What's a parent to do at meal time when you have finicky eaters?
We want to be good parents. We want our children to get the nutrition that they need. And we also want them to be exposed to a variety of foods in hopes that one day they will actually enjoy eating the food we put out for them.
In my experience at home and in researching this topic, I've gained some valuable insight into how to deal with picky eaters.
And I can shed some light for you on why your children may be picky eaters and what you can do to combat this problem.
How to Know if Your Child is a Picky Eater
It's not hard to spot a discriminating eater. Here are some signs you can take into consideration:
- Limited number of foods that he or she will eat
- Says that many foods are "icky"
- Getting him or her to eat many foods takes bargaining power
- Meal time can be a source of stress
If any of these situations sound remotely familiar, then it's possible that you're dealing with a picky child.
And guess what, you're definitely not alone.
As pediatricians such as Dr. Lee Hudson affirms that "picky eating is very common."
He is an expert in the field of eating and feeding disorders, so we can take his word as truth and as a sigh of relief.
Now, let's move on to understanding this challenge by looking at how and why some children get this way.
How to Tell if Your Child is Getting Enough Food to Eat
There are 3 main ways to analyze if your child is eating enough food.
First of all, use a growth chart to check your child's growth. Ask your doctor for past records and record your child's growth on the chart. Basically, if your child is in the 50th percentile for height and weight, then he or she should be getting enough to eat.
Secondly, with your child's doctor, do a head-to-toe examination for signs of nutritional deficiency. These include:
- Brittle hair and nails
- Skin is pale, dry, flaky, and loosely attached to the muscle
- Eyes are dull with dark circles underneath
- Lips are cracked and gums bleed easily
- Teeth have multiple cavities
Just one of these signs does not constitute malnutrition. Just be sure to consult with a doctor if you're concerned.
A third way to tell if your child is getting enough food to eat is to conduct a nutritional analysis. You can do this by recording everything your child eats for one week. Then, you bring this record to a nutritionist who then analyzes all the nutritional value in everything your child eats.
And the below infographic will tell you more on what you should feed your children to ensure healthy growth rate.
When is the Pickiest Phase of a Child's Life?
Almost half of children aged 2-11 are considered picky, as reported by a study in the journal Appetite.
Researchers observed 120 children and confirmed that children enter a fussy phase starting around age 2 when they are becoming more independent.
They want to do everything themselves: put on their shoes, pick out their clothes, walk where they want, and eat what they want.
The same study concluded that fussiness declines around age 6, and that children will generally try new foods around the times of growth spurts.
Suprising Reasons Why You Have a Fussy Eater
One reason why picky eaters are the way they are is a little surprising to me. Researchers found that the root cause of fussiness can be traced to genetics.
Apparently, that's why you can have one child who is fussy and another child who will eat almost anything.
Well, that explains the scenario in my family: I have one child who is extremely selective with food, while my other child eats most of what I put in front of him and then comes after my food!
Furthermore, psychological differences can mean the difference between a fault-finding eater and a gluttonous gobbler.
According to the Huffington Post article, "The Psychology Behind Your Child's Fussy Eating," Dr. Powell, a child psychologist, attests that sensory hypersensitive children, children who don't like certain noises, smells, tastes, and touches, can result in being picky.
What it boils down to is that these types of children just doesn't like the feel of certain foods in their mouths, such as many vegetables provoke. Instead, they prefer what many would view as junk food because it chews up easier.
Genetics, though, only act as a small part and can really just determine if your child is predisposed to being picky.
The environment and what your child is exposed to is a much larger influence in determining what your child will eat and won't eat.
Many moms have learned that children get their first taste preferences in utero, so it starts very early with what the mother is ingesting. Interesting, isn't it?
What to Do if You Have a Picky Eater
First of all, it's important to note that if a doctor says that your child is healthy, then don't fret too much about the food issue.
My child should look like he's emaciated, but instead he is a thick little man and is gaining weight on-target (somehow) despite eating one kernel of popcorn per day.
So, don't give up yet.
There are a number of strategies that you can employ to get your child to attempt new foods.
And we will walk through each of them below. But first, let's see what Keri Glassman from Nutritiouslife.com has to share with us on this topic with her videos below:
Make a Game of It
One strategy is to make a game of trying new foods, such as food bingo.
Create a bingo card out of a piece of paper, and in each square, write the name of a food item that you wish for your child to try.
You can tweak the game and the rules however you want, but if you involve your child in the decision making (or tricking them) then you may have better success at meal time.
Model Exactly What You Want
Sometimes it takes you pretending to try new foods too in order to get your point across.
