I talk to a lot of parents who worry that their child is not getting the nutrition he or she needs because they will only eat rice, or chicken, or worse, nothing! While you probably always have your child’s best intentions at heart when preparing healthy meals for your family, how do you get them to eat healthy if they’re a textbook “picky eater?” And, while you want to encourage your child to have autonomy, you as the parent, don’t want to feel the pressure of being a mom or dad and a head chef every night. Here are a few ways you can get your picky eater to eat a little more healthfully without being a made-to-order chef.
Let them choose, but not everything.
Registered Dietitian and Author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Care and Good Sense, Ellyn Satter recommends a “division of responsibility” when it comes to meal time. In her article, highlighting the book, Leigh Anderson explains that Satter suggests the parent decides when to eat, what to serve, and where to serve it, and the child decides whether and how much to eat. While this might sound scary (what if they don’t eat anything?), the reality is, unless you are actively withholding food from your child, they will not starve to death. This also reinforces that food is served at meal time, and makes them less reliant on snacks or dessert to “fill the gaps.”
Involve them “behind the scenes.”
If they’re old enough, let them be involved in as many steps of the meal planning and preparation as possible. While you might not have them choose what they want to eat for dinner, it could be beneficial to involve them in the conversation when planning what the family will have for dinner. Try giving them two options to start with (tacos or pasta? Salad or broccoli?) to make them feel involved. If possible, let them assist with chopping, tossing, dressing, or even setting the table. This helps them feel invested in meal time, and makes it more likely they will enjoy the meal once it’s in front of them.
Have dinner as a family.
We get that this is not always possible, but your child is more likely to eat if they are eating with others, versus having to eat dinner alone. Even if it’s not possible for the whole family to get together, perhaps it can be arranged for one parent, a caregiver, a sibling, or even a friend to eat at the same time as the child.
It takes close to fifteen “tries” to determine whether or not a child likes a certain food. And while it might feel like a special form of torture to serve your child the same food over and over again (hey, isn’t that the definition of insanity?), you might have to in order for them to really decide if they love it or hate it. Perhaps they need to try it a different way or paired with a different food. Sometimes even slicing it a different way is helpful! For example, if your child hates carrots, maybe try them, shredded in a salad, steamed with olive oil and salt, or baked with cinnamon and honey.
Take the mystery out of meal time by encouraging curiosity around food. Take your child to the grocery store or farmer's market and introduce them to new fruits and vegetables, sign them up for a cooking class, or let them experiment with a kid-friendly recipe in the kitchen.
Do you have a picky eater in the house? Have you had any success introducing new foods in the past? Do you think any of these methods can work? Let us know in the comments below!