If you’re a parent of a picky eater, you’ll know how frustrating it is to spend time and effort planning and cooking a healthy meal for your child, only to have them flat-out refuse to take even a tiny bite. Picky eating is normal for toddlers and young children, but it can be hard to know how to navigate this parenting challenge. Should you force them to eat what’s on their plate? Make them something new? Or bribe them with dessert? Well actually, while these might be tempting solutions, none of them are likely to be very effective at addressing picky eating in the long term. Here are six effective strategies you can use instead.
Eat together as a family
Many families fall into a pattern of feeding their kids a simple dinner early in the evening and then waiting until they’re in bed to serve the ‘adult’ meal. But if you’re struggling with picky eating, it’s worth making the effort to sit down for a family meal together. Children learn by imitating those around them, so the best way to encourage them to eat a balanced diet is simply by role modelling healthy eating. Eating dinner together without any distractions (e.g. phones, tablets, or TV) allows children to learn healthy eating habits and also provides a great opportunity to connect as a family. You’ll be amazed at the foods your child will try if they consistently see you eating them, without you having to pressure them at all.
Don’t make them a new meal and accept that they may skip a meal
For each meal, make sure you include some foods that you know your child likes (their “safe” foods), alongside some foods they may not usually eat. If they refuse the plate, resist the urge to make them something new, as this only encourages picky eating. If they’re really hungry, they will likely eat their safe foods, even if they don’t want to eat anything else. If they refuse the entire plate, they may not be hungry. Although it can be hard for parents when a child rejects an entire meal, it is a good idea to teach your child to read their own internal hunger cues and let them decide whether or not they are hungry enough to eat. Forcing them to eat when they may not be hungry teaches them to ignore the messages from their own body.
Take treats off their pedestal
Many parents fall into the trap of ‘bribing’ their child to eat their dinner by promising them a treat or dessert afterwards. While this often works in the short term, in the long term it can cause issues as it teaches the child that the main meal is simply a chore that has to be completed in order to get the exciting treat food. This makes ‘normal’ food seem unappealing while increasing their excitement and obsession with treat foods. While it may sound counter-intuitive, if your child seems fixated on a certain treat food (e.g. chocolate) it can be a good idea to serve a small amount of that food with their main meal. This way the treat food is not put on a pedestal as an exciting reward but is instead placed on equal footing with all the other food available for that meal.
Keep exposing your child to new foods
If your child consistently rejects new foods, it can be tempting to simply serve them things you know they will eat. While nobody enjoys wasting food, it is a good idea to keep exposing your child to foods they don’t yet eat, as research shows it can take 8-15 exposures to a new food before a child even takes a bite. Simply placing a tiny piece of the new food on their plate counts as an exposure, even if they don’t pick it up or taste it.
Have fun with food
Although many of us were taught never to play with our food, having fun with food is actually a great way to encourage kids to try new things. Try serving foods in new and interesting ways, like making a face out of raw vegetables, using novelty serving forks, or cutting foods into interesting shapes. If your child is particularly picky, you can even make sensory games out of food items to encourage your child to touch and explore new foods without any pressure to taste them. For example, if your toddler loves trucks, you could try giving them a plate of mashed veg or rice with a few mini dump trucks and diggers and encourage them to dig, dump and build with the food. These types of exposures can make them feel more comfortable with the food to the point where they may be tempted to try a few bites, which can lead to them eventually fully accepting the food.
Get kids involved
Research has shown that involving children in the process of planning and cooking a meal can increase their acceptance of foods. Preparing a meal can help to make them more likely to try new dishes and they are often tempted to taste little bits and pieces as they cook. Taking ownership of the cooking process can also boost a child’s self-esteem, giving them the confidence to try something new. At Mini Masterminds, we’ve incorporated a stimulating cooking class that encourages our children to open up to new tastes. We use this opportunity to expose children to new ingredients and learn how they are a good choice for our growing bodies.
At Mini Masterminds, our included, nutritionist-designed, and chef-prepared meals are set to delight even the fussiest of eaters. Our chef and nutritionist also make an effort to include a wide variety of foods in our menus to ensure children are consistently being exposed to new foods, to help develop lifelong positive eating habits and help improve picky eating. Many parents are amazed at the wide variety of healthy foods their child will eat during their days with us.
To learn more, or to enquire about one of our early learning centres throughout Sydney, contact us today.