How do family mealtimes go with your children? Do you have a picky eater who makes you throw up your hands in exasperation?
As you may know by now, picky eating is often a normal and temporary part of a child’s development, and may not require intervention—but it is a challenging matter to deal with it as a parent.
In severe cases where a child’s picky eating is persistent, causes concern, or is accompanied by other symptoms—such as weight loss, eating disorders, or nutritional deficiencies—it is important to consult a healthcare professional to determine the underlying problems and most appropriate course of action.
Convincing your picky eater to try new foods can be a difficult task for parents. Generally, it’s best to offer a variety of healthy foods and allow the child to choose what and how much they want to eat. With your patience and persistence, it should be possible to encourage your picky eater to eat a wider range of foods.
What causes kids to become picky eaters?
1. Sensory processing issues
Some children may have difficulty processing sensory information related to taste, texture, and smell, which makes certain foods unappealing to them. This can lead to a limited diet and a strong preference for particular foods that are familiar.
2. Behavioral issues
Some children can develop negative associations with certain foods after negative experiences or anxiety related to eating. They might be reluctant to try new foods or eat foods that they perceive as being “unsafe” or “gross”.
3. Medical conditions
Children with certain medical conditions—such as acid reflux, celiac disease, or food allergies—can experience discomfort or pain while eating, which can result in picky eating or avoidance of certain foods.
4. Developmental factors
Young children are still developing their tastes and preferences and may be more sensitive to new or unfamiliar foods. As they grow, their eating habits are likely to change, and they may become more open to a larger variety of food.
5. Parental influence
Some parenting styles can contribute to children’s food preferences, such as offering too many snacks or bribing children to eat certain foods. It is also worth pointing out that kids growing up under parents who are picky eaters might imitate their food preferences and attitudes.
How to help your child try new foods
1. Start small
Begin with small portions of a new food, alongside familiar foods that your child enjoys. Offer a small taste of the new food and encourage them to try it, but avoid forcing them to eat it.
2. Involve the child in meal planning and preparation
Involve your child in choosing and preparing meals. By helping your children feel more invested in the cooking process, they will more likely be willing to try new foods.
3. Make it fun
Sometimes the visual presentation of new food can capture your child’s interest before they taste it. Present new foods in a fun shape or decorate them to look more appealing. Offer tasty dips or sauces to make the food more palatable.
4. Be patient
It can take time before a child is willing to try new foods, so be patient and continue to offer them alongside familiar favorites.
5. Avoid pressure and rewards
Forcing your child to eat a new food or offering rewards can create negative associations with food and may not be effective in the long run. Instead, encourage and praise the child for their willingness to try new foods, regardless of the outcome.
6. Keep trying
Although it might be really challenging at times, don’t give up on introducing new foods, even if the child repeatedly refuses them. It can take several tries before a child is willing to eat a particular dish.
7. Set a positive example
Be a positive role model by embracing healthy eating habits yourself. Eat a variety of foods and avoid making negative comments about foods in front of the child.
8. Introduce a variety of flavors and textures early on
Introducing different flavors and textures to a child’s diet early on can help them develop a more diverse palate and become more comfortable trying new foods.
9. Offer healthy options
Offer a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
10. Avoid food battles
Avoid making mealtimes stressful by forcing or pressuring a child to eat a particular food. This can create negative associations with food and mealtimes. Offering healthy choices along with food your kids enjoy creates a relaxed environment that encourages them to explore new foods.
Should you let your child skip a meal if they refuse to eat?
So, one of your dilemmas might be whether or not to let a picky child go hungry if they refuse to eat. The answer to this question is not that simple, because there are different opinions among parents and healthcare professionals. Here are some of the arguments for and against this approach.
Yes, let a picky eater go hungry:
- Encourages the child to try new foods
If a child is hungry, they may be more willing to try new foods, even if they initially refuse them.
- Promotes healthy eating habits
Allowing a child to experience hunger can help them develop a healthy relationship with food and learn to listen to their body’s hunger and fullness cues.
- Avoid reinforcing picky eating habits
If a child knows that they will always be offered a preferred food if they refuse a meal, they may be more likely to continue with their picky eating habits and resist trying new foods.
No, don’t let a picky eater go hungry:
- It can lead to nutrient deficiencies
If a child consistently refuses to eat, they may not be getting the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development.
- Can cause anxiety and stress
Allowing a child to go hungry can cause anxiety and stress for both the child and the parent, which can be detrimental to the child’s overall well-being.
- May not be effective
For some children, hunger may not be a strong enough motivator to try new foods, and they may continue to refuse to eat, even when hungry.
