This is a guest post written by Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD.
“How can I help my picky eater?” This is the number 1 question that I hear from parents. It can feel like everywhere we look people are telling us how our children should eat. There’s not one way to feed a child. As parents, we can provide children with experiences and structure to help them learn and grow in their eating. However, we can’t make our children be adventurous eaters.
We are all different and, therefore, eat differently.
Some children may approach new situations and food with excitement and curiosity. Other children, may be a bit more cautious and new situations, including food, may be a bit more challenging. Just like anything in parenting, it’s important to support our children for who they are. As parents, it’s important set up a structure for our children so that they can progress in their eating over time, just like we’d help a child learn to go to bed on their own or take responsibility for their homework. If we’re too permissive, children don’t learn how to do things on their own and if we are too forceful or authoritarian, children may not learn sustainable skills outside of being forced. There are things we can do, as parents and caregivers, to help our children grow up to eat a variety of foods.
5 Tips to Help Your Picky Eater:
1. Eliminate pressure: Research shows that pressure doesn't help children accept new foods. It may “work” at a particular meal, but it doesn’t help them readily accept food over time. What is pressure? Pressure can be telling a child they have to eat a certain amount, cheering for a child when they eat certain foods, or telling a child they have to eat an item in order to eat another food item. Pressure for one child may not feel like pressure to another. Being neutral about food choices is the best bet to support a child in making progress.
2. Have “food amnesia:” One of the biggest changes I encourage parents to make is to keep offering foods to their child, even and especially, if you know they won’t eat it. Have “amnesia” about what they ate or didn’t eat the last time you served the particular foods. So often, concern about a child not eating enough food or a particular type of food, can lead to catering to these preferences. For example, if a child eats broccoli, but not carrots, a parent may not make carrots and only offer broccoli so the child “gets in her vegetables.” The problem with this is that the child will never learn to eat carrots if she isn’t offered them. You may need to offer the carrots for years before your child eats them, but she will never eat them if they aren’t offered.
3. Offer an easily accepted food at meals: I encourage parents to decide what is offered at meals and snacks and to not cater to only the preferences of the child. However, for many children, seeing one food on the table that they already accept, can decrease anxiety and worry at that meal. If you include a readily accepted food item at a meal, a child will know they can “make do” with the food there. This can help a more sensitive child to know they can try the more challenging foods if they want to, but there’s not the pressure that they must eat the challenging food or, if they don’t, they will not eat anything.
4. Serve meals family style: Serving meals family style is a great way for a child to have autonomy. They can decide if and how much they put on their own plate. This is a great way to reduce pressure at the dinner table. This can feel like a lot of work, but I encourage parents to put pots and pans right on the table if that makes it more doable. Parents can serve from the pot at the table and ask each family member if they want some of the food item on their plate and how much.
5. Get kids cooking: Exposing kids to foods in different ways helps children try new foods. When we get kids in the kitchen they are exposed to food in different forms and are more likely to try the food when they sit down to eat. Kids can help measure or mix ingredients. An older child can chop or cook foods on the stove top. Check out this post by Elizabeth Davenport about kids cooking at Sunny Side Up Nutrition.
My hope is these tips will be support for you! Establishing structure that is not too permissive or too authoritarian can help children expand their eating skills. Try not to win the battle at a particular meal, but rather think about supporting your child to learn to eat and expand his variety over several years.
Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD
Anna Lutz is a mom of 3 and a Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy in Raleigh, NC. She specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition. Anna received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Duke University and Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD). Anna is a national speaker and delivers workshops and presentations on eating disorders and childhood feeding. She is passionate about helping parents avoid the food battle and raise kids to feel good about food and their bodies. She writes about simple cooking, nutrition and family feeding at Sunny Side Up Nutrition.