Picky Eating: the Do’s and Don’ts

Ever since I had my first 2-year-old, I’ve read many things about how to overcome picky eating. The comments on such posts usually come down to a parent forcing, tricking, or bribing a child to eat something. Though that may work on some kids, it’s not how I’ve chosen to teach my children to eat.

When Picky Eating Starts

If you have a 1-year-old that will eat anything, great! That’s bound to change, but I didn’t know that with my first child. I’ve found that picky eating starts around age 2. That’s when my kids decided they had opinions about things and no longer wanted everything I put in front of them. I can’t say for sure when it ends because my 9-year-old is still picky, even though he’s made a lot of improvement in the past 7 years.

Things That Didn’t Work

  1. Trying to force a child to finish a plate of food. When our 9-year-old was 3, we told him he had to finish his plate before he could leave the table. 3 hours later, it was bedtime and he hadn’t taken a single bite. He also cried the whole time.
  2. Bribery. The same child wouldn’t eat anything if offered dessert. He just cried about missing out on dessert.

I decided to take a more gentle approach to get this kid to eat. I also never tried these techniques on my other 4 kids.

picky eating
trying lemon juice for fun

Setting Up Meals For Success

How I plan my meals has a lot to do with how well my picky eaters receive them. The following things have helped reduce complaints at mealtime:

  1. Keeping meal components separate when possible. For things like stir fry, tacos, or pasta dishes, I get less complaining when I don’t mix everything together. The kids get to choose which parts of the meal they eat. This principle applies for feeding big groups of people, too. A “build-your-own plate” meal helps everyone be happy because they get exactly what they want and leave out the rest.
  2. Offering vegetable or fruit choices. Since vegetables are the most difficult to get kids to eat, I try to include at least 2 with our meal. The kids get to choose which one to eat, and they have to finish a small portion of it. If there are lots of vegetables mixed into something like a soup or casserole, I let them choose 1 to pick out and not eat. Again, having choices really minimizes complaining. I don’t try to hide fruits and veggies in other foods because I want my kids to like them without the help of a blender. I’m not against putting purees in foods, but I always tell the kids exactly what they’re getting.
  3. Serving reasonable portions. Whether or not a kid likes a food, if he or she has too much, it will get wasted. I make sure to serve the kids their food on smaller plates so it’s harder to get too much. I don’t want to fight with someone over not finishing a food they liked, but took too much of.
  4. Reasonable expectations for brand-new foods. I ask each child to try at least as many bites as they are old. Occasionally, I don’t have to enforce that because they all like the new food! This works great for the older kids (ages 9, 7, and 5) but I meet a lot of resistance from the 2-year-old. Usually, I ask him a few times to try things, but if he won’t, I don’t force him.
  5. Not using food as a bribe or punishment. I want my kids to like fruits and vegetables, not for the dessert that comes after. Also, I don’t want to set a precedent for a dessert every day, so I try to avoid bribery. When kids refuse to eat anything I’ve made for dinner or are still hungry after a small portion (that they didn’t like), I let them make toast. Toast doesn’t count as a special meal, and they can do it themselves, so I never leave the table.

Teaching Polite Refusals

Whether at home or at someone else’s house, I’ve tried to teach the kids how to turn down a food they don’t like. A polite “no thank you” goes a long way! There’s never any reason to grimace, spit things out, or exclaim how horrible something tastes, especially when the cook worked hard on it. My husband pointed out to them that if they had other foods on their plate but avoided one thing without complaining, chances are we wouldn’t notice or make them try it. It’s always a win-win situation when dinner happens without whining.

Having Patience

I can remember being a kid and hating a lot of things, especially onions, because of how strong they tasted. I’ve heard that kids have more sensitive taste buds, and that makes sense! Things I used to hate are now some of my favorite foods. Just because a kid hates something (or everything!) now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Keep on offering a variety of healthy foods.

My 9-year-old started being really picky at age 2. He had only a handful of foods he’d eat, but we never forced him to try new things. Eventually, he got more comfortable with new foods and would try a bite or 2, even if he gagged. Now, he will eat a small portion of things he doesn’t like (yet) and doesn’t always complain.

Being the Example

I’ll admit there have been times that I’ve complained about foods I don’t like. That automatically guarantees my kids won’t try these things any time soon. I’m trying to do better at trying things I think I don’t like to see if it’s still true. Once in a while, things do change and I get a new, delicious food to enjoy. I didn’t start liking cilantro, mangoes, oatmeal,or wasabi until the past few years! Picky eating doesn’t have to be a life sentence for anyone.

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