Modeling the behavior several times may do the trick.
For instance, explain that one item on the plate is something that you don't like but that you're going to try. Eat a bite and exclaim that you like it.
Tell your child that tastes change over time, and that they should try tasting foods that they don't like too.
Another behavior that you can model is that food does not become contaminated when it comes in contact with another food.
What parents should do is just calmly push it to the side of the plate. You don't have to waste an entire plate of food just because of one little piece of onion.
Other children can also serve as role models.
Invite one of your child's friends over who you know eats a variety of foods.
When everyone is seated at the table with food in front of them, then start pointing out how the friend is so brave in trying the new food on the plate.
Also, make notice of how the friend is enjoying the unknown food, then prod your own child into attempting the food.
Take Your Child Grocery Shopping
Actively involving your child in the selection of groceries or other products will get your child excited about trying the item she's chosen especially for her.
This is also a great way to start teaching your child other lessons, like about where food comes from and how much food costs.
Involve Your Child in Cooking
According to Rachel Ehmke, author of "How to Help Kids Who are Picky Eaters," on Childmind.org, she recommends involving your child in cooking.
No, she's not asking you to give your child a knife or to fry up some bacon.
One excellent suggestion, though, is to find a child-friendly recipe, something simple enough for a child to help with dumping ingredients into a bowl and stirring them together.
Have your child help in selecting the recipe, whether from a book or online.
Once your little one has some ownership in selecting, shopping for, and putting together the ingredients, then he or she will definitely want to eat the food.
Thankfully, there are plenty of online recipe sites that offer what's called kid chef recipes, and you can find healthy recipes like a veggie sandwich, hummus, a BLT salad, and many more recipes for items your child may not normally eat.
Hide Nutritional Foods in Other Foods
My picky eater didn't like to eat meat for a period of time in his life.
So, I started hiding ground up meat in foods he already enjoys. I would just stick a piece of chicken or beef in the blender and then mix it with his macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, or sneak it on his pizza.
This works especially well if the food has sauce on it to mask the meat or vegetable that you're trying to hide.
Along the same lines, you can purchase noodle making appliances and make noodles out of almost any vegetable.
Moreover, there are also ways to make veggie fries and chips so that your child will think she's eating her standard chips and/or fries.
You can always purchase veggie chips and sweet potato fries at the store, but if you make it at home, then you know exactly what ingredients are going into them.
Plus, you will save money this way.
Teach Your Child About Good Nutrition
Children can start learning the basics of nutrition starting around preschool age.
The best way for them to learn is to purchase or make some sort of visual, such as a food pyramid, for them to see everyday.
We made our own pyramid out of felt material and cut out different foods out of different color felt material. Learning objects are much more fun for kids if they can manipulate the items themselves.
Pinterest has an example of a DIY felt food pyramid. You can always purchase a plethora of food learning materials, ones with pockets, plastic fruits and vegetables, along with other ways to learn about nutrition.
What You Should Never Do to Your Picky Eater
Experts seem to agree on some basic rules for actions not to take with a fussy eater.
First of all, when meal time roles around, don't ask children what they want.
Their little minds will immediately go to that one food that they probably don't need to eat for the 100th time this week.
Instead, Dr. Nancy Hudson, a dietitian at the University of Berkeley suggests to offer them 3 or more foods on a plate.
Make sure there is one go-to food on the plate that you're pretty sure they'll eat. That way, they feel like they have options, and you feel like you have some control over what they're eating.
Dr. Hudson also recommends to be persistent and patient.
Give your child new food options every night. It takes many, many times for a child to see the food and to go out on a limb and actually eat it.
Children need to try foods up to 15 times for them to actually begin to like it.
Once the ball is rolling with trying new foods, then the amount decreases to only 6 times.
Once your child has seen the food, tried it multiple times, and has also witnessed you eating it, then you may have some luck. Just don't give up.
Experts also agree that you should not give in to the pickiness and cook up an entire new meal for your child.
Yes, you can have old stand-by's ready, such as cereal, just so that your child will eat something.
However, you don't want to send the message to your child that he or she gets to order whatever he or she wants every night.
You'll be setting yourself up for a long life of catering to the whims of your child, and that is not a good lesson to teach.
Furthermore, having a stand-by option tends to work best for kids who are not regularly picky eaters. You definitely don't want your child to eat cereal for dinner every night!
One last action that you should stay away from is becoming the helicopter food police.
When you are constantly hovering and obsessing about each little choice and bite throughout every meal time, then this behavior can backfire on you in a big way.
This will make eating have a negative undertone, and then your child won't want to try anything.
