If you answered yes to the above question, rest assured- you are not alone! Hearing that a child is picky is one of the most common issues I hear about from parents in my line of work. And I am a parent too, so trust me I get it! Today, I wanted to give you a few ideas and a bit of encouragement as you work with your children to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need to grow, learn, and play.
One of the best metaphors I have been told in relation to teaching our children to eat nutritious foods is to think of it like teaching a child to ride a bike. If you began to teach your child to ride a bike and they fell down several times you would likely never think to yourself, “Oh well, too bad. I guess my kid just isn’t going to learn to ride a bike.” Right? More likely you would think to yourself, “If we keep trying, he/she will get it one day!”. Well, think of your child’s willingness to eat “healthy” foods just like teaching them to ride a bike. When you offer healthy foods and they don’t eat them, remind yourself that “they will get it one day”.
Both as a parent and as a dietitian, I love the idea of “division of responsibility“ from Ellyn Satter. Basically, what this teaches is that the parent decides “what” and “when” the child will eat BUT the child is the one that gets to decide “how much” they eat. When paired with a routine of 3 set meals and set snacks each day, this helps in so many ways.
- First of all, it takes the pressure off of mealtime. No longer are meals a battle to get your child to take “2 more bites”. Instead, mealtimes can focus on enjoying each other’s company. Even if your child doesn’t eat what you would consider “enough” they are the ones in charge. They also are the ones that will be hungry in 15 minutes if they don’t eat “enough”. Not a big deal. Why, you ask? Well that brings me to the next point.
- The child is learning their hunger and fullness without your help. Let’s go back to the same scenario- your child didn’t eat “enough” at a meal and they say they are all done. You simply tell them, “that’s fine but we’re not eating again until (whatever meal or snack is next in your daily routine)”. Don’t special order cook for them (ie. make them something different that the rest of the family isn’t eating) or give them a snack in a few minutes when they say they are hungry. This teaches them that if they don’t eat well they can just eat something else in a little bit. It is not a big deal if your child is hungry for a few hours while they wait for the next meal/snack. This teaches them routine and helps them learn to eat at set meals.
- With this division of responsibility it takes away the “good” and “bad” foods. No longer are kids hearing, “If you eat 3 more bites of broccoli, I will give you a cookie”. When kids hear things like this they very quickly learn that broccoli is a bad food and a cookie is a good food. Instead, broccoli is just another food that we trust they will one day try and even possibly one day enjoy! In this case we are thinking of eating broccoli just like riding a bike- one day they will master it!
And finally, here are a few tips if you are wanting to work with your picky eater:
- Eat together as a family. Make mealtime about being together as a family instead of focusing on how much or little your child is eating.
- Limit distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your phone. Distractions make it tough for kids to eat and eat well. Distractions also make it difficult for us to listen to our hunger and fullness.
- Stop offering dessert as a reward if “enough” of a food is eaten. It’s tempting but like I said before, this teaches kids that certain foods are “good” and certain foods are “bad”. And that has eating disorder behavior written all over it. Instead, enjoy an occasional treat as a family just because. All things in moderation.
- Get your kids involved in the kitchen! Getting them involved will help them get excited about a meal and help them take ownership in a meal. Of course, make it age appropriate but all ages can help in one way or another!
- Model healthy eating. This one can be tough. But do we really expect our kids to eat healthy foods if we aren’t willing to try them ourselves? I love letting my kids see that I truly enjoy asparagus (have you tried it roasted with a little butter and garlic?? I mean!). I also love letting them see that I enjoy an occasional ice cream. Again, all foods can fit in moderation.
- Try new foods while including items they know and love. Trying chicken pot pie for the first time? Include a side of something you know they enjoy such as fruit. This gives them variety.
- Limit sugar rich drinks! Especially juice and chocolate milk! How can we expect our kids to try new foods when they are constantly full from sugary beverages? The recommendation for juice is 4oz or less per day for our kiddos. Juices lack fiber and strip nutrients. The whole fruit is a much better choice! To get started, begin watering down the juice while cutting back.
And finally, give yourself grace. I too live in the real world and know from experience that putting these ideas into practice can be tough! Micah rarely ate meat for the first two years of his life! I had to remind myself not to bribe him to try it SO often. But I trusted that eventually he would eat it and perhaps even like it. And now he will now eat it all on his own (most of the time 😉 ). I too know that change can be tough. But really, just remember that each step you take towards change has the potential to make a big difference in the way you and your children look at mealtimes. I could write a whole lot more on this (and I likely will eventually) but for now, nap time is over and my kiddos are ready to play. So, until next time… 🙂