If you’ve got kids and you wouldn’t describe one as a picky eater, we are very, very happy for you. You have escaped one of the most stressful parts of parenting: feeding a kid who is just not into it. Now, you’d think kids would come pre-wired ready to eat, and eat well to keep their bodies strong and healthy, but that just doesn’t always seem to be the case. There can be various reasons why a child is a picky eater, but one thing is for sure: almost all of them have parents who worry about it, and who might find mealtimes anxiety-inducing.
While there are no quick fixes or guaranteed solutions, there are definitely strategies you can try to guide your child towards being a more adventurous eater (or at least to get them to even try a taste of dinner!). And don’t forget along the way to think about yourself and how their pickiness is affecting you, so you can come back to the table a more relaxed parent – and hopefully keep your sanity!
Should You Worry?
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: part of the problem with having a picky eater is the worrying. Is my child getting enough to eat? Are they going to grow up healthy? Are their eating habits going to affect their bodies and brains? While you shouldn’t give up completely on your child’s diet, it is ok to take a deep breath and relax. Studies are now showing that, in most cases, garden-variety picky eaters are just fine, and will continue to be just fine.
At least 22% of parents identify their children as picky eaters before the age of 2 – but there is no research that suggests those children have any nutritional issues. According to a 2018 review of research on the topic, “While picky eaters appear to consume less vegetables compared to non-picky eaters, no consistent differences were observed for the intakes of other food groups or the intakes of energy, macronutrients and dietary fiber. Although, in some studies, picky eaters had lower intakes of certain vitamins and minerals, the levels consumed generally exceeded the recommended values, suggesting nutritional requirements are being met.”
That is certainly a relief! It at least takes some of the pressure off you as a parent. The times when you should worry and seek outside help? If your child is exhibiting symptoms of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which could include dramatic weight loss, gastrointestinal discomfort, sleeping problems and feeling cold all the time, or if you think chronic constipation could be a problem for your child, talk to your doctor.
The bigger issue, then becomes not the short-term health of your child, but their long-term relationship with food and healthy eating. So let’s take a look at why picky eating can rear its ugly head, and some ideas for dealing with it.
Power Struggles Vs. The Division of Responsibility
So why are some kids picky eaters, anyway? That, my friends, still remains one of the mysteries of the universe, although there are many theories and the reason is probably different for each child. A 2015 review of dozens of studies that date back to the 1990s that looked at kids’ eating patterns found that picky eating habits could be linked to and affected by everything from personality traits, to parental control at mealtime, to social influences, to maternal eating patterns. Or, you might just have a kid.
One big thing that many people who work with picky eaters talk about? Power struggles. Children are learning all the dynamics of control as they grow, and many times that simple but elusive thing is what they most crave. So maybe sometimes they don’t like the look, feel, or taste of a food but, according to sociologist Dina Rose, PhD, “Even in these instances, the refusal to try that food is an expression of fear or other feelings. Control and being able to control their own food environment is the primary problem.”
Add to that the fact that many parents feel real pressure to feed their children “right,” so they walk into the situation nervous and anxious. And anyone with kids knows that they can sniff that out a mile away! And so the power struggle begins.
So how to get past the power struggles? Try to flip the script. Don’t make mealtimes a negative experience by forcing two more bites of that broccoli, which will only teach them that eating veggies is a chore. Instead, make it about tasting food and about supporting your child in making healthy decisions if they can – but they choose if and how much they eat. Consider following registered dietician Ellyn Satter’s model known as the Division of Responsibility: simply put, in this model, it’s the parent’s responsibility to provide healthy food at the table and the child’s responsibility to listen to their own body’s cues and eat what they need.
But to get to that point, you might need some go-to tactics in your arsenal. So, in addition to not forcing your kids to eat and respecting their appetites, we’ve got some other tips that might help make mealtimes go a little more smoothly.
Play with Your Food! And Other Tips
There might not be one single strategy that will work with your child, and even the ones that do work might take time, but hang in there! Try the following:
- Let your kids play with their food! Do this from the most literal sense of the phrase – even pushing around and poking and pulling apart a new food on their plate is a valuable learning experience – to getting them involved in picking out veggies at the store and preparing meals. Consider this: in a study at the University of Eastern Finland, kindergartners spent hands-on time with fruits and veggies in their classroom by baking and cooking with them, growing a garden, and seeing food-related themes in books and games. As a result, they were more likely to choose these food groups from a snack buffet than kids who didn’t have these classroom activities.
