Having a picky eater is almost a parental rite of passage, and something almost every parent has to deal with at one point or another. After all, don’t you remember certain foods you hated growing up? Having preferences and aversions is human – yet for some reason when it’s our own kids putting up a fight, it seems to be a lot more stressful to deal with.
Meal time should be a chance to connect with your kids rather than engaging in the dreaded power struggle of someone refusing to eat that new dish you made.
Here are a few ways to ease the tension and struggle of having a picky eater while maintaining your own sanity.
1. Stop Making Food a Reward
Moms and dads often inadvertently teach the wrong messages about food. For example, asking your preschooler to take two more bites of carrots in order to get a brownie for dessert makes the brownie a reward (and a valuable one at that!).
As this happens consistently, eating vegetables becomes a chore, and kids quickly learn to prefer one food over another through this reward system.
Tip: Serve a small cookie or bit of “dessert” with dinner without making it a big deal.
2. Include a Food You Know Your Picky Eater Likes
Another way to ease tensions at the table is to include a small helping of something your child enjoys. If you’re introducing a new meal, your child can feel stressed and overwhelmed. Including a small bit of fruit or something else they love can establish a sense of familiarity and decrease resistance.
Tip: Do this with most meals to create a more positive experience with eating.
3. Offer a “No Thanks” Bowl
Children like to have control. Since many of their decisions are made for them on a daily basis, being able to make choices is important to them. A “no thanks” bowl is simply an empty dish that your child can put what they don’t want into. While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s yet another way to take away the power struggle at meal times.
Sometimes they may put a lot of food in the bowl, and some days they may put nothing there. If there is food in the dish, you can ask them if they’d like to try any of it before leaving the table.
Tip: The play here is to provide your child with a sense of control to promote a more positive experience with new foods.
4. Change It Up
It can be way too easy to revert to making the same meals every week (or even day). Even though this can make life a little easier temporarily, it prevents your child from being exposed to more opportunities to experience new meals. Ultimately feeding kids the same things can backfire and make pickiness even worse.
Tip: Bring your little one shopping and have them help you pick out new foods to try!
5. Avoid Punishments
The last thing you need to deal with is meltdowns and more stress over meals. Despite following the advice of this article, another professional, or fellow parent, some days just won’t go your way and you picky eater will outright refuse to eat. The best thing to do is to avoid punishments at all costs. Not only does this create resentment around food and meals, but truthfully it just won’t correct any picky behaviors.
Tip: If your child refuses to eat, excuse them from the table, take a deep breath, and try again tomorrow.
6. Give Praise for Trying New Foods
When your kid tries a new food, reinforce it! Saying something like “I’m really proud of you for trying something new” can go a long way and encourage them to do it again. If they don’t like it, let them know that’s okay too.
Tip: Even when feeding your children a meal they love, including something unfamiliar can encourage them to try new things.
While these strategies certainly aren’t exhaustive, they should give you some new ways to deal with picky eaters. All in all, be patient as you and your child get used to a new dynamic. Remember, they are still learning and exploring the world around them (including boundaries with foods). Take it one day at a time! You’re doing a great job.