You also should avoid yelling and punishing your child if she doesn't want to eat something.
Consequently, this turns meal times into a time of stress, when it should be a time for the family to connect.
How to Introduce New Foods to Your Kid the Right Way
Besides you and others modeling the eating of new foods, there are likewise many other methods for you to try. Below are a few ideas worth trying:
One method that I've tried and it has worked is called graduated exposure.
The basic premise is that if a child enjoys one food, then you should modify it gradually until it is a different food altogether.
To explain, if your child loves chicken nuggets, but you want them to eat a healthier dish like grilled chicken with noodles, then start by giving them nuggets with a little less breading.
Then, offer chicken with no breading but still with some dipping sauce. On another day, offer just a piece of grilled chicken.
Finally, graduate your child to grilled chicken with noodles.
The same can be true with converting your child from being a pizza lover to trying cheese quesadillas, pasta with cheese, or grilled cheese with tomato soup.
When you introduce a new food on your child's plate, start as small as humanly possible.
Dr. Keith Williams, Director of the Feeding Program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center says that sometimes you have to start with an amount of food so small that can be blown away.
For example, you could try just one pea, a portion of a carrot, a part of a noodle, or just a crumb of cheese.
Coaxing your child to eat such a small amount can be enormously easier than a whole bowl of peas.
In addition, if you're child still is reluctant to eat a sliver of something, then offer a reward, such a a potato chip, if she eats the sliver.
But you should not overdo it or it might backfire you.
Slowly increase the amount of slivers to be eaten to get the reward.
No, you're not reverting your child back to being 6 months old if you puree his food for a time.
Dr. Williams sees children who have all kinds of food related issues, and this is something he recommends to some of the most challenging eaters, especially those with sensory issues.
If you introduce a new food in its pureed form, then it is soft and easy to chew, which is a score for the sensory-challenged child.
With each different exposure to the food, make the chunks a little bigger until your child is eating whole chunks of the desired food.
One tip that I've really had to take to heart in my household is to do away with so much milk, juice, and snacking so that my child is without a doubt hungry at dinner time.
Both of my children used to drink a lot of milk and juice, and I was in denial about how this was affecting their appetite at meal times.
If you want your child to try new foods, then she has to be hungry.
So, it's possible that you may need to eliminate (or at least scale back on) that snack with juice or milk, even if it's a couple of hours before meal time.
How to Make Your Child Enjoy a Wide Range of Food
The answer is simple.
You can't force your child to enjoy a wide range of food. But you can make it fun.
Try making an edible picture on your child's plate, such as a sailboat scene as seen on this link, where some yummy favorites like blueberries and cheese make the boat, while some possibly new foods, like red pepper, make the sea gulls and cucumber makes the port holes.
Creating little art pictures out of food is something your kid would enjoy constructing too.
It may take some time, but it could be a fun way to get your child to eat a wide range of foods.
Another idea is to keep track of the new foods that your child has tried on a chart.
For each 5 new foods tried for the week, he earns a reward.
At the end of the month, there could be an even bigger incentive, such as a trip to get ice cream.
But like I said above, DO NOT abuse this "rewarding trick" or you will shoot yourself in the foot later once your kids get used to it.
The bottom line is to make trying new foods fun and rewarding and not stressful.
Types of Foods You Should Not Let Your Child Eat
I think most people are pretty well versed on what are the worst foods for your child. Here's short list:
- Limit foods that are really high in sugar. Stay within the 10 grams of sugar or below range.
- Limit foods that have a high amount of salt, such as hot dogs, chips, and some soups
- Limit processed foods
- Limit anything that is mostly made of oil or fat
- Limit the amount of artificial coloring agents
- Limit the amount of artificial sugar items
As with everything, moderation is the key. If I cut out everything listed above, I'm not sure my child would eat anything!
Breakfast Tips for Your Picky Eaters
If you have a picky eater at home, then breakfast may be the first challenge of the day.
Your kids may not touch much breakfast at all, or they only eat foods that don't have much nutritional value, like white toast.
If you have school-age kids, then breakfast is very important in order to function at school.
So, there are a few tips to try to add in more nutrition at breakfast, but to still prepare something your child will eat.
- Tip #1: Try smoothies. Smoothies contain lots of protein, carbs, and fruit, so they can be filling and nutritional.
- Tip #2: Pair a favorite breakfast item, like a doughnut, with something with protein, such as a piece of cheese. Mixing in some protein will keep your child full longer.
- Tip #3: Swap out healthy ingredients in items such as pancakes, muffins, or tortillas. Using whole grain flour or mix is much more nutrient dense and will keep your child from getting hungry.
Some recipes to inspire you (and your kids):
Lunch Tips for Your Picky Eaters
Going along the same lines of pairing and swapping ingredients as mentioned for breakfast, you can do the same for lunch. Here are a few suggestions:
- Kid-Approved Chicken Salad: Add in grapes, apples, and nuts into plain chicken salad to give that familiar taste and sweetness that children will recognize and love.
- Swap out honey for jelly and almond butter for peanut butter to make a honey and almond butter sandwich. Top with bananas to add in that familiar flair.
- Make a cream cheese wrap with blueberry or strawberry flavored cream cheese. Top with some fruit and roll in a whole wheat tortilla.
- Make a pear and avocado sandwich. Picky kids usually love pears and they may just love the soft texture of mashed avocado.
Further reading sources:
Dinner Tips for Your Picky Eaters
Can't think of anything to put on the dinner table for your kids? Try these ones:
- Sweet potato and bacon tots: put a healthier twist on the old favorite tator tots but use the healthier sweet potato and tasty bacon
- Add a glaze to vegetable sides: this will definitely get your child to at least try some carrots or green beans.
- Asian fish cakes: this is the next level from the nugget where you take cod fillets and bread crumbs to make fish cakes. You can prepare or buy sweet chile dipping sauce
- Sneak in vegetables to a smothered cheese quesadilla
Read more about dinner ideas for your kids below:
Snack Ideas for Picky Eaters
Snacks, in my opinion, are the easiest category of food to choose for your little ones.
This is because snacks can be in small quantities and they don't have to be balanced in nutrition.
Snacks should be simple and easy, especially if you're willing to go the extra mile a meal times. Below are some other snack suggestions:
- Whole grain fruit bars
- Any type of fruit
- Whole grain crackers or veggie chips
Other Healthy Foods for Picky Eaters
Make the most of every day meals by packing them with nutrition. Here are 3 suggestions:
- Instead of pepperoni pizza, try fresh tomato pesto pizza with chicken and veggies
- Bite size frittatas with ham and cheese: these are a great protein source and scrumptious to eat
- Homemade granola: Homemade granola is high in fiber and lower in sugar and preservatives than store bought granola
Some Problems Your Children Might Face if They're Picky at Eating
There are a couple of problems that fussy eaters face.
One of these is that your child may not be getting balanced nutrition. In this case, be sure to give your child a multi-vitamin.
Furthermore, picky eaters may be underweight if the quantity of food is not very much. See your doctor if you are concerned about the weight of your child.
Some children go beyond just being picky.
When a child only likes 2 or 3 foods, he or she can be considered a resistant eater.
According to feeding specialist Isa Marrs of Speechlanguagefeeding.com, resistant eaters run the risk of starving themselves.
Whereas picky eaters will eat eventually, resistant eaters will eliminate foods that they usually eat until they are down to just 2 or 3 foods.
These are usually from one food group, like carbohydrates or meats.
Marrs reports that parents and children feel isolated from peers because eating with others makes for a very awkward situation.
She recommends seeing a feeding specialist if you believe your child may fall into the category of being a resistant eater.
How to Develop a Positive Attitude About Eating for Your Kids
So you're thinking about helping your children develop healthy eating behaviors? Then the below tips will guide you on to the right direction:
- You need to first have a positive attitude toward food yourself
- Never force your child to eat
- Make sure the meal-time atmosphere is comfortable
- Be encouraging and offer praise if a new food is tried
- Model behaviors you want to see
Great resources on positive attitude development in children:
Some Final Interesting Facts About Being a Picky Eater
Being persnickety is a fascinating topic to read about. There are biological and evolutionary factors as to why people are this way.
- Pickiness could be an evolutionary trait in humans and animals to keep them from getting sick.
- Children don't know which foods are safe yet, so their instincts tell them to stick to familiar foods.
- Picky eaters may have different taste buds than others. Thus, they perceive taste differently.
- People who avoid strong tasting foods actually have more taste buds.
Dealing with fussy eaters is without a doubt an uphill battle. And it will try your patience and creativity to the end of this phase of childhood. But always remember that you're not in the process of ruining your child's palette for good just because your child isn't trying too many foods.
If you are truly worried about your child's weight or nutrition, then talk to your doctor. There is also the option of going to see a feeding specialist if you think you need that added support.
Plus, giving your child a multi-vitamin is always beneficial. If there are 3 final pieces of advice for you to remember from this article, they are to keep calm, don't give up, and add in elements of humor and fun to eating.