“You used to like it.” “Just try one bite.” “I’ll give you…if you eat your vegetables.” “Why don’t you eat…oh fine, what do you want instead?” Sound familiar? If these words have come out of your mouth, please read on.
In my experience as a Pediatric Dietitian, I have learned many tips along the way working with “picky” eaters. Methods used in my own home. Resulting in the expansion of variety of food my daughter eats. That said, she is still a kid and will still try to get the cookies before the veggies. But, we have definitely come a long way. The number 1 tip to help “picky”eaters – starts at the table.
Let’s Start with the word “Picky”
Before I get to the where, what and how, let’s start with the label of “picky” eating. I often hear parents say they have a “picky” eater. Pause, say that again. Our kids hear everything we say. When they hear the negative label placed on them as “picky” it could set the tone at the table. Now don’t get me wrong, I still hear “that’s gross” even before the food is touched. That’s a child’s ingrained way of pushing our buttons. As parents, our response sets the tone. Instead, shift the idea from picky eating to the idea of exploring new foods. This takes time and patience and more patience! Did I mention patience? Over time, simple methods lead to pleasurable meal times at the table.
It Starts at the Table
Where you eat as a family is just as important as what is on the table. Think about a toddler pinned in the highchair. A spoonful of pureed peas coming straight at his/her mouth for the fourth day in a row. You wonder why they push it away. When they liked it 2 days ago. Change in eating habits and patterns are common in toddlers and young children. How we, as parents, handle the change sets the tone for children to explore new foods. If you have a toddler, start now! If your kids are older, reset the table. This may take a little longer. But, hang in there. It starts at the table.
- Set a goal for the number of meals the family sits at the table together.
- Make meal time about the family, not about the food.
- Parents are role models – our kids watch what we eat! “Picky” eating can be a learned behavior (with exceptions)
- Eat meals and snacks at the table.
- Create a relaxed meal time environment
- Encourage them to describe the food
- Skip the “clean plate” rule
- Remove distractions – NO phones, NO TV, NO electronics (yes, parents too)
- Allow 20-30 minutes of family meal time. This allows more time to explore new foods.
Set the Tone at the Table Ahead of Time
Children thrive with structure. Daily structure includes routine meal and snack times. Or, refueling times. By eating at routine times, kids are more in tune with hunger and satiety cues. Parents often come to me frustrated that their child(ren) won’t eat a good meal. This is the time that we review what is going on between meals. For instance, if your child(ren) say they aren’t hungry for lunch or dinner, pause, think of their routine. Assess and practice the following:
- Limit snacking to 1-2 a day. One mid-morning and mid- afternoon for young children. One mid-afternoon for older children
- Instead of snacks, think of them as mini-meals. Include energy packed mini-meals.
- Allow 2-3 hours between refueling times.
- Include the child(ren) in the meal or mini-meal food choices. If you want to include a fruit choice, instead of “what do you want?” Ask “Do you want an apple or banana?” They choose. As this practice continues, the child will feel a part of the decision process. This can be used with any food group. Practice this dialogue with foods they like.
- Water only between refueling times. Provide milk at refueling times. Limit juice (or sugary drinks) to 4-6 ounces daily.
At the Table
I learned and implemented methods from experts in the field of raising a healthy family. I have also taken notes from the French way of eating in the book French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. And, I have witnessed the experience of meal times from my very own French neighbors. Yes, right next door. I never saw a three year old eat such a variety of foods until I met our neighbors 5 years ago. This has only helped our family slow down at meal time. Combined, here are a few recommendations during the meal time:
- Understand Division of Responsibility ~Ellyn Satter
- Parents are in charge of when and where, the child is in charge of how much.
- Offer serving sizes appropriate for the child’s age.
- Set the table family style to allow the child to see and smell food. This enhances the interest in food
- Once the meal is decided on together, stick to it!
- If they change their mind, they can wait until the next refueling time to eat again.
- They will not starve (repeat that).
- Dedicate time at the table as social time.
- Focus on the experiences of the day.
- Relatable story time about food “when I was a kid, I remember when I first tried…” This is hands down my daughter’s favorite discussion at the table with my husband.
- Slow food is happy food – rotate the menu, add colors of the rainbow.
- Allow 10-15 times, in different ways, to introduce new foods.
- Move away from the “children’s menu” at home and at restaurants.
- Avoid bribery or rewards with other foods.
Le plaisir de la table est de tous les ages, de toutes les conditions de tous les pays et de tous les jours.
The pleasures of the table belong to all ages, all conditions, all countries, and to each and every day.
~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1826).
Extreme Picky Eating
Most children will go through a period of “picky” eating. Continue the path of the exploring new foods. Also, allow yourself grace that you are raising a healthy child. In some instances, a child may have a true aversion to food. This could be related to textures, smell, temperature or even color. This could be related to a medical or behavioral disorder. If you notice gagging or severe avoidance which leads to delayed growth or weight loss, discuss with your Pediatrician. Further evaluation with a feeding specialist such as a Dietitian, Gastroenterologist, or Occupational Therapist at a feeding clinic may be warranted.
How can I Help at Your Table?
I found that parents felt bad about seeking help for one child. They don’t want to point fingers, so to say. Well, I am pleased to announce that I have new Family Focused Healthy Habits packages. As a family, we will work together to incorporate the tips above to build a healthy foundation based on your families lifestyle. Contact me below for more information.