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Mealtime Do’s and Don’ts for Feeding a Picky Eater

Photo credit: Getty Images/gpointstudio

Photo credit: Getty Images/gpointstudio

Whether you’re a new parent or just lucky enough to have a child with the most sensitive of palates, dealing with a picky eater is no easy feat.

So, when your two-year-old informs you they’d like to live off chicken nuggets the rest of their life, have no fear. We looked at common scenarios plaguing parents of picky eaters and reached out to the team of registered dietitians at St. Christopher’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition for advice on how to inspire finicky eaters to take their first bite.

Do: Let Them Express Their Dislike For Things

It is no coincidence that picky eating behaviors emerge around the same time children learn to say things like, “no” or, “I don’t want that.”

While it’s great that your kids are learning to express their likes, dislikes, and starting to exert their personal choices, toddlers can often abuse this new power. Remain calm when kids start to flex their muscles about food. Keeping your cool will keep them open to trying new things before expressing their dislike.

Don’t: Insist They Eat

Offering foods, rather than insisting your child eats a certain food, keeps the battle neutralized between you and your toddler. If they miss a meal or fall into full-fledged hangriness, don’t panic!

Missing one meal is no reason to worry, but take note if your picky eating is more of a problem at certain meal times, this could be reflective of their food preferences. Noticing their preferences early will help you plan meals more strategically around ingredients and flavors they do like.

Do: Stand Your Ground

Set your boundaries and stick to them wholeheartedly. Once kids know they have the power to control the foods they eat, it’s important for you to step in to make sure they’re not closing themselves off from a world of healthy, tasty foods just because they don’t like the color green.

Meet in the middle: Allow them to express their like or dislike for a food only after they take a bite.

Don’t: Reward Bad Behavior

No parent wants to see their three-year-old cry in frustration over food, but times get tough and tantrums are real. Stay strong–here’s one more reason to make sure you don’t cave with a cookie: rewarding bad behaviors will only perpetuate the cycle of pickiness. Instead of letting your toddler run the show and reap the benefits, push them to take a few more bites before pushing dinner away.

Do: Lead By Example

The best way to introduce your kids to a new food is by offering them a bite and modeling how delicious it tastes. Introducing your child to the foods you like can spark them to realize, “hey, this isn’t half bad.”

Sure, they might reject your enthusiasm for broccoli at first, but several studies show that it can take dozens of attempts trying a food before kids cave to admitting it is delicious.

Don’t: Make Them Clean Their Plate

You grew up hearing it from your mom and dad every time dinner rolled around: “finish your dinner,” “clean your plate.” But there’s good reason to break this family tradition.

While children should be encouraged to eat their vegetable, they should also be taught to listen to their internal hunger cues. Failing to get in tune when their body signals it’s had enough can cause them to overeat and become overweight in the long run.

Do: Be Creative

Sometimes the easiest way to expand the palate of a picky eater is by introducing them to new foods disguised as the ones they love. For example, if your kids love macaroni and cheese, that might be the perfect way to introduce a little more broccoli in their diet.

For kiddos with the most discerning of taste buds, pureeing new foods into what they know and love is another great way to introduce richer nutrition and flavors to their meals. Blending steamed cauliflower into mashed potatoes, or pureed spinach into a pasta sauce, will incorporate more veggies into the saucy meals they love. 

Don’t: Bribe Them With Desert  

The cookie at the end of the tunnel is great, but so are the fresh vegetables and nutritious foods you encounter along the way. Remove the emphasis on desert being a “reward” and focus on how equally awesome all the foods they’re eating are.

If a child’s only incentive to eat a healthy food is to get a treat afterward, they won’t see the healthy item as something that carries merit on its own.

Do: Let Them Serve Themselves

Hand over the serving spoon! It might be messy at first, but the benefits of letting little ones dish out their own dinner pay off in the long run.

Kids who self-serve become more familiar with their food’s ingredients and engage their senses with new tastes, smells and textures on their own—giving them the awesome independent feeling they’re making their own choices. What’s more, kids are less likely to overeat when provided the opportunity to self-serve.

Don’t: Allow Grazing

They’re kids, not goats after all! Letting your kiddos snack on chips or snacks can disrupt meal times and cause bad habits—like “distracted eating,” a practice that causes us (yes, even adults) to overeat without realizing it.

Instead of handing out snacks to little ones to keep them quiet or entertained, take time every two to three hours between set meal times to sit down for a small meal you can nosh on together. Make eating at the table a focus and allow them to move away from when they’ve decided they’ve had enough or lost interest.

It takes time for picky eaters to come around, but staying patient and persistent is the only way to encourage them to try something new. If your child is regularly missing meals because of their pickiness it might be time to reach out to a pediatrician or registered dietitian for more help.

For more information on creating healthy eating habits and fostering healthy kids, visit St. Christopher’s Hospital.