“What’s for dinner?” It’s a question you may hear weekly (or even daily!) if you’re a parent of young children.
But depending on the individual tummies and appetites in your home—here’s looking at you, kids—the answer may not always be clear. How can parents of picky eaters tackle dinner as well as other meals, including snacks?
Let’s start by noting that there isn’t a hard and fast definition of a “picky eater”, but generally can be defined as someone who consumes an inadequate variety of food through rejection of a significant amount of both familiar and unfamiliar food. Picky eaters can vary in age, but “picky” behaviors, especially refusing to eat certain foods (no matter how many ways a parent tries to convince the child to take a bite), usually start around age two—right around the time children begin forming food habits that include likes and dislikes. And because a toddler’s early eating habits and preferences can sometimes last well into adulthood, it’s essential to help your little one develop a palate that includes a variety of healthy foods.
There are many perspectives when it comes to helping picky eaters broaden their food horizon, but getting your child on board with diverse, nutritious meals may take a few different strategies, so we’ve rounded up a few for you to try:
- Give your child a say. Kids of all ages are often more excited to try meals and snacks if they have been involved in the process of choosing or making it. For example, if you bring your little ones in tow to the grocery store, let them pick out a new healthy ingredient or food to add to a meal or snack that week. Children can also help with a few easy meal-preparation tasks, like setting the table or rinsing produce—just be mindful of which tasks might be developmentally appropriate for your child.
- Remember that autonomy is important. Encourage your kids to feed themselves as they are developmentally able to do so, even by deciding how much food they want to eat at a given meal or snack. Giving children the ability to choose how much food they eat (and even whether the food is eaten at all!) can help them establish independence and learn to self-regulate their food intake based on their bodies’ natural hunger and fullness cues.
- Avoid preparing a different option altogether for your picky eater. While it can seem tempting to regularly prepare a special meal or snack for your picky eater, it’s important not to do so. (The exception here is if your child has a food allergy or sensitivity, of course!) In their role as guardians and models for healthy eating, parents focus on offering a nutritious meal or snack to the whole family (including when it’s time to do so) and children decide how much or whether they will eat at all.
- Take it slow and steady. Introduce new foods one at a time and remain patient and consistent. Did you know it can take more than ten tries for your child to accept and like a new food? Little taste buds need time to appreciate new things! When offering a new food, try offering alongside familiar foods that your child likes—and let your child decide how (or if) they eat the newcomer. Lastly, avoid offering too many new foods at once—too much choice can be overwhelming and discourage the process of truly exploring all the sensory joys of new foods. And remember, your child may genuinely dislike some foods, and that’s okay. The goal is for them to be open to trying new and different foods.
- Be a model for your child. More is caught than taught, right? In other words, parents can model to their children the importance of trying new foods and preparation methods by doing so themselves! This is where family mealtimes are critical; parents can model trying broccoli, mashed potatoes or salmon with their children at the table. Modeling eating habits like focusing on nutritious foods, experimenting with cooking styles, and choosing exciting new dishes for meals can help kids understand how to follow a healthy eating pattern and develop a healthy relationship with food.
- Encourage productive family conversations about food. It can be discouraging to hear your previously non-picky children say “Green beans are the worst!” just as your established picky eater is finally ready to try them! Promote constructive conversation about food around the table so that everyone can approach their meal with a positive attitude. For example, when describing foods, avoid moralizing words like “toxic” or “clean,” and focus instead on neutral or descriptive phrases like “Greek yogurt has lots of protein, which helps keep our bodies strong!” or “Fruits are sweet and provide important vitamins!” This approach can help young eaters understand that some foods may be tastier or provide certain benefits or nutrients without giving the impression that some foods are “good” and others are “bad.”
Finally, as you prepare for your next meal, keep an open mind. Getting your children to consistently try and eat a variety of foods can be difficult. Stay firm, calm, responsive, and loving, and it will get better!