Try also letting kids serve themselves – when kids have ownership of what goes on their plates, they’re more likely to eat what’s on it. In addition, we’re certainly not against cutting things in fun shapes, adding dipping sauces, focusing on colors, or serving up breakfast for dinner!
- Start very small – It’s all about baby steps. Maybe today all your child will do is wash some brussels sprouts with you, then maybe they’ll help serve them, then maybe they’ll even put their tongue to one tiny leaf! Keep it positive and fun as you go. In addition, starting small means giving them a way smaller portion than you’re tempted to – like, one pea, a crumble of cheese, or a piece of a noodle and encourage them to have a quick taste.
- Be open about ingredients – It’s tempting to hide healthy ingredients in a dish, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with adding extra nutrition, but be careful about losing your child’s trust. You also want them to learn about what it is they’re tasting – and liking. If they spot a speck of spinach in their smoothie, be honest, and ask them to investigate it with you. You can show them spinach leaves and make it a teachable moment!
- Follow the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” rule – Everyone should be allowed to say “No, thank you,” but make it clear it’s not ok to say “Blech!” or “That’s gross!” As the saying goes, never yuck someone’s yum.
- Keep trying – Yep, you’ve heard this one before: it can take 15 tries to get a child comfortable with a new food. But it can get easier: for children that have become more used to trying new things, that number can go down to 6. Still daunting, but there is hope!
- Get chatting – Mealtimes can be stressful, but, again, try to flip that script. Things can really take off if everyone starts chatting, so try starting off your meal by asking fun hypothetical questions of your children, or sharing something about yourself or your day. You might be surprised by how much more willing kids are to get down to the business of eating when things are fun and relaxed.
- Play it cool – For some picky eaters, part of the attraction is the attention it brings. So if your child wants to try something new, don’t go overboard. Be casual, give them a bite if you’ve got some, and maybe don’t even watch them. Show them how natural it is to try new things and they might be more likely to follow through.
- Build on the little wins – If you’ve got your little one to try chicken through the magic of chicken nuggets, try gradually introducing other types of chicken. Or, stick with a texture, shape, or color you know they like.
Finally, remember: it’s got to be your child’s decision if they like a food, otherwise you’ll just be back in the old power struggle boat. Encourage tasting (hey, who likes black coffee the first time they taste it?), keep everything in perspective, and try to create a positive, supportive environment for tasting.
Hang on to Your Sanity
You know what else is important for parents of picky eaters? Staying sane. Your mental health matters, too, and not just because a more relaxed and less anxious parent is less likely to spark a power struggle. You deserve to feel good, too! So try to remember to:
- Keep some perspective – Eating is an essential part of your child’s life, but it is just one part. Focus on – and enjoy – other shared parts of your child’s life that give you joy.
- Find ways to enjoy mealtimes – This can mean making it fun and chatty as suggested above, or, maybe more importantly, finding a way to have some time to yourself before and/or after meals to relax and regroup. Do what feels good to you to re-center and come back more relaxed and with a more positive energy.
- Take a bigger break when you need to – It’s ok to pass off food duties onto a partner or other caregiver when you just need a mental health day.
- Don’t blame yourself – This is so important! And it’s even sanctioned by the medical profession: according to Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard, “Most picky eating cannot be explained by poor parenting. The proof for that is that many picky eaters have siblings who eat just fine. So I let parents know their child probably came into the world with a brain that is just more rigid about trying new foods. I ask parents of picky eaters to allow some compassion for themselves about how frustrating that is.”
Remember, if you’ve got one of those kids who will only eat “white” foods, or is a dedicated “carbivore,” you’re definitely not alone! The most important thing to remember is that the goal is not to force that one more bite of veggies on that one Tuesday, the goal is to raise a child who is equipped to make healthy choices about what goes into their body and what fuels them for the day. Along the way, we hope to give them a positive relationship with food, and also to let them enjoy what they’re eating! It can all seem impossible at times, but believe us, if you care enough to worry about your child’s eating habits, you’re already doing a great job!