Trying to stay patient and upbeat when your child is a picky eater... well, that's challenging. So challenging, in fact, that you'll need a variety of positive parenting techniques for the picky eater in your bag of mom tricks if you want to avoid mealtime battles on a regular basis. While I must admit that overall, my children have been pretty good eaters in their short time on this planet, there have been occasions when they (particularly my younger daughter) would just flat out refuse to eat that delicious, healthy food item on her plate. And I must also admit that I've lost my temper on those occasions, which is why I get the need for those aforementioned positive parenting techniques.
Understanding the root of your child's pickiness (sometimes it's actually not about food at all) will go a long way to creating a more pleasant dining experience with your family. And so will these tips. Of course, if you have any concerns that your child's eating habits might be a sign of something more serious or that your little one isn't getting enough nutrition, always consult your pediatrician.
From my perspective, I pledge not to take it personally when my daughter refuses to eat the broccoli casserole I made, and in return, I'll "practice what I preach" and remember the suggestions below. At least I'll try.
1. Don't pressure & be patient
This shouldn't come as a huge surprise, but if a child is forced to eat a food they don't like, they're going to like it even less as a result. According to Parenting Science, an observational study reported that kids who were more pressured to eat actually consumed fewer fruits and vegetables and more unhealthy snacks. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic reported that if you bribe or put pressure on your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate, this might ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. As a result, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration. Serving small portions to avoid overwhelming your child will also give him the opportunity to ask for more on his own. Patience is a virtue, friends, but try your best.
2. Combine new & familiar foods together
Finding balance between choice and variety is a great way to potentially interest children in new foods, says educator Ariadne Brill for Positive Parenting Connection. If you are really on a mission to expose your child to new foods, try serving something new only every few days, but make sure familiar foods are being served as well. Research has shown that children are more likely to try new foods when they see them close to (but often not touching) foods they are already familiar with and comfortable eating. Brill reports that if there is at least one food on the table that your child likes, there is way less need to struggle or negotiate because you know there is something there that they will eat.
3. Dessert is not a reward
When you withhold dessert, it sends a message that dessert is the best food, thus increasing your child's desire for sweets. Instead, choose one or two nights during the week as "dessert nights" and skip it the rest of the week. Or, substitute other sweet foods like fruit and yogurt as dessert options. Additionally, in a study at the University of Rochester Medical Center, researchers found that giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids' natural ability to regulate their eating and encourages them to eat when they're not hungry to reward themselves.
4. Invite an adventurous friend over for dinner
In an interview with Parents magazine, Keith E. Williams, Ph.D., director of the feeding program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, made the following point: "You and your spouse do influence what your child tries, but no one can make a bigger difference than his friends."
In another Penn State study, it was discovered that preschoolers were more likely to taste mango when they saw a classmate give it a try. As Williams told Parents, "Sometimes all it takes is for a friend to snatch a piece of broccoli for your kid to want to nibble on it." Certainly, one bite of broccoli might not make him a fan, but it will help him get over the hump of trying it, and that's half the battle.
5. Make meal prep a family affair
As often as you can (understanding that on busy school nights this could be tough), make your kids a part of the mealtime preparation. According to Positive Parenting Solutions, if you let your child in on the planning process and even go grocery shopping together, he'll feel valued and included, and you'll be training a little kitchen helper for the future. In turn, your child will be more likely to try something new if he had a hand in selecting that item or preparing it for the meal. And while the concept of kids in the kitchen may feel more overwhelming than helpful, just remind yourself how empowered your child will feel knowing they had a hand in your dinnertime meal preparation.