Meals are often a stressful time of day for a family with young children. They become even more stressful when you have a young child who is a picky eater.
I am a child psychologist and a mother to 3 tiny people ages 5,4 and 2, all of whom are picky eaters. My 2 year old is especially picky and will only eat selected crunchy carbohydrates, lemon yogurt (Wallaby brand), and chicken nuggets.
It is important to note that a child who is not eating or eating very little could have a medical condition that requires medical treatment. If your child is losing weight, becomes lethargic or is not reaching developmental milestones as expected, it is important to discuss those concerns with your pediatrician. However, many children are just simply picky eaters and some behavioral interventions may increase the number of foods your child will eat.
But they ate it yesterday!
The other day my 4-year-old stated that he only likes raspberry yogurt (it had previously been lemon), so I made sure the fridge was stocked with raspberry yogurts. After he ate 1 of the many raspberry yogurts now stacked in our fridge, he grabbed my hand and told me that now he only likes lemon yogurts! Luckily I like raspberry yogurt (a lot!) so they did not go to waste, but it sure was frustrating to hear that he no longer wanted raspberry yogurts. But, for a 4 year old getting to decide whether he only eats lemon yogurts or raspberry yogurts is a choice he can be in charge of. What your child chooses to eat or not eat may be one of the only choices he or she gets to make. Children are constantly being told what to do and how to do. While as parents we can bring the child to the table, we can’t force the food into their mouths, and they know it!
Don’t have your child clear their plates!
While you may have grown up hearing that you had to clear your plate before you could leave the table or had to listen to a story about starving children in Africa, forcing your child to clear their plate is probably not a battle worth engaging in.
If your child refuses to eat broccoli, forcing them to sit at the table until they eat the broccoli is going to make for a long night for everyone. Instead, suggest that they engage the broccoli using a different sense such as touch or smell. If your child is not even willing to touch a piece of broccoli, it is highly unlikely they are going to suddenly pick it up, put it in their mouth, chew it and swallow it. You might be thinking, is she suggesting I allow my child to play with their food?! The answer is, yes! Look for a time that makes sense for you and your family and allow your picky eater to engage with food they normally want nothing to do with. For example, if you are having red peppers in your meal, leave a few raw and put them on your child’s plate and suggest they have a red pepper mustache (you can have one too!). Although they won’t necessarily eat the red pepper, they will have picked up the red pepper, smelled the red pepper, and brought it close to their mouth.
But I am definitely NOT suggesting you prepare different meals for every member of the family, although you can add a preferred food on your child’s plate at mealtime. When I make chicken, mashed potatoes and asparagus for dinner, I always put a tiny piece of each item on my 2-year-old daughter’s plate, along with a handful of pita chips or another crunchy carb I know she likes. I expect her to eat the preferred food and interact in some way with the other foods, although I know she is not going to eat the other food, by exposing her to those foods, she will be more likely to move towards eating those foods in the future. With my older children, I offer them larger (yet age appropriate) portions of the food I know they like and approximately 1 tablespoon of foods I know they do not like as much. I ask them to take one bite of their less preferred food and eat up a significant portion of the preferred food I offered them.
Helping your picky eater develop a large repertoire of food they enjoy is a long war, so do not beat yourself up over a few lost battles here and there! Although I always strive to include my 2-year-old daughter at every meal with a plate that contains the food we are eating, there are nights when I simply hand her a bowl of graham cracker bunnies and turn on Blaze and the Monster Machine in the playroom while I enjoy my meal at the table with the rest of the family. But, by consistently including her in meals and exposing her to a variety of foods, she has increased the number of foods she is willing to eat and will continue to increase the number of foods she is willing to eat in the future.
About the author
Hi I’m Jenna Symons, Psy.D. and I am a child psychologist. I currently live in Hawaii and work for the Hawaii Department of Health, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division. I am also a mom of three tiny people ages 5,4 and 2. I am always looking for fun ways to incorporate healthy foods into our lives! I am excited to share some tips with the Just Cook for Kids blog!