A picky eating child eats food selectively, with a preference for sweetened and fast foods over whole-grains and vegetables. By eating this way, she will end up eating less food than is required for physical, cognitive, and overall health. This will impact her timely achievement of development milestones.
When does picky eating take root in children?
There are no cutout years when the picky eating habit kicks in, but it is common in one to two year olds. Then it can heighten going forward. At this time in life, the little ones are battling with childhood discoveries, while being asked to choose from a long list of foods – some of which do not make sense to them.
They will naturally favor sweet, salty, oily foods, in addition to candies, and disregard food types that taste flat.
A typical picky eater may exhibit some or all of the following traits:
- Eats less food than is necessary
- Has a limited set of preferred foods
- Only wants food prepared in certain ways
- Is unwilling to try new food types
- Dislikes vegetables
- Not interested in fruits
Besides battling childhood discoveries, the disorder can happen because of the following reasons:
- A reflection of similar behavior in the parent
- Sensitivity to food types
- Inappropriate feeding patterns
- Bad cooking
- Pressure to eat
- Unfavorable eating environment
- Excessive calorie intake before mealtimes
The picky eating ‘disorder’ affects close to a third of children around the world, and may persist in some until they are 7.
When this happens, the eating problem has transformed into a more disturbing habit known as Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). This may happen because your child is extremely anxious, and avoids certain foods for fear of death and other reasons.
Here are fun tricks to get your picky eating child back to eating ways
Whereas you probably need not lose sleep over picky eating, you should be worried if it continues for long and your child’s overall health is deteriorating.
Still, a few tricks listed below should be good enough to have your picky eating child back to eating ways.
1. Prioritize mealtimes
Prioritizing mealtimes can be instrumental in motivating picky eaters and creating a positive eating environment. Here are some tips to help you prioritize mealtimes:
Establish a regular meal schedule: Set consistent meal times and try to stick to them as much as possible. This helps create a routine and allows your picky eater to anticipate meals, reducing anxiety and promoting a healthy appetite.
Create a calm and relaxed atmosphere: Make mealtimes a peaceful and stress-free experience. Create a pleasant atmosphere by minimizing distractions, such as turning off the TV or electronic devices. Encourage conversation and positive interactions during meals.
Sit down together as a family: Eating together as a family can provide a sense of unity and encouragement. Aim to have at least one meal together each day. This can serve as a valuable opportunity for your picky eater to observe and learn from your positive eating behaviors.
Allow enough time for meals: Avoid rushing through meals. Allocate sufficient time for your child to eat at a comfortable pace. Slow eating can help them focus on the food, experience different flavors, and recognize their hunger and fullness cues.
Serve meals with structure and variety: Provide balanced meals that include a variety of food groups. Offer a range of colors, textures, and flavors to make the meal more appealing and engaging. Include foods that your picky eater enjoys alongside new or less preferred options to encourage exploration.
Involve your picky eater in meal planning: Engage your child in meal planning by asking for their input and involving them in age-appropriate decision-making. Consider their preferences when creating the menu, and allow them to contribute ideas or choose from healthy options.
Offer limited but appropriate choices: Give your picky eater some control by offering limited choices within the context of a balanced meal. For example, you can present two vegetable options and let them choose which one they would like to have. This can help them feel empowered and invested in the mealtime experience.
Avoid pressure and negative comments: Avoid pressuring your picky eater to eat certain foods or finish their plate. Negative comments or coercive tactics can create mealtime anxiety and worsen picky eating behavior. Instead, maintain a positive and supportive environment that encourages exploration and gradual progress.
Focus on positive interactions: Use mealtimes as an opportunity to connect with your picky eater. Engage in positive conversations, share stories, and create a nurturing environment. A positive and enjoyable mealtime experience can foster a healthy relationship with food and motivate your child to try new things.
2. Exercise patience & creativity
Do not panic if your child loses interest in select nutritious foods, or fails to develop interest at all. Instead, establish a communication channel and creative means to make food appealing.
It is the child alone with the right idea why one type of food is good and another is bad.
Start by paying attention to the little details. Notice when your child pulls out food bites immediately after placing them in the mouth. Their taste buds will reject these foods, and only time will prepare them to change their mind.
Be willing to try out different foodstuffs to make this exercise easy. Blend in a mix of colors, aroma, and taste.
At 2 years and over, discuss with her the benefits of eating certain types of food in place of others.
3. Ferment your food in addition to condiments
Fermenting food can indeed be a useful technique to add flavor and variety to your cooking, which may help make food more appealing to a picky eating child. Fermentation can create unique and complex flavors in food. The process produces tangy, savory, and sometimes slightly sour taste profiles that can add depth and interest to dishes. Fermented foods can also naturally develop umami flavors, which can make dishes more delicious and appealing to picky eaters.
Ingredients like fermented soy sauce, miso, or fish sauce can provide that umami boost to various recipes.
Fermentation can also change the texture of food, making it more interesting and potentially more appealing to picky eaters. For example, fermented pickles or sauerkraut have a satisfying crunch and tang that can add a pleasant texture contrast to meals.
Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria, which can support a healthy gut microbiome. A balanced gut microbiome has been linked to improved digestion, immune function, and overall well-being.
Add condiments in your cooking and make them more appealing. Children often enjoy dipping their food or adding condiments for extra flavor. Fermented condiments like kimchi, salsa, or yogurt-based dips can introduce exciting flavors while providing healthy probiotics. These flavorful additions can entice your picky eater to try new foods or enjoy familiar dishes in a different way.
