picky eaters: avoiding the mealtime battleground.

picky babyThrowing, yelling, spilling, crying. Cajoling. Girding. Bribing.

Sound like dinner time to you? 

At some point or another, most kids are picky about something. They are looking to assert some control in their tiny world where the big people put them in carseats and choose their clothes and create their schedule. Food is one of the easiest outlets - appearing multiple times each day - where they have a chance to exert some independence.

On the other hand, we have expectations for how many grams of protein and how many micrograms of Vitamin C we want them to have each day. 

Stubbornness + expectation can be messy. Bowls on the floor, spoons in the air, tantrums under the table messy.

Below are some things to keep in mind as you encourage your picky eater to break out of their patterns (check out this post on foods to introduce and ways to keep dialogue a-flowing with your wee one). 

Back to basics

Even if your child is well into preschool - and years past first solids - embrace the same spirit you did when first introducing real food to your child. Start with simple foods with a single flavor and texture. It can make the conversation that begins with "I'd like you to try..." and ends with "NO" a little more fluid. Check back with this post on how to create a dialogue with your child around food and encourage them to be specific about what they don't like about this food.

You can also incorporate new foods into other dishes (soups, casseroles, smoothies, etc),  although your little one may notice and call you out on it. Puree or chop as finely as you need to to introduce these foods gradually, and as your child becomes a little more willing to try new things, increase the visible volume of the (no longer new) food. By this point, their taste receptors may become acclimated to the flavor and they'll be more willing to give it a go, even with those green pieces intact.

Spice it up

No dice on broccoli on its own? No problem. Particularly if your little one has come to love processed, highly palatable snack foods, natural flavors might not cut it. The tastebuds don't react as vividly, so your little one might perceive the taste as bland or 'icky'. Dress whole foods up with a little sauce or spice - especially if you know they enjoy a particular flavor (cinnamon? chili? nutmeg? dill? maple?). Pairing a new food with something you know is 'accepted' can be a positive way to make the introduction. The 'accepted' food should not be their favorite, rather one you know they generally will eat without complaint. For instance, if you have a chicken-finger-aholic on your hands who also happens to eat - but not love - tomato sauce, try introducing broccoli with tomato sauce, rather than with chicken fingers. The disparity on the rating scale between chicken fingers and broccoli is far greater than between broccoli and tomato sauce. Also, check out these posts on spice pairings: even little ones can be won over with a little exotic flavor. 

Be persistent, not impatient

When it comes down to it, the battle isn't really about the food. Nor is it about you. Simply put, your picky eater is looking to 'win' at each meal. Each time they refuse a food and we give in, we reinforce their behavior, making it more likely to recur. When offering a new food, bring with it the simple expectation that just taking a taste is a victory. If your little one turns it down, they turn it down. Remain positive and try again at the same meal later in the week. Remember that kids pick up on emotional reactions very easily: remaining measured means there's less of a 'winning' victory to be had (and gives you a calmer place to try from again the next time you wish to introduce the food). 

Also, kids' tastes change every day. Reintroduce a food again after a few days if it's not immediately accepted. 

Variety, variety, variety

Just like adults, kids can become bored with the same foods over and over again. Take a look at your menu for the week: are there a lot of foods with similar colors, flavors, textures, and temperatures? Though we may be able to tell the difference between a sweet potato and a squash, to a child they might be too similar to be accepted day after day. Work with the idea of a 'nutrient-dense buffet'; that is, offer several tastes of several different whole foods and allow your child to select which ones they'll eat at that meal. Pack up anything untouched to try again later. Using this 'buffet' method, we reduce some of the parental anxiety at mealtime. It matters less what your child refuses to eat if everything offered is a whole, nutritious option. They get some control, you get some peace of mind over the quality of what's going in.

Similarly, you can switch up when certain types of food are served. Serve breakfast foods at dinnertime, or dinner foods at lunch or breakfast. Sometimes novelty alone can be a powerful motivator to try something new, and it gives you as a parent a little more flexibility with meal planning. 

It's important to remember that your little one doesn't yet know what they do and don't like: their tastes are changing every day. If you've ever had the experience of a child accepting a food on Monday and by Tuesday, they refuse to look at it, you know what I mean. This is a good thing! It means they're asserting some autonomy and making declarations of preference -- even if these don't actually have anything to do with taste. (Keep in mind that this stable taste preference doesn't solidify in most kids until they're at least five years old). Asserting this autonomy is a big step in development, even though it can be irksome at dinnertime. Consider that, as adults,  we feel like having veggies on some days, and on others we feel like pasta. It's our role to introduce little eaters to the great variety of foods that are available to us, which includes understanding that not every food is going to taste good every day -- and also, that we can't have our favorites at every meal. This is a tough lesson to learn (for the whole family), but it can be a valuable piece of the food selection conversation as your child continues to explore new flavors. They will get there! Patience, persistence. 


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Posted in health coaching info, homepage featured, musings, nutrition for families and children, parenting

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