Gayle Schindler

Do you have a picky eater in the house? Mealtimes with a picky eater can be stressful. Allowing a child’s pickiness to rule mealtimes can leave everyone upset and create unhappy memories instead of positive family-time memories. 

Many years ago, I read about a study of children’s eating habits. The study watched groups of children over several days. The children spent their time in a large room filled with activities, supervised, of course. At one end of the room was a large, low table filled with all manner of foods, from healthy meal options to candy. No mealtimes were set; the children had access to the food all day. The study observed, that left on their own, most of the children ate a varied, healthy diet over the course of a week. They ate when they were hungry, sometimes sitting themselves down to eat a meal-sized portion, other times grabbing a bite or two of something, then returning to play. Parents observed that their own children tried and ate foods they refused at home, possibly because they saw another child eating them and possibly because without expectation or pressure, the children were curious. The study led to a set of recommendations to offer a wide variety of foods and remove any aspect of a power struggle between parents and children.

Another source recommended a clever method for toddlers and young children. At mealtime, serve the child’s meal in a muffin pan. Put a little something in each cup; include a small bite of sandwich, a cube of cheese, some pieces of fruit – even bits of cookies or crackers. As the child eats bites, replace them. Sit next to the child and eat a little something yourself. Set a timer for 10 minutes. When the time is up, mealtime is over. Tell the child, “Good job,” remove the tin, and let them resume play. If they didn’t eat much or anything and seem hungry soon or say they’re hungry, repeat mealtime the same way. It may take a couple of weeks, but eventually you will learn what your child will eat and the child will learn that they can eat until they’re done and be released. You can continue using the muffin pan as long as the child needs it; it’s a small price to pay for a peaceful meal and a satisfied child.

Here are some additional tips, gleaned from the Mayo Clinic and Healthline dot com, to help your finicky child learn to eat a healthy diet without power struggles and tears.

Rule out allergies, intolerances, and medical problems: Obviously, if your child feels sick after eating certain foods, if they have digestive problems or difficulty swallowing, mealtime is unpleasant for them. A true anaphylactic allergic reaction is obvious and alarming, but if your child has frequent diarrhea, constipation, blood in their stool, or rashes and sores, especially around their mouth, see your pediatrician and a child nutrition specialist to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue.

Be a good role model: If you eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, your child is more likely to try those same foods.

Respect your child's appetite — or lack of one: If your child isn't hungry, don't force a meal or snack. Don't bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean their plate. This might only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to their own hunger and fullness cues. Serve small portions to avoid overwhelming your child and give them the opportunity to independently ask for more.

Build on what they like and make it fun: Incorporate foods that your child likes into meals, with new or less popular foods mixed in or on the side. Use dipping sauces of all kinds – cheese sauce, dressings, ketchup, marinara – even if a combination seems odd to you, let your child dip away. We have a saying in our house, “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.”

Stick to the routine: Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. If your child chooses not to eat a meal, a regular snack time offers a chance to eat nutritious food. Milk or juice can be served with meals, but stick to water in between, so your child doesn’t fill up on liquids before meals. And, with rare exceptions, make sure snacks are healthy and nutritious; avoid chips and cookies that can fill your child up without providing any meaningful nutrition.

Minimize distractions: Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This includes you and the rest of the family. Put your phones down, pay attention to one another, and engage in happy conversation.

Include your child in shopping and cooking: At the grocery store where I work, I see children watching videos and playing electronic games while sitting in their parents’ shopping cart – all the time. Engage your child during grocery shopping; give them a chance to pick their own vegetables and fruit and weigh in on meal planning. Let them try samples. I often do demonstrations of cooking techniques for fish and seafood at the store. I can’t tell you how many times a parent is surprised to see their children enjoy fish, especially salmon, and ask for more. At home, let your child help in the kitchen and set a lovely table for the family.

Don't be a short-order cook: Fixing a separate meal for your child after they reject the original meal might promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime — even if they don’t eat.

Don't offer dessert as a reward: Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food. Select only one or two nights a week as dessert nights or make dessert a very small portion.  Offer fruit as dessert.

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