With crazy schedules, a kid on the verge of a meltdown, and a dog at your feet waiting for any fallen scraps, I know that trying to put a nutritious meal on the table the entire family will eat can be a challenge. Weekly meal time can be anything but enjoyable, especially if your child is “picky” or unwilling to even touch his or her food.
Let me start by first saying, I was hesitant to write about this topic, considering the fact that it can draw out a lot of emotions from parents and, maybe the more obvious reason, I don’t have any kids yet or have first-hand experience with this! But, as a dietitian, and as somebody who has a budding interest in this area of nutrition, I’ve done a lot of reading, research, and talking with others to get me to the point where I know that some families are missing the mark when it comes to meals and feeding their children.
I’ve had moms come to me, completely out of ideas and exhausted, asking for any advice about what to do with their picky eaters. The look of desperation in their eyes followed by their sincere gratitude after they hear some possible solutions made me feel like it was worth sharing a few tips with you as well, with the hopes that it may be something you can use at the dinner table.
It’s well known that family meals, in general, are important, but the atmosphere at the table is just as important – it shapes how a child feels about food. If dinner time is a stressful time with persuading, bribing, and negotiating, it’s no wonder a child relents and tries to escape from dinner – it’s not an enjoyable time for anyone!
Parents understandably (but unnecessarily) take on a lot of responsibility when it comes to feeding their children. However, sometimes we need to trust our children and show them that we believe in their ability to eat. Over time, they’ll recognize this, feel less pressured, and be more likely to try the food on their plate anyway.
The key to a peaceful meal time is the division of responsibility between the parent and child. It’s your job to decide what and when your child eats. It’s your child’s job to decide whether he eats it and how much he eats. There may be days when your child eats like a champ and other days when he picks at his food for the entire meal. Rather than stress, let it be and keep the meal a positive one.
In addition to the division of responsibility, here are several other useful tips that may be worth trying with your family. These tips may not work for every family, but they may be just what you need to recreate a positive atmosphere at the family dinner table again.
- Eating is a skill that is learned. As adults, we tend to forget that kids are often still figuring out what to do with the strange food set before them. If you had a plate of something foreign, like fried cow’s tongue, served to you, you may not want the meal either! You don’t know what it is and you’re not even really sure how to go about eating it. It takes time. If you often hear, “I don’t like it,” what your child may really be saying is, “I’m not ready.” To help with this, simply ask, “What can we do to make this meal yummier for you?” Often times it can be as simple as taking off a topping or adding a condiment.
- It can take many exposures! Sometimes it can take years of exposures before a child will try or like a new food (remember me and my dislike for eggs last week?). Don’t give up hope! Continual exposures allow kids to expand at a pace that is right for them. As a parent, it’s common to worry about whether your child will widen his food choices to more than just chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, but he will. After a while kids will get tired of even their favorite foods and appetites increase.
- Make one meal for the entire family. Your job as a parent is prepare a meal that most of the family is likely to enjoy, not become a short order cook. Instead, always have available at the table something you know your child will eat, such as bread and butter or a side to go along with the meal. When your child doesn’t feel pressured to eat and with enough exposures, he may surprise you with what he eventually tries!
- The “no, thank you bite” rule doesn’t always work. This common rule of having kids eat one bite of the food they are refusing automatically gives them the idea that it’s probably not something they’ll enjoy in the first place. Rather, encourage your kids to explore new foods by asking them questions like: What does this food smell like? Does it look like anything you’ve seen before or eaten before? They’re not forced into trying it, but if they do take a bite and decide they don’t like it, let them politely spit it out in a napkin. We shouldn’t expect kids to want to try something if they thought they may have to swallow it even if they don’t like it.
- No more “two more bites.” This phrase is often used when a child says he’s full, but the parent wants him to eat a little bit more. This phrase, along with others like, “Eat this much and you can be done,” “There’s a cookie for when you finish,” or “You’ve only had a few bites – you can’t be full!” are indicating to kids that they don’t really know when they’re full. This can also lead to kids eating based on external cues rather than their internal hunger cues. Simply remind your child when the next snack or meal will be and leave it at that. Trust your child to know when he’s full and allow him the chance to decide how much he wants to eat.
- Worry less about whether your child has eaten enough. This is understandably one of the top concerns of parents. Kids between 2 – 6 years tend to become more resistant to foods, even ones they used to enjoy. Birth weight triples in the first year of life, but doesn’t continue at this rate. This change can show up at meals when they seem disinterested in food. Keep in mind, kids need fewer calories and nutrients than adults do. Think back to how they ate at breakfast and lunch or whether they had a large snack. Many times kids will eat better earlier in the day. If this is the case, focus on these meals and consider whatever they eat at dinner as a bonus. As long as your child’s growth is on track, your child is eating enough.
- Serve dessert with dinner. It doesn’t mean you have to have a dessert with every meal, but if you have a dessert planned, serve a small portion right alongside with the meal rather than after. This simply takes the attention off of the dessert and is treated as another enjoyable food that isn’t the star of the show. It also takes away the effects of using food as a reward.
Of course, there are times when picky eating becomes a more serious problem, such as if your child has a very limited number of foods he will eat or is falling behind in his growth. If this is the case, talk to your pediatrician about what options are available.
For most cases, though, a little bit of trust, consistency, and patience will go a long way.