Supporting kids who are picky eaters can be stressful. You know they need the good stuff that comes from food, but they won’t take what you’re feeding them. They’ll eat something one day, but the next, they’re acting like you’re the worst caregiver in the world for even considering giving it to them. As with most things, balance is key and things take time. As a parent or guardian, it’s about encouraging kids to listen to their body, explore their preferences, while ensuring they’re being exposed to a variety of foods. And let’s not forget helping set them up to have a good relationship with food as they get older. It’s a lot to juggle. So how do you tackle it all?
First things first, it’s important to remember that for young kids, a lot of food is new. Where you can, you should aim to encourage an exploration of food without fear, avoiding power struggles at mealtimes. When you’re anxious about your kids and food, they’ll feel that anxiety. All too often, this can end in arguments at the dinner table which is no good for anyone. You might also wonder why your kid is particularly picky. According to a 2015 review of dozens of studies that date back to the 1990s that looked at kids’ eating patterns it turns out there are a vast array of reasons why your kid might be fussy about food. They range from personality traits to social influences to maternal eating patterns. Or you could might be being a picky eater because, well, they’re a kid.
But there are a few tips (which can be introduced at any age) which might help make things a bit easier for the picky eaters in your life. Whichever of these tips you try, go slowly. Add them in in a way that works for you both.
Offer new foods
If you’re trying to help your child expand their palate, introducing new foods consistently is key. But we’re going to use that word balance again. Because too much too soon is a sure fire way to overwhelm your kid. And if they’re overwhelmed, they’re not going to engage in the process. If you want to introduce something new, try adding it in with a firm favourite. When mac and cheese is flavour of the month, try popping a bit of broccoli alongside it on the plate without making too much of a fuss about it. If burgers are tickling their tastebuds, see if you can add some sweet potato fries in next to their regular chips.
They might not try the new food the first time you offer it, but exposure is important. Every picky eater is different but there might be steps to accepting a new food. These might include having a new food on their plate first, then touching the food, before finally tasting the food.
Involve your child
Kids and picky eaters are more likely to try food if they’ve grown, chosen or prepared it. Get your kids involved in meal prep to get them interested in and excited by food. Going to the supermarket and asking them to help you pick from the colourful fruit and veggies can spark their interest. If you’re lucky enough to live near an accessible and affordable farmer’s market, a trip to one of these might capture their attention too. When it comes to cooking dinner, age appropriate tasks can make them feel like they’ve got something to look forward to. Setting the table, chopping the veg (if they’re old enough) helping you tear lettuce, stirring the pot or mashing the spuds. All these things go a long way to helping get kids excited about exploring foods and interested in the process.
Avoid giving foods labels
We all talk about veggies as ‘healthy’ and biscuits and the like as ‘yummy’. But it’s actually better to avoid this sort of chat. It sort of suggests that carrots aren’t as yummy as biscuits, when in fact, they can be. When we stop telling kids vegetables are healthy, they tend to show more interest in eating them. When we stop labelling certain foods as treats, we create opportunities for kids to decide what sounds good to them. For some, a bunch of grapes might feel more like a treat than an ice cream because they might like them more. When we stop adding labels to foods, we give kids the chance to make up their own minds about things.
Keep it cool
You might be stressed by your picky eaters’ habits, but try not to give it too much attention. While we were told to eat our vegetables and our requests to leave the table may have been refused until we’d finished our dinner, doing so may only reinforce your child’s picky eating habits. The best thing you can do? Stay chill. If you’re adding a new food onto their plate, don’t make a fuss about it. If they’re not eating their dinner, don’t force the issue.
All kids go through phases with food and the best thing you can do not micromanage their diet. Your job is to provide them with a wide range of foods and let them decide how much and of what they’re going to eat. Invite them to try the food you’ve prepared for them and leave it at that. If your child sees you enjoying the food you’ve cooked for them, there’s a chance they’ll want to give it a try. And if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
Make it fun
Broccoli might not be a favourite, but introducing things like dips and sauces can make less fun foods a bit more engaging for picky eaters. Colour and texture can play a big role in whether or not a kid likes new foods too. They may find new foods more appealing if those foods are perceived as fun. Offering up foods that can be served in fun shapes or are brightly coloured can help encourage interest, particularly with younger kids. You could even talk about the super powers foods give. Red foods make your heart strong (because they’re packed with full of vitamins A and C). Orange foods give you great vision (because they’ve got plenty of beta carotene and vitamin A in them). Yellow foods help you heal (because they’re high in fibre and vitamin B6).
Remember not every meal is going to be perfect
There will always be times when you put a tonne of effort into making meals and your little one doesn’t eat a single bite. You can almost guarantee that the meals you put in the least effort into making are the ones they eat the most of (because OF COURSE!). And there’ll probably be times when they shout at you for encouraging them to eat things with actual nutrients in. Not every meal time is going to be perfect. If you can view your kid’s diet as a whole, over a week or a month, rather than as individual mealtimes, you’ll see you’re probably doing more than enough.
Sometimes kids are just kids and they don’t eat certain foods because they don’t want to. If they’re only eating beige foods right now, it’s extremely unlikely they’re going do that for the rest of their lives. Kids tend to eat one type of food for period of time and then switch to something else. But if you’re worried, trust YOUR gut and chat to your GP, especially if your child has extreme reactions to foods they don’t like or suddenly has an aversion to a food that they used to enjoy. Your GP may be able to refer you to a dietician for extra support.