I can clearly remember the first time our oldest daughter adamantly refused to eat a single bite of food on her plate for dinner. She was two at the time, and the fact that I even had an edible dinner on the table was an amazing accomplishment in itself. Our second daughter was six months old, and I still felt under the postpartum haze, adjusting to caring for a toddler and newborn.
Generally, our spirited toddler girl had been an adventurous eater, willing to try most foods we’d eat or share in a meal. Since adding a second baby to our family, I found myself more stretched in getting balanced meals on the table, often succumbing to the quickest things I could put together between nursing, changing diapers, and dealing with the beloved “witching hour”. It was during this time that I found my sweet girl phasing through periods of food rejections or selective eating that worried my inner mama bear. I struggled with a mental battle of wondering how to support her eating habits in a manner that would allow her to develop a healthy relationship with food, even from a young age.
These types of scenarios are not uncommon for families today. Having a child that may be labeled as a “picky eater” can bring an entourage of doubts, concerns, and genuine worries about your child’s overall health and well-being.
The truth of the matter is that all children are more or less “picky” at various stages of their growth and development, but this is completely normal and natural. To kids, all foods are different and new, and it takes exposure, experience, and time for them to learn how to eat.
Through my own healing journey with food, studies in child feeding, and in raising four children, I have come to understand practical and effective ways to approach picky eating. These tips and strategies for dealing with picky eating can help you successfully navigate mealtime battles and bring enjoyment back to family meals:
Focus on the big picture: It’s all too easy to look at nutrition on a meal by meal basis, but health is much more than this. Our children’s health is supported by eating habits and behaviors that span over months and years. So if they are going through a phase of selective eating, try not to stress. As parents, our reactions and tendencies to over-correct our children’s eating habits can be triggered by fear or concern about their well being. But they are likely receiving sufficient nutrition to support their growth and health.
Vegetables aren’t worth stressing over: When it comes to kids and eating, vegetables are the food group that we tend to hyperfocus on and become concerned about. The reality is that many vegetables are unfamiliar to kids and can present more challenging tastes/textures that are complex to process. If your child is having a hard time eating vegetables, hang in for the long haul! Kids need repeated exposure (20 times or more!) to foods at mealtimes before they may consider eating it, so don’t give up at early signs of rejection. On the other hand, remember that vegetables are not the only available source of good nutrition to your child. Fruits and vegetables have similar nutrient profiles, and constant exposure to these new foods in a low pressure environment will support your child’s willingness to try. In the meantime, your child will not suffer a nutritional calamity if vegetables are not eaten.
Have Bribery Take a Backseat: In times of desperation, we might find ourselves using any means to get our child to eat. This might include dessert or a special treat/toy. While this may seem like a short-term solution, this ultimately does not allow a child to try foods based on their natural intuitive ability to eat. Incentivising food and eating may send the message that food is a reward, punishment, etc. rather than letting kids simply eat according to their own needs for nourishment. Even in the best situation, pressure does NOT benefit a child’s healthy relationship with food, even if it is positive reinforcement. The best thing you can do is keep any food comments to yourself (both positive and negative) and focus on enjoying your own meal.
Maintain Healthy Boundaries: Meal time struggles can be frustrating for the entire family, and it is important to maintain boundaries at the dinner table, even while honoring your child’s food choices. One example of a mealtime boundary that we implement with our own kids is reinforcing the idea that they do not have to eat anything they don’t want, but we still expect respectful table manners. Meaning, if there is something on their plate they don’t like, there is NO pressure whatsoever to eat it. However, this does not mean it’s okay to sit at the table and whine/complain or demand something different. Our motto is, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it”, and we leave it at that. No pressure. No discussion about all the things they like/dislike. Including other foods at mealtimes that kids are generally comfortable with will be helpful in these types of situations where other foods are refused.
Give Yourself Grace: As parents, it is easy to feel guilty or at fault for anything that our child may appear to be struggling with, including eating. At the end of the day, we often ruminate over all the things that happened and how we could have possibly done things differently. When it comes to feeding your child, be sure to extend grace to yourself and know that this journey is a learning process. After having four (almost five) kids, I still continue to learn new things. Recognize that you are making decisions and doing the best you have with the current information and resources that are available to you. The fact that you are concerned about their eating habits speaks volumes about how much you care for them.
Implementing these strategies can help your child be more relaxed at mealtimes, ultimately making eating a more enjoyable experience for your entire family. If you are needing guidance or help with child feeding or unsure how to approach picky eating, please reach out for support. Know that you are not alone in this process and that it is never too late to implement positive feeding strategies for your whole family.