If you have a picky eater who says no to pretty much anything healthy—along with just about everything else, I feel your pain. Having a picky eater is a daily battle, and it’s extra stressful for parents, because a lack of nutrition can hinder your child’s development.
So, how can you help your child enjoy meals and be open to a variety of foods? The good news is, the key is already in your hands. But according to pediatricians, there are some important steps to follow when you set out to establish healthy eating habits for your child.
Establish basic eating habits with picky eaters
1. Genuine hunger at mealtime
If your child can access sweets and snacks before mealtime, the rise in sugar level will prevent them from feeling hungry. Make sure there is enough fasting time and physical activity between snack and meal time.
2. Ability to eat by themselves
Once your child develops motor skills, chewing, and the ability to swallow chunky food, teach them to feed themselves.
3. Positive mood at the table
Eating time should be enjoyable and fun for children. Once they begin to associate mealtime with being forced to eat undesirable food when they aren’t hungry, it can lead to unhealthy eating later on in life.
Help your child explore a variety of food in a relaxed atmosphere, without being criticized about what they eat or how they eat it.
4. Expressing satisfaction
Once your hungry child takes time to enjoy their food, regardless of the amount, they should feel comfortable expressing their fullness and stop when they would like to. Never force your child to eat more or finish food, not even for the sake of preventing food waste—you’re better off offering a little amount at a time.
5. Joy of eating
Once your child can freely enjoy food that includes things they like at a pace conducive to a good appetite, they can experience the joy of eating. Instead of focusing on what your child eats and how much, have a pleasant conversation to help them relax and enjoy the calm mood at the table. This means that pointing out flaws in their table manners can wait—at least until their eating habits are well-established and stable.
Some things you shouldn’t rush to teach while overcoming pickiness and bad eating habits
1. Sitting at the table without fidgeting
It is hard not to say “Sit!” when a child fidgets at the table, but hold on a little longer, until your child’s focus is on eating and they are clearly enjoying it.
2. Clean eating without spillage
Messy eating is not easy to watch, but let it go until your child is capable of feeding themselves contentedly.
3. Proper utensil usage
If your child still prefers hands over utensils, don’t force them to learn until they build a stronger relationship with food.
4. Chewing with mouth closed
While it’s a common pet peeve to see someone chewing with an open mouth, this too is something that should wait a little longer, to give your child time to focus purely on enjoying their food, rather than how to eat.
5. Eating nutritionally balanced food
All parents want to feed their kids nutritionally balanced food from day one, but eating unappealing food is not even easy for grownups. Let your child have some choices, and include foods they enjoy at every meal.
Remember that establishing table manners is a later goal, once your child is able to achieve the basic eating habits of feeding themselves and eating until they feel satisfied.
Frequently asked questions about picky eaters
1. Should I clean up the plate when my child refuses to eat?
Yes. Simply accept their will without scolding or mentioning how little they ate. This prevents anxiety associated with mealtime while teaching children that meals are part of a scheduled routine, and cannot happen whenever they want.
2. How long does it take for me to fix my child’s picky eating?
This is a long-term project, so be prepared to see little progress at first.
Do not focus too much on the amount your child eats; instead, help your child relax during meals and explore food by discussing their observations of its appearance and smell. Your child might soon want to explore new foods based on your descriptions triggering their curiosity.
Eating nutritionally balanced food and displaying proper table manners at mealtime might be every parent’s dream. But in order to establish a good relationship with food for their children, parents should step back and focus on basic eating skills. This means the table manners might have to wait while you provide your child with a variety of food to explore and a pleasant mood at the table. It will be a long-term undertaking, but with your patience and support, your child will learn to build a healthy relationship with food.
You might also be interested in reading the posts below:
- Picky Eater free PDF worksheet—strategies to get your picky eater to eat a variety of foods
- Why independence for children is so important, and how to help your child be more independent