If you’d describe your child as a picky eater, you’re not alone. 25-35% of healthy children exhibit picky eating behaviors. The numbers are even higher for those that have medical issues or developmental concerns. Picky eaters mean mealtimes can be stressful! You might have tried every trick you could think of (e.g., coaxing, bribing, offering rewards, “here comes the airplane!,” and maybe even losing privileges), but still, your kid just won’t eat their fruits and veggies! You know how important it is for your child to eat a balanced diet to make sure they grow up strong and healthy. Their willpower might serve them later in life, but it doesn’t help you get them to eat what’s on their plate right now.
Here are some ways to make mealtimes more pleasant and successful.
- Start with a consistent mealtime schedule. This means trying to eat at least 3 meals a day (and 1-2 healthy snacks), around the same time every day. Our brains have internal clocks that love consistency and routine. Eating around the same time every day will help their brains feel hungrier at that time, making mealtimes more likely to be successful.
- Eliminate grazing. Your child should have 2-3 hours without any calories (no food or drinks, other than water) prior to the start of every meal and snack. This will ensure your child is as hungry as possible during the meal and more likely to try foods that are unfamiliar or less preferred.
- Establish sit-down, family-style meals at least once a day. Everyone should sit down together to eat. Wandering around while eating is not only a safety hazard, but also means your child is unlikely to eat as much food. Sitting together makes mealtime a social event and encourages the whole family to focus on eating. It also allows you to model good eating. Family meals have also been shown to lead to better nutrition, more stable weight, and less disordered eating behaviors.
- Remove distractions. Again, the focus is on eating with your family. Turn off the TV, put away all toys/electronics, and remove any other distractions (close blinds and remove pets, if needed). This is especially important for any child that has difficulty focusing such as younger children and those with ADHD.
- Set a reasonable time limit for each meal. Kids attention spans are limited. Try 15 minutes for children under the developmental age of 5 and 30 minutes for older children. You can use a portable kitchen timer to indicate when the meal is over. When the time for the meal is up, clear the table regardless of whether your child is finished eating. Do not say anything to your child beyond announcing that the meal is over. Try to let them up before they start to whine, cry, or tantrum. It is always best to end a meal with a success!
- Establish a set of mealtime rules for the whole family. Remind your child of the rules once at the beginning of every meal until he or she has learned the rules. Example:
- Stay in your seat.
- Keep food on your plate.
- No electronics at the dinner table.
- Everyone helps clean up.
- Take the pressure off. Offer, but do not force foods. Don’t coax or yell. Kids who feel pressured to eat will often eat less. But there are still things we can do to help them eat more! Offer non-preferred before preferred foods and offer solids before liquids. This allows us to use hunger as a natural motivator to eat. Offer only small amounts of food to start (you can always add more!). Allow your child to eat favorite foods only after eating new, non-preferred, or less-preferred foods. For example, you might allow your child to have a few French fries only after five small bites of a less-preferred food like peas. Gradually increase the amount and types of foods you give. Kids often have an easier time drinking than eating. Offer liquids after they’ve eaten some solids. We want to make sure they don’t fill up on those tasty liquids like milk before they eat.
- Give options. The truth is - feeding is one way children try to exert some control over their lives. We want to help your child feel in control, but in a way that encourages exploration and exposure to healthy food options. One way to do that is by offering choices. “Do you want corn or broccoli for dinner?” “Do you want peas or carrots first?” “Do you want to use a fork or a spoon?” “Do you want to sit by mom or by dad?” “Should we set the mealtime timer for 15 or 16 minutes?” Otherwise, we want to avoid asking questions (e.g., “Are you ready to eat?” or “Do you want to eat this?”) because then they can say, “no” when we might not want them to have the option.
- Your attention is very powerful! Praise your child right away for any appropriate mealtime behaviors such as eating, staying in their seat, and talking nicely while at the table. When you praise, be specific! You can say things like, “I love how you’re chewing with your mouth closed,” “Nice work tasting something new,” “I like how you’re sitting in your chair,” or “Great job at keeping the green beans on your plate!” You cannot praise too much. If your child complains or resists eating, do not pay attention or talk about it. This can accidently increase the unwanted behaviors! You can ignore these unwanted behaviors by looking or turning away, sitting quietly, talking with another family member, or looking at your own plate. You’re teaching your child that the best way to get your attention is by behaving– by eating and exploring new foods, not by refusing and complaining.
- Don’t give in! If your child did not finish the last meal because they refused to eat, do not offer dessert or give any food or drink (aside from water) between meals. Remember, we’re trying to stick to a new mealtime schedule. If they get dessert after refusing dinner, this can teach them the way to get what they want is by waiting you out! Instead, remind them of their next opportunity to eat or drink. If your child whines and constantly asks for snacks, commit to ignoring these unwanted behaviors or, you may place them in time-out after a warning.
- Add fat and tasty flavors to new foods or veggies. Try roasting naturally bitter foods (e.g., broccoli or brussels sprouts), add fat or flavorful seasonings, and pair them with tastier options such as ranch dressing. Research shows that kids will eat 80% more of their vegetables when they were paired with ranch! Then you can pull back on how much dip is used or expand the dips to healthier options such as hummus, flavored yogurt, or guacamole.
- Praise trying and exploration! We want to encourage our children to explore new foods and expand their diets. Start with smaller steps to get your child used to the look, smell, texture, and taste of the food. Research shows that just repeatedly putting unfamiliar, non-preferred foods on their plates increases the chance they’ll eat them (be patient, this may take 15-20 presentations). Starting with the food on their plate and no expectation to eat it can help kids feel more comfortable with the food. Then, consider a goal of “5.” 5 smells, 5 touches, 5 licks, or 5 tastes. This helps to boost their confidence and increase their familiarity with the food. These smaller steps are especially helpful for those that may be a little more anxious about eating.
- Add extra incentives! Consider creating a reward system for good eating. A simple feeding sticker/star chart can go a long way. Stickers might be reward enough for your little one or stars/smileys can be exchanged for a special reward or prize (e.g., a trip to the treasure chest or extra time with you to read a book or play a game together).
These strategies are not right for everyone and can be challenging to implement without support. If you have concerns about your child’s feeding behaviors, you might need to call in back-up. Call your pediatrician and talk about your concerns. Your child's doctor will help you problem-solve the concerns you’re having. You may be referred to our psychologist who is a behavioral feeding specialist. Some children’s feeding behaviors go beyond typical pickiness. If you have concerns regarding your child’s weight or specific medical concerns related to feeding (for example, if your child has been diagnosed with failure-to-thrive), you should always talk to your child’s doctor before implementing any new interventions. Your pediatrician might want to do a medical evaluation and/or rule out any complicating medical factors or they might suggest a comprehensive feeding evaluation with a multidisciplinary team. The bottom line - we’re here to help!
Here's an example sticker chart: