The Biggest Mistake Parents of Picky Eaters Make
Is your child a picky eater? What strategies do you use to help them eat a wider variety of foods? Today we’ll look at one strategy that definitely doesn’t work, and what you can do instead.
Picky eating is a common part of childhood. In the US, as many as 50% of preschoolers are reported by their parents to have picky eating behaviors (Cole 2018).
Some of the most common picky eating behaviors are:
refusing to eat foods from certain food groups (like meat, fish, eggs, vegetables)
eating a limited variety of foods
unwilling to try new foods
having very strong food preferences
It can be stressful and frustrating when your child shows some of these behaviors. As a parent, sometimes it seems like all we do is worry about our child’s health and wellbeing. Even parents of “good eaters” worry about their children eating enough variety of foods and getting all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. And when your child is a little picky, it can make us even more worried that they’re not getting all the nutrition they need.
When your child is a picky eater, mealtimes can be stressful and something to dread. Trying to find foods that your child actually will eat can make it difficult to plan meals, and it is endlessly frustrating when your child won’t try a single thing on their plate. There are lots of tips and tricks you see online on how to get picky eaters to try new foods, but these don’t always work.
With all the strategies that you see and hear about, one stands out as something not to do.
The biggest mistake parents of picky eaters make
Is simply putting pressure on their child to eat foods they don’t want to eat.
I know, it sounds totally backwards at first! Usually, when we want our kids to do something, we tell them what we want them to do. “Clean up your toys”, “Set the table”, “Use a softer voice inside the house, please”.
So, why wouldn’t we use the same approach with food? Why wouldn’t “Eat your veggies”, or “Just try a bite of chicken” work the same way?
With food, it’s just different. Trying new foods can be really difficult for kids, especially young kids and toddlers. Each new food brings new textures and flavors into your child’s mouth, and it’s totally natural for your child to be cautious to try anything new.
Research backs this up. Studies have shown that when parents put pressure on their children to try new foods or eat certain foods, those efforts usually backfire and can actually make picky eating worse. Putting pressure on a child to eat can create a negative mealtime environment, where everyone is stressed, and so much of the fun and joy of eating and spending time together as a family is lost.
Four ways to help your picky eater try new foods
So, if pressuring kids can actually make picky eating worse, what helps make it better?
As hard as it sounds, one of the best things you can do as a parent is simply play it cool and casual during meals. By keeping mealtimes positive, relaxed, and pressure-free, you can help your child feel more comfortable and in control around new or non-preferred foods, and eventually, they just may try it.
Here are my some of my favorite strategies you can try at dinner tonight to help keep everyone’s stress level down and encourage your child to try some new foods:
Place all your meal components in the center of the table, either on different plates or bowls or laid out next to each other on one big platter. Then allow each person to serve themselves however much they like of each food. For younger kids, an adult can go through each item and ask “would you like some ___?”
If your child doesn’t take all the meal components, that’s totally ok. Don’t make them. You can reinforce this by telling them “that’s ok, if you change your mind we have more”.
Keeping the food on the table or nearby, by but not directly on your child’s plate, can help them more in control and less pressure, and maybe once they see the rest of the family enjoying it, they’ll be inspired to try it too!
A side plate
Similar to family-style meals, you can give your child a side plate, or a side napkin, and place any new foods or non-preferred foods on this side plate. Let your child know they don’t have to eat these foods, but they are available.
If your child tries a food and doesn’t like it, no big deal, let them banish it to the side plate or napkin.
A tiny amount
Try placing a teeny tiny amount of a new food on your child’s plate. Really tiny. Like one piece of shredded carrot, or one chickpea. This small amount may be less threatening and less overwhelming. And they just might try it!
Be a good role model
Our kids watch everything we do, for better and for worse. They listen to how we talk about food and at the table, they watch our eating behaviors to see what’s “safe” to eat and what’s not. Take a look at this great free resource with phrases you can use at home to help your encourage your child to try new foods.
It can also be helpful for parents to eat the foods you’re looking for your child to try. So if you want your child to eat peas, you should eat peas. If you want your child to eat both raw and cooked tomatoes, you should show them that raw and cooked tomatoes are delicious!
And if you’re just not into those foods, try your best to fake it. Remember, it’s for a good cause.
Just remember, as much as we worry about our kids and if they’re eating enough, pressuring kids to try new foods isn’t the best strategy.
Picky eating is a normal phase of childhood. I’ve heard theories that picky eating is actually an instinct built in for survival, that back when humans were hunters and gatherers it was beneficial to avoid new foods or foods with a bitter taste, as they might be poisonous!
It can also be helpful to remember that it can take 10, 20 or more exposures to a new food before kids will try it. Try to be patient! Remember, you’re playing the long game. Even if your child just looks at, smells, or plays with a new food, it still counts for something, they are still becoming more comfortable with having a new food around. Over time, with more exposures, good role modeling, and a positive environment, they just may try it!
And remember, even if your child is a picky eater, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have nutrition deficiencies or health problems. If you are at all concerned with your child’s growth or nutritional status, please reach out to me to discuss one-on-one nutrition counseling. And of course, always talk to your pediatrician about any health concerns.
If you’d like more picky eating tips, be sure to check out our other article “Picky Eating Tips” and get your free download!