5 ways to get a picky eater to eat

Kids are notoriously picky eaters. Picky eating usually starts around between ages one and two, and peaks during the preschool years (source). As parents, we want our kids to be healthy, and it can be maddening to make a nice dinner only to have the child you brought into the world push away his or her plate in disgust and declare it inedible. Short of giving in and letting your child live off of a diet of pasta and fruit snacks, what can you do to end the dinnertime battles?

Here are five things you can do to encourage your kids to be adventurous eaters and expand their palates:

1. Offer things repeatedly

Even if your kids refuse to eat a food or claim they don’t like it, keep trying. Kids need to be offered a new food as many as 10-15 times before they will eat it. Try giving them a small portion, and encourage them to try it, or even just smell or touch it. It’s important not to put pressure on kids to like the food. Instead, explain your goal to for them to explore food. “We fear what we don’t understand” applies to food as much as it does to other aspects of life, so familiarity often (although not always) breeds acceptance.

2. Let kids be a part of meal planning

Even though taking kids to the grocery store can be harrowing experience, it is also a great way to give kids ownership in their food choices. Let kids pick what ingredients should go into the salad, which veggie they want to have with their spaghetti, or what flavors of yogurt to buy. At home, look at pictures of recipes in a book or online and let kids tell you which ones look good to them. Then, try them together. My boys love to cook alongside me, and they are more likely to eat food that they have helped make. For these little people who crave control over their own lives, getting to stir the spaghetti sauce can give them enough motivation to eat it.

Meal planning is a good time to practice the skill of Decision Making (SODAS Method).

LEARN THE SKILL OF DECISION MAKING (SODAS Method)

3. Grow a garden

My kids are never as excited to eat vegetables as they are when they pick them straight from our garden. Now that our garden is starting to produce, my boys love to go outside each day, check on the plants, and pick the ones that are ready. We often sit on the grass munching on raspberries and peas (while I silently grin at the healthy food they’re consuming). Carrots, peas, zucchini and tomatoes are easy to grow and can be used in a variety of kid-friendly meals. Let kids help pick what plants to grow, make it part of your routine to check on the garden, and get the kids involved in harvesting and preparing meals for the family with their home-grown food.

4. Make it game

Use whatever your child is interested in, and make it a part of a dinner time game. My two-year-old loves airplanes, so the old favorite “here comes the airplane” game actually works well for him. In fact, he often makes his own airplane noise and feeds himself now. When my oldest was a toddler, we used some different strategies. I would do airplane for him, but each time he took a bite, I would make a different sound-effect. One bite in…BUZZZ! Next bite in…MOOOO! This game really motivated him to take more bites because he wanted to see what silly sound would come out of my mouth next. (Word of warning: don’t do a motor boat sound, or your child might decide to mimic you and spit food everywhere. Just sayin…) We also play up the idea of taking “dragon” bites or “dinosaur” bites. My sister and I used to play a game where we would eat our food different ways…we pretended like we were princesses, or monsters, or we’d pretend the food was medicine. My four-year-old LOVES this game and makes the best disgusted faces as he takes big bites of his food. Still, he is taking big bites of his food, so I call it a success!

5. Don’t short-order cook!

I don’t differentiate between kid food and adult food at our house. Once they are big enough to eat solid food, my kids eat the same food as Mom and Dad. I think that parents sometimes worry that their kids will not get enough calories if they don’t just give in at dinner and make mac & cheese. However, most two-year-olds only need about a thousand calories a day (see this chart for more information on how much your child should be eating). That’s a lot less than parents often try to push onto their kids’ plates. The moral of the story? Your child is not going to starve if they just pick at their dinner. In our house, I try to make sure that for breakfast and lunch I serve foods I know my kids will like and enjoy (see my favorite toddler lunch solution here), but dinner is all about exploring new tastes and textures. I don’t make exotic meals that I know will push their comfort zone every night, but I don’t worry too much about my kids’ preferences when I make dinner either. I make sure to have a side dish or two that they enjoy, and then we all try new foods together. My four-year-old does NOT like broccoli, but I still cook it from time to time, and he will taste it. On the other hand, he does like spinach salads and cooked carrots, so I try to make those a part of our meals regularly.

Most importantly, I try not to assume that my kids won’t like a food. I always offer my boys whatever we’re having as if they will accept it. A few days ago, my four-year-old happily served himself some sautéed zucchini that I thought he wouldn’t touch…and he proceeded to repeatedly tell me, “Mom, this is really good!”

There is hope for your picky eater!

Most kids will outgrow many of their food aversions over the course of childhood. Our job as parents is not to force our kids to eat every variety of food on the planet, shoving it down their throats or threatening no TV for the rest of their lives if they refuse. Our job as parents is to continue to offer a variety of foods so we don’t inadvertently sabotage the process of expanding their palates. It’s not your job to make him eat the peas, but it is your job to make sure that they are on his plate. One day when you least expect it, that child who has turned his nose up at vegetables will likely decide that at least some of them are not so bad after all.

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