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Dinner: The New Battlefield ~ Featuring Your Picky Eater

Have you been there??  You just slaved over a delicious meal and then your little Gordon Ramsay comes in and…..YUCK!  Your child gives it the two thumbs DOWN.  If so, I can entirely relate to the battle and frustration.  The good news is, developmentally this behaviour is entirely normal, common, and believe it or not, an opportunity to create healthy future eaters.   Below are some of my recommended strategies, along with ones approved and researched by the experts.    

Tips on Getting Through These Years and Slowly Creating Healthy Eaters: 

  • Take Grocery Shopping:  For some, this means an all day event, so I get the hard PASS with no judgement.  If not the case, bring them along and allow your child to pick out the fruits and veggies for the week or help make the weekly grocery list. 

  • Accept Food Refusal:  You’ve pleaded, you’ve begged….you’ve even bribed.  Professionals agree that force feeding or begging for 2 more bites always backfires (yet we’ve all somehow resorted to this).  Continue to offer what is on the menu, then trust and accept whether or not they eat it.  This is an important one as some of us know adults who currently do not eat certain food due to their childhood flashbacks.  My personal flashback is carefully sliding my liver into a napkin, then letting it silently drop onto the floor for the cat.  It worked every time, but the “stay until you finish your meat” clearly didn’t accomplish my parents’ goal (sorry mom and dad).

  • Let Them Feel in Control:  Ask if they want carrots or peas with dinner tonight?  This gives them a sense of feeling in control of the meal. 

  • Serve Small:  To avoid overwhelming. Introduce one new food at a time and keep portions small.

  • Make It Fun:  Get creative such as designing a pattern on the plate or use meal time for fun conversations.  This will put a positive spin on eating what mom or dad made. 

  • Teach Where Food Comes From:  It’s easy in today’s world to feel disconnected from our food.  Go to the farmers market, chat with the baker, teach them apples don’t grow in the back of the grocery store by taking them apple picking.  There’s many great You Tube shows for kids on this topic.  Plant your own garden, grow your own herbs at home (trust me, you don’t need a green thumb!)

  • Explore new spices & styles:   Your child may not like raw carrots but they may love them steamed with a drizzle of olive oil, they may not like raw cauliflower, but they may love it with a healthy dip or roasted.  They may not like baked potatoes, but they may love them mashed…you get my point!

  • Repeated Exposure:  Be patient. Experts say it can take a dozen tries to accept a new taste.

  • Allow Child to Decide When Full:  This is more important than we think.  This teaches self regulation and to listen to our internal body cues.  Research shows that force feeding may confuse this natural cue and lead to future over eating.

  • Strategize Snacks:  Are they even hungry yet? Wait approximately 2 hours between snack and mealtime and 1 hour between drinking and mealtime (unless of course they are thirsty) 

  • Limit Distractions:  Turn off the TV, leave toys behind, and stay off your phone.  This will help child focus on eating. 

  • Eat the Foods You are Promoting:  Be sure you are also eating the foods you are offering. The “do as I say and not as I do” has never been a motivator. 

  • Dessert as a Reward?:   I know this is a tough one!  If you are struggling with a picky eater, using dessert as a reward may only promote a child’s desire for sweets and send the message that dessert is the best food.   (hey, I get it and what adult doesn’t like dessert, but this won’t help the current struggle) 

Added Tip:  Play around with smoothies to find one your child enjoys.  This is a great way to add in the vitamins and minerals you are worried your picky eater is missing out on.  This technique can be used with other dishes.  Shake on some crunchy nutritional yeast, or grate in zucchini or carrots within those muffins.  Creativity is key at this age!

As children get older it’s only natural their freedom & outside influences will start swaying their food choices.  This is a good motivator to make positive impacts and provide productive guidance during these younger years.  I’m not saying they won’t be rolling though McDonald’s late night drive through with friends in future years, but paving some foundational habits may shape the way our children view and welcome wholesome food vs. once in a while choices.

While picky eating is common, severe cases may exist where intervention may be needed.  Some indicators may be:

  • picky eating is affecting child’s growth
  • child shows signs of extreme anxiety at meal time
  • child appears to be in pain when eating (could signify an allergy or medical issue)

Below is a great research study on this topic:

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