Picky eating among children is extremely common. Most children will go through some period where they have an aversion to new foods, a term referred to as “neophobia”. Toddlerhood and the preschool years are the most common times for picky eating to rear its inconvenient and frustrating head.
First things first: Is your child a true picky eater?
Many children who are perceived as picky eaters by parents are actually just small eaters. Parents often think in adult portions and overestimate how much their child should be eating at each meal. A true picky eater often complains about or refuses specific foods, which often happen to be vegetables.
Or, they will only want to eat one or two foods for an extended period of time. Despite all this, typical picky eaters usually get enough Calories throughout the day to meet their needs. However, picky eating can be frustrating and worrisome for parents.
What you can do about it
There are a number of things you can do to help encourage your child to try more foods, without getting into a power struggle or resorting to bribes.
- It’s important to let the child know that s/he is expected to eat the same foods as the rest of the family, at scheduled meal and snack times. When it seems your child isn’t going to eat anything you’ve prepared for the rest of the family, it’s tempting to become a short order cook. By doing this, the child will soon learn they can have whatever food they want, whenever they want it, and s/he is less inclined to eat at meal times. If they don’t want to eat, have them sit at the table with the family for the social aspect. If they are hungry after a meal, snack time should be the next time you offer food.
- Place a time limit on meal times. Children are often slow eaters and should be given plenty of time to eat meals, but place a reasonable limit on that time. 20 - 30 minutes should be plenty.
- Don’t offer foods in between snacks and meals. Snacks and beverages with Calories, such as milk and juice, can decrease a child’s appetite and cause them to not eat as much at meals and snacks. Offer water if they are thirsty.
- Eat together at the table. Structured meals help set a positive eating environment.
- Get kids involved in meal planning and cooking. Kids who help make meals are more likely to want to eat them. Let your children make decisions like “do you want broccoli or carrots for dinner?” rather than “do you want broccoli for dinner?"
- Make foods fun! When broccoli and dip becomes “trees with snow”, or carrots become “super vision carrots”, kids are more inclined to eat them. Vegetables and fruits don’t come in fun boxes with cartoon characters. Giving healthy foods fun names can make them more appealing to kids. Be creative in your food presentation.
- Be a good role model. Children are often curious about what adults are eating. It’s important to show your child that you enjoy eating a variety of healthy foods.
- Relax! Power struggles are never fun. Often times refusal of a food isn’t about the food, but rather independence and control. Providing a pressure-free environment helps avoid a power struggle.
- Be patient and persistent - children will often out grow most of their picky eating.
- Sometimes picky eating is a true dislike of a food. If your child is a generally good eater and expresses a dislike, it’s important to respect that.
- It can take 15 - 20 times of seeing a new food before a child wants to try it. Children are sensitive to different sensations, and often avoid new or difficult textures (such as hard vegetables or tough meats), bitter tastes, and foods that look or smell different. Keep offering it to your child, without pressure. Eventually, they may become curious enough to try it. They may just play with a new food at first or spit it out. This isn’t a failure! This is your child’s way of getting to know the food and becoming familiar with it. Keep offering it over time.
- Young children have small appetites. Be sure to serve child-sized portions.
- Children’s appetites will change. From day to day and week to week often according to growth spurts, it’s normal for kids to adjust their intake accordingly.
- Don't offer bribes or rewards for eating - this goes back to developing a healthy feeding relationship.
- Offer a variety of foods - to give your child some choice, and set a good example.