Picky eating typically begins at about 18 months of age, just when kids are beginning to want some control and autonomy in their lives. Try as we might, parents simply cannot control what their children eat, and kids quickly learn this fact. So, although I can't promise today's post will improve your child's picky eating, I hope at least it will help you to stay sane during this phase!
- Relax and don't enter into a power struggle! Force-feeding, bribing, coersion, and yelling are not effective and create negative associations around mealtimes. So, see picky eating for what it is - a phase - and just let it be.
- Keep a routine. Instead of grazing all day long, try to stick to three meals and two small snacks per day. If you can, keep these meals and snacks at about the same times every day.
- Don't be a short-order cook. This is really important. Serve your kids whatever you choose to serve them, and then don't give in and make something else instead. You may want to serve preferred meals for breakfast and lunch, and then challenge their palates for dinner. This may mean they don't actually eat a real dinner, but since you know they ate well all day, just relax and try not to worry about it.
- Serve small portions. If you are presenting new or disliked foods, keep the portions small. For instance, just give one spoonful of chili in a bowl, or a tiny slice of pizza on the plate. Not only do you save on wasted foods when they are not eaten, but you don't overwhelm your kids with a huge plate of something new.
- Separate the foods. Some kids are more likely to try new foods if you present them separately. For instance, when serving hard tacos, you might give your kids a plate with a taco shell, a scoop of meat, a spoonful of tomatoes, some cheese, and a few shreds of lettuce - all separated on the plate. When served this way, they have the option of putting it altogether to make a taco, or just eating the ingredients separately.
- Serve one healthy, preferred food with each meal. This is a good way to ensure your kids will eat something (and thus not be hungry and cranky later), and also to keep them engaged at the dinner table. For instance, if I am serving spaghetti and meatballs, I try to also serve garlic bread and salad with the meal, since I know my kids will actually eat those things.
- Keep introducing foods. This includes foods your kids don't like, as well as healthful foods they do like. One of my kids loved scrambled eggs as a toddler, and would eat 5 eggs in a single sitting. For whatever reason, I stopped making eggs for a few months, and when I re-introduced them, it was like starting all over and he refused to eat them. Sigh.
- Try new mediums. Try different forms of foods if your kids refuse an entire food group. One of my kids won't touch cheese in any form - except, that is, for the cheese on Lance cheese snack crackers. (Crackers are a powerful thing for little kids!) Once I knew that he liked them, I made sure to talk to him about the fact that it was cheese that he was enjoying, so that he had a positive association with it. If your kids do not like veggies, try veggie chips or veggie juices. We love V8 Fusion juices because they have lots of veggies but taste like fruit juice.
- Expand on preferences. Maybe your kids love peanut butter sandwiches and refuse to eat anything else. No problem! Start experimenting with putting peanut butter on different kinds of bread, then move to bagels, then rice cakes, then apple slices, then a stick of celery. You are then using their preferences to expand what they will eat.
- Peer pressure. Even to toddlers and preschoolers, peer pressure is a powerful tool. Your child is more likely to try new foods around friends, siblings, and cousins who are eating those foods. My kids greatly expanded their food repertoires when they started preschool and ate lunch with a group of good eaters!
- Encourage exploration. If your kids have an extremely limited repertoire, or an aversion to certain textures, it may be difficult to get them to try (i.e., chew and swallow) new foods. So, you may have to start from the beginning. First, encourage your kids to allow new foods on their plates. Then, encourage them to touch the new food with their fingers. Then, move on to sniffing the new food. When this is easy, you can encourage him to taste the new food. Chewing and swallowing is the last step - and this might take several introductions!
- Praise. As always, be sure to praise your kids for exhibiting wanted behavior. In this case, if your child tries a new food, take notice! You don't have to throw a party, but let them know you are pleased. One of my kids is particularly picky, but the other morning he voluntarily asked to try some of my oatmeal - and he loved it! This was a huge step for him, so I made sure to video chat his dad at work so we could celebrate the experience.
- Picky eating is a phase! As long as your pediatrician says your child is healthy and developing well, just give a multivitamin, continue to present healthy foods, and try to relax.
- Kids with special needs, such as an autism spectrum disorder, may have more challenging picky eating behaviors. Consider consulting with an occupational therapist in your school or local agency, as they often have great training and insight into treatment for extreme picky eating.
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