Picky eaters can quickly turn an enjoyable family meal into a battlefield. Moms and dads negotiate and encourage picky eaters while they adamantly refuse vegetables, turn a nose up at chicken and push away anything new.
“Struggles over what your child is eating can make a time that’s supposed to be about family, very stressful,” says Jayme Holstein, MD, pediatrician at Takai, Hoover, Hsu & Associates. “Parents can really start to get concerned about if their child is eating healthy enough. Fortunately, most of the time picky eaters are getting enough calories and nutrients they need. It really comes down to finding the right strategies that will work for you and your child to make mealtimes enjoyable again.”
If you’re struggling with a picky eater, Dr. Holstein recommends the following four tips:
1. Continue to introduce healthy foods
“You are not in control of what your child puts in their mouth,” Dr. Holstein reminds parents. “You can only control what you put on their plate. If you never put new, healthy foods on a picky eater’s plate, then your child won’t have the chance to try it.”
When you introduce a new food to your child, try to:
- Pair it with a favorite food that you know they will eat.
- Add a dipping sauce for them to try new fruits or vegetables.
- Stay calm and be positive.
- Encourage them to take 2-3 bites, instead of trying to force them to eat an entire serving.
2. Involve your picky eater in mealtime preparation.
One successful way to help avoid dinner table meltdowns is to ask your child to help when planning and preparing meals. Here are a few easy ways to help children get excited about eating:
- Bring your child to the store and let him pick out 2-3 new fruits and veggies to try during meals or snacks.
- Ask how they want food prepared. Even simple questions like, “Do you want your sandwich cut in triangles or squares?” or “Should we peel the cucumber or cut it into coins?” can help a child feel involved in the process and encourage her to try new, healthy foods.
- Give your child choices about what they want to eat. Offer two healthy options, and let her decide what lunch or dinner will be.
- Give children age-appropriate tasks to help them feel part of dinnertime preparation. Preschoolers can set the table and school-age children can even lend a hand cooking the meal (with adult supervision, of course).
3. Get on the same page with your partner.
Dr. Holstein also recommends parents work together to decide rules and expectations for picky eaters.
“Parents need to present a unified front so the child knows what exactly she needs to do at mealtime or before she gets dessert,” she says.
Spend a few minutes talking about what rules you each think are appropriate and brainstorm some strategies that might work to encourage your picky eater. Once you and your partner come up with a plan of attack, be sure to introduce it to your picky eater and ask for his or her feedback. It’s another great way to let your child feel involved to ensure success.
4. Consider rewarding healthy eating.
Sometimes, an incentive can help encourage picky eaters try a new food.
“My daughter was a very picky eater,” shares Dr. Holstein. “We tried a system where she was able to earn points during mealtimes and then trade them in for things like screen time or dessert during the week.”
Every family and child is different, so be sure to come up with a plan that works for you:
- Talk to your child to find out what would help motivate him or her to try new foods.
- Brainstorm ways that you can be consistent with rewards.
- Offer the rewards program for a certain period of time. A trial period can help you figure out what works for your child, and also works to establish lifelong healthy eating habits that aren’t dependent on a sticker or prize.
Still worried? Talk to your pediatrician.
Dr. Holstein encourages all parents to talk with their child’s pediatrician if they are still concerned about their picky eater’s habits.
“Your pediatrician can help brainstorm new strategies and may have a few suggestions you haven’t yet tried,” she says. “As long as children are growing and thriving, pediatricians tend not to be too worried about picky eaters. That conversation can also help parents find peace of mind, and become less stressed during mealtimes.”