MEALTIME CHAOS: HOW TO DEAL WITH PICKY EATERS
December 08, 2021
Parenting has a lot of ups and downs. After the first 6 months, when your little one is on a diet of milk, you’ll start to slowly introduce solid foods. This is a big change, and it signals the start of a long journey to train compliant eaters and some difficult mealtimes ahead. Learning how to deal with picky eaters is right around the corner.
Almost every parent will have a child that exhibits some pickiness as an eater, though the degree to which this affects your family depends on the child and how you respond.
If you’re wondering (perhaps desperately) how to deal with picky eaters, we’re going to review some proven tips in this article and explain time-tested recommendations for improving your mealtimes. While there is no single answer for how to get a picky toddler to eat healthy, there are ways to make good food a normal and non-contentious part of your child’s diet.
Expose Your Kids to Lots of New Foods
Once your child is ready to start supplementing their diet with soft foods (typically between 6-9 months) you have an opportunity to begin shaping their palette and tastes. Introducing them to a variety of foods from a young age sets a good precedent for at least trying new items when they are older.
The problem with many mass-produced baby foods and snacks is that they have basically two textures: liquid or crunchy (puffed rice). Real foods like bananas, raisins, eggs, and oatmeal don’t fit neatly into a textural category or flavor profile. These foods often taste different and vary in their texture depending on how ripe they are or how they were prepared.
As a parent, I know that sometimes the pre-packaged snacks are too convenient to ignore. But, I also can’t stress how important it is to consciously introduce new foods from the toddler stage onward.
How to Help Picky Eaters: Reward Them Just for trying
Make sure that you loudly and consistently praise your kids for trying new foods, even if they don’t clear their plates. It’s critical for your child to associate new foods with positive emotions, and for them to know that you’ll be proud of them just for trying.
Continue to re-introduce those foods every few weeks and you’ll likely be surprised that one day they take a few more bites, then a few more…..then they start asking for more! Expect that process to take time.
Recognize that Young Kids Want to Eat What You’re Eating
Children are almost always interested in what mom and dad are doing.
Have you ever had one of those days where you simply need a private moment in the bathroom and your toddler comes barging in to ask questions and empty the sink drawers? Me either.
That same fascination kids have with everything that their parents are up to also applies to food.
If kids see something they’ve never had before on your plate then they are going to want a bite. Just recently my son wanted to try sushi because that’s what my wife and I were eating for dinner.
I knew without a doubt that he would not like it, and it would end up on the floor or in his bib pouch. Still, I offered him a piece and took a decent bite before “giving it back.” At the very least, the sushi introduced him to all kinds of new flavors and textures. I gave him a lot of praise for even trying entirely new food.
Granted, this tactic is particularly effective when your child is already mid-tantrum, but it is a good way to reinforce that everyone in the family is eating the same thing for each meal - mom and dad included. After all, can you learn how to get a picky toddler to eat healthy if you aren’t modeling the same behavior yourself?
It can also be helpful to reinforce the concept that eating “grown-up” food is a big deal and to point out that your child is exhibiting “big kid” behavior by doing so.
It’s OK to Offer Incentives, but Not Everyday
Sometimes it feels like the only answer to how to help picky eaters is by compromising or bargaining. By offering your child something in return for trying or finishing their food, you greatly increase the chances that they comply (at least in the short term).
Here are some favorite go-to bargaining chips for many parents:
- Playtime with a favorite toy.
- Going outside or visiting with a friend.
- Screen time.
- A special snack or alternate meal.
Yet, many parents feel that this method is a slippery slope. There are a few best practices to keep in mind for using this approach successfully.
Be selective about when you choose to use incentives. You should try to avoid making compromises and promises at every meal, unless you want your life to turn into one long negotiation. Constantly trying to figure out what will make your child interested in eating their vegetables is exhausting and mentally draining.
To make matters worse, kids often lose interest in their favorite snacks after being rewarded with the same thing for a few meals in a row. This holds true even if your incentive isn’t a food item.
Nothing feels more defeating than when your child starts to say “no” to your desperate attempts at getting them to eat dinner. Young kids are notoriously strong-willed, and even if they want the incentive you’re offering they might double-down on their stubbornness when it comes to eating foods.
Don’t use unhealthy foods are a bargaining tool because it teaches your child that junk food is a reward for good behavior, and that can reinforce a lifetime of bad habits.
Know the Difference Between Bad Behavior and True Aversion
Knowing how to deal with a picky eater doesn’t always mean knowing how the get them to eat a specific food.
Experts believe that children act out about food as a way of seeking attention or controlling a situation. However, some kids also struggle significantly with sensitive palettes, and they have a tough time eating particular foods.
How can you tell the difference between these two reactions?
Watch your child closely and monitor how they react. If they were willing to try the food initially but quickly stopped eating, then it might have something to do with the food's seasoning, temperature, or texture. Not all kids are being outrightly disobedient, some just struggle with specific kinds of foods.
On the other hand, if your child is being difficult about even trying new food, or eating a food that you know they love, then it’s likely that they are acting out for a different reason and you need to adjust your response accordingly.
As you might have guessed, there are several answers for how to deal with picky eaters. To boil down (no pun intended) the highlights, you should primarily focus on consistently introducing new foods from a young age, praising your children for trying new foods, and modeling good eating behavior for the whole family with your own diet and habits.