Do you have a picky eater at home?
Picky eating for parents can be one of the most challenging and frustrating times. Parents tell me having a picky eater takes the joy out of family meals and the joy out of cooking. I have a lot of parents tell me they are so tired of fighting and fussing with their child at mealtimes it’s just easier to make them something they want. In the short term this seems like a solution but how long do you want to make separate meals? Until they move out of the house? Don’t worry we have you covered! If this all rings true for you, and you’re not sure where to start – read this article! And if you’d like personalized help for you and your kiddos, our pediatric dietitian and chef, Karyn Sunohara is here to help!
Defining Picky Eating
There is no one definition for picky eating. It is typically referred to as fussy, selective, or choosey eating. This can be an unwillingness to eat family foods or try new foods or very strong taste and food preferences. Long term picky eating can lead to nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, poor growth and weight trajectory or excessive weight gain due to inadequate nutrient intake and nutrient composition.
When it comes to picky eating, I like to use Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding as it helps to define the parent’s role and the child’s role in feeding and eating.
Parents are in control of:
Where food is offered.
Ideally, we would like meals and snacks to be eaten at the kitchen table free from any distractions. This means no iPad, phones, or TV’s on, no toys or books on the table. Studies have shown the presence of parents at family meals helped improve their family’s intake of fruits, vegetables and dairy products in their children. Another study showed eating meals as a family helped to improve overall health and wellbeing of adolescents. Mealtimes should be a time for conversation and interaction among family members. I find when children are able to help pick a meal each week or help make the meal it helps them to be more invested in the outcome and proud to show the rest of the family what was made. By having a set “eating” place ideally the kitchen table or island it becomes automatic for meals over time.
When food is offered.
Children do best with routine by having set meal and snack times. allows them to regulate and know when the next opportunity to eat will be. Ideally 3 meals and 2-3 snacks a day, depending on activity and hunger is reasonable. Offer only water between meals to prevent your child from feeling full from juice or milk.
What food is offered
This means no short order cooking. What I mean by this is you should be cooking family meals, not separate meals for each family member. The parents are in charge of what food is offered. I always suggest offering one item you know your picky eater likes. An example would be if you know they like rice making a stir fry with rice. If you know your child does not like sauces or prefers a vegetable like carrots raw versus cooked do you best to accommodate within reason. For example the dish calls for cooked carrots just put a few aside uncooked for your child.
The child is in control of:
How much food they eat or if they eat at all. I find this is a tough one for parents. All parents want what’s best for their child and don’t want their child to go hungry. I promise – your child will not starve themselves. They may refuse a meal or two but when they learn they are no longer allowed snacks whenever they want they will start to eat more at meals. These changes will come with push back and it will take some time, but I promise you things will get better. In most cases, children are actually better at knowing their hunger and fullness cues than adults. If you think about your child when they were a baby how did you know they were full? They often will turn their head or push the food away. You’ll notice at times of growth your child’s appetite will increase and other times they may eat very little. Fluctuation in eating is normal. Trust that their little bodies know best, and that learning this important self-regulation skill is important for health long term!
The Eating Environment
The eating environment plays a huge role in your child’s eating behaviors. Try to make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible. Mealtimes should be a time of conversation to try to avoid punishments, pressure, and/or arguments. Remove the pressure for your child to eat instead allow them to decide how much or if they want to eat. Often, I find by making the eating environment enjoyable and pressure free children are more likely to try new foods.
New foods take time
Studies show it can take up to 20 times of seeing a food before a child might actually try it. Think back to when you were younger. Were there foods you said you’d never eat and do now? Sometimes it just takes time and patience. There are several steps to new foods. I find parents often underestimate all the steps that one takes when it comes to trying new foods. The first step is just being able to be in the same room as that food. This could be by asking your child to help pick the new food at the grocery store, or help wash the new food. As these steps progress you’ll notice your child may touch the food, or bring it to their lips but not actually eat it. This is still progress! The important thing is to not make a fuss or big deal at the time, don’t bribe or pressure. To work through the complex process of introducing new foods, it can often be helpful to work with a dietitian – as each child is different.
Length of meals
Mealtimes should not be longer than 20-30 minutes. If your family meals drag on and last longer than 30 minutes, the child has lost interest and mealtimes become unenjoyable for all involved. I remember back in the day when myself and my siblings would be stuck at the dinner table for hours until we ate everything on our plate. Research is showing by forcing, pressuring or bribing children to eat it creates a poor relationship with food.
Ask what about the food they don’t like; is it the colour, the flavour, the texture? Do they prefer that food raw versus cooked? Or do they prefer that food separate and not in a sauce? By asking these questions it helps to build dialogue and trust. Your child will feel as though they have some say and that you are listening. I often find doing a little detective work can be very eye opening for parents.
- Follow a no pressure and no bribery approach (SO hard, but remember, you decide when and what, they decide how much!)
- Keep meal times to 20-30 minutes
- Always offer one food you know they like
- Get the family to help with grocery lists
- Teach by example: eat at the table with your child, be adventurous with new foods, try them together!
- No separate meals for family members
- Ask for their feedback and include them in some of the meal planning
- Make it fun!
If you’re struggling with picky eaters, get help from a dietitian! Our pediatric dietitian is here to help you make sense of this for your family.