Will age help your picky eater to eat better?
Not all picky eaters are ready to try new foods at a particular age.
It may take some children longer to develop an appetite for new foods, while others may start exploring as early as 2 or 3 years old. In general, many children become less picky around the age of 5 or 6, as they develop and become more open to trying new things. However, every child is different; some may continue to be picky eaters well into their teenage years or even adulthood.
There are many factors that can influence a child’s willingness to try new foods, including their temperament, sensory processing abilities, and exposure to different foods and flavors.
A child who is more adventurous or who is quicker to adapt to new sensory experiences may be more willing to try new foods, whereas a child who is more cautious or has sensory processing problems may be more hesitant.
What type of food should you offer to your picky eater?
When it comes to offering food to a picky-eating child, it’s essential to provide a variety of healthy options, as well as foods that the child enjoys. But this is easier said than done, since you probably have limited choices when it comes to finding food that your picky child might enjoy.
Instead of focusing on what food your child might be willing to eat, focus on introducing new foods with health benefits. As long as you accompany new foods with a bit of food you are sure your kids will eat, don’t fret about how to make them eat that new food they haven’t tried yet. It often takes time and repeated exposure before your child will actually try new food—and hunger helps. So don’t serve big portions of your child’s go-to menu items at each meal.
1. Fruits and vegetables
Serve a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, raw as well as cooked, and experiment with their textures and tastes. Depending on each child’s preferences, sweeter options like grapes, bananas, and sweet potatoes may appeal to some, while savory options like broccoli, carrots, and green beans may appeal to others.
2. Protein-rich foods
Offer a variety of protein-rich foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, and tofu. Experiment with different cooking methods and seasonings to see what the child enjoys.
3. Whole grains
Explore different grains to see what your child likes, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, and quinoa.
4. Dairy or dairy alternatives:
Try cow’s milk or alternatives like soy, almond or oat milk, cheese or substitutes made from soy or nuts, and yogurt or non-dairy equivalents such as soy or oat-based, and experiment with different flavors and textures.
5. Healthy fats
Healthy fat options like avocado, nuts, and seeds can be added to meals and snacks for added nutrition.
6. Treats in moderation:
Allow your child to enjoy treats in moderation, as this can help create a positive relationship with food and prevent feelings of deprivation or restriction.
Most popular foods for picky eaters
The foods that picky eaters prefer can differ greatly from child to child, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, some foods tend to be more popular with picky eaters than others.
Although picky eaters tend to prefer these foods, they are not necessarily the healthiest options. It’s important to offer a variety of healthy foods and to keep introducing new foods over time, even if the child initially refuses them.
- Pasta: Many picky eaters enjoy pasta dishes like spaghetti or macaroni and cheese.
- Bread and toast: Picky eaters may be more likely to eat plain bread or toast than other foods.
- Cheese: Cheese is a favorite of many picky eaters and can be offered as a snack, in sandwiches, or as a topping for pasta dishes, vegetables, or even soups and stews.
- Chicken nuggets: Breaded and fried chicken nuggets are a popular food among many picky eaters.
- French fries: Fried potatoes, like French fries or tater tots, are often liked by picky eaters.
- Fruit: Sweet fruits like bananas, apples, and strawberries are often more appealing to picky eaters than vegetables.
Helpful books and research studies
- Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter:
This classic book on feeding children offers practical advice for establishing healthy eating habits in children, including picky eaters.
- Parental feeding behavior and motivations regarding pre-school age children by Emma Haycraft, et al.:
This study provides insights to inform the development of nutrition advice by gaining a comprehensive picture of parental feeding behaviors and motivations.
Picky Eater Free Printable Worksheet
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It’s important to keep in mind that picky eaters may take time to warm up to new foods. Patience, persistence, and a positive attitude are key when introducing new foods to a picky eater. It’s also important to avoid pressuring or forcing your child to eat, as this can create negative associations with food and mealtimes.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with picky eating in children, and what works for one child may not work for another. Parents can offer a variety of healthy foods along with a small portion of food your kids already eat, and allow the child to choose what and how much they want to eat. This approach can help promote a positive attitude towards food and reduce the pressure and stress associated with mealtimes.
Overall, the key is to create a positive and supportive environment around mealtimes and to help children develop a healthy and varied palate by introducing a wide range of healthy foods. If there are persistent concerns about the child’s nutrition, it’s important to seek guidance from a healthcare professional.
Also, check out these posts below for further reading:
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- How to talk to your kids about the birds and the bees without blushing