can even suggest a combination you don’t find personally palatable.
You might even find that your child will experiment and that’s totally fine. Just try to be careful not to transfer your own food biases and embrace your child’s latest creation of carrots dipped in ketchup (yuck).
The fact that this doesn’t have a number doesn’t mean it is not important. It affects all the other tips. Whether you are serving dinner as a self-serve style or serving food directly to a plate, it is crucial to do so with low pressure. Children can pick up on anxiety and will react by rebelling.
If your child has no health conditions and the child has access to a variety of healthy foods, your child should be ok. I have gone through intense periods of worry so I can relate well.
The following is a very familiar scenario at my house:
Son: “Mommy, this is yucky. I don’t want to eat it.”
Me: “That’s ok; you don’t have to eat it, but that all I have for. dinner.”
Son: He complains some more, but with no more reaction from me, he eventually eats his meal and often asks for seconds.
My reaction works for my son because I know him well. I don’t give in to his food demands. I mostly act like I don’t care if he eats. But, he usually has at least one food item I know he will eat, so for the most part, I am not concerned that this strategy will backfire. While he doesn’t eat everything and is a bit cautious around new foods, he eats relatively well.
Hopefully, these strategies will help you to add a few more choices to your child’s diet. My son was painfully picky at around nine months old. I read several books about the topic and tested some ideas and these works for me.
As a reminder, this blog post, while informative and well researched, is not a replacement for a doctor’s advice. Children are picky eaters, but underlying conditions can also be a problem. This article is relevant only for parents who have ruled out medical conditions.
Have you tried any of these suggestions for helping picky kids to eat more? Please let us know.