4. Make the food visually appealing
Make food visually appealing: Children are often drawn to visually appealing food. Incorporate a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables into your dishes. Bright red, orange, green, and yellow hues can make food visually appealing and enticing for children.
Consider using a mix of colorful produce in salads, stir-fries, sandwiches, or smoothies. Arrange food creatively on the plate, or use fun-shaped molds for items like pancakes or sandwiches. This can make the food more enticing and encourage your child to try it.
Use cookie cutters or food molds to create fun and appealing shapes with fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, pancakes, or even cheese slices. Arranging food into shapes like flowers, animals, or faces can make mealtime more exciting and encourage children to engage with their food.
Use divided plates to separate different food items and prevent them from touching if your child prefers it that way. Create a balanced and colorful plate by arranging different food groups in an attractive manner.
Sprinkle fresh herbs, chopped nuts, or grated cheese on top of meals to enhance their appearance. A sprinkle of parsley or a squeeze of citrus juice can make a big difference in making the food visually appealing.
Get creative and transform food into artwork. Build a fruit kabob with various colorful fruits, make smiley faces on pancakes with berries, or create a vegetable rainbow using different colored veggies. Use food as a canvas for your child to explore and enjoy.
5. Portion matters
Portion size can play a significant role when dealing with picky eating children. Children don’t often eat as much food and should not be forced to eat beyond what they can.
Offering large portions of unfamiliar or disliked foods can be intimidating for picky eaters. It may discourage them from trying new foods or cause them to feel overwhelmed.
Toddlers may only need up to 1/4 of a cup of liquid, and a small portion of a fruit serving. Anything beyond that could derail her eating drive. Increase the quantify slowly, and only as she grows up.
When introducing new foods to picky eaters, it’s best to start with small portions. This reduces the pressure and makes it less daunting for them to try something unfamiliar. Offering a small taste or a few bites allows them to experience the food without feeling overwhelmed.
Incorporating familiar and preferred foods alongside new or less preferred foods can make the meal more approachable. This ensures that your child has something they enjoy on their plate while also gently exposing them to new flavors and textures.
6. Beware of snacking
The picky eating habit usually gets worse when a family lacks a laid out eating schedule. It is a recipe for disaster when meal times are scattered throughout the day, and some are skipped.
Even worse, it is bad when everyone is eating cookies and other crackers every other time.
In addition, your child should not snack 30 minutes before a full meal. With a partially filled stomach, she will not eat sufficiently the now ‘planned’ meal time, 30 minutes later.
Restricted time frames will ensure your child is hungry enough to eat most of the foodstuff served before her. Three full meals a day are good enough, with minimal snacks and drinks served in between.
7. Involve the picky eater in your culinary plans
Seek the involvement of your child in purchasing and preparing meals. When out at the grocery store, get her to select the fruits and veggies she will want to eat. Beware not to force her to seek what you always want.
Better still, get her involved in gardening and seeding food types that add value to her health.
She should be part of the cooking to prepare what she wants and avoid complaints that food was not prepared well enough. Your child may not necessarily have experience in culinary matters, but may teach you a thing or two.
You can also make food an important topic of discussion at home. For example, let the child know that carrots will improve the eye sight, and vegetables will help keep common colds and flu at bay. Better still, both are fantastic for skin health.
On the other end, let her know that excessive intake of sweets, soda, and cookies will spoil the teeth and actually precursors to weight gain and diseases such as diabetes.
8. Physical activity may just do the trick
Do not use force to get your child to eat the food he/she finds repelling. This may actually ferment the picky eating habit even further. She will then assume that eating undesired food goes along with force.
Occasionally, use the hunger bait to get the job done. This may mean tweaking the eating schedule a little bit.
To do this, leave her to play outdoors until hunger starts to bite. When she runs indoors searching for what to eat, have your preferred meals scattered around the house.
Preferable treats should include bananas, apples, pineapples, jackfruit, and whatever else is applicable. This should do the trick most of the time!
Monitor these impromptu mealtimes to ensure they are done correctly. Add other healthy foods in the ‘mix’ but caution must be taken to protect children from extended spells of hunger.
This can easily become a breeding ground for health complications such as stomach ulcers.
9. Mealtimes minus technology
Smartphone and tablet indulgence can also eat away a chunk of the dining minutes if left unchecked.
Research shows that a third of smartphone owners worldwide check their social platforms even as they eat.
Ensure this is not happening at the dinner table in your house. Endeavor to make mealtimes tech-free, and you will probably get your child back to eating ways.
And now, with increasing mobility and families not having meals together, the habit is becoming hard to combat. After all, nobody is around to monitor and caution the errant eaters when they are alone and multitasking junk with technology.
10. Be a role model
Children often imitate their parents’ behavior. If they see you enjoying a wide variety of foods, they may be more open to trying them as well. Show enthusiasm and enjoyment when eating different foods, and let your child see that trying new things can be fun.
Your child will adopt healthy eating habits, provided everyone else in the house does the same. Toddlers basically look on and mimic everything they see around them, including the eating habits of siblings and other family members.
They will pick up what they see, because they assume it is the right thing. They will want to stay away from leafy green vegetables if that is what they see, and they will value fruits, veggies, and all the suspect servings if you and others around the dinner table relish them.
Furthermore, the atmosphere around the dining table will make children want to dislike the suspect food types. The show of interest or lack of it will tell the little ones whether the food being served is good or bad.
It is important that everyone likes and enjoys the food placed before them.
Here’s how you can be a positive role model:
Show enthusiasm and enjoyment: Demonstrate your own enthusiasm and enjoyment for a variety of foods. Express your excitement when trying new dishes or ingredients. Children often imitate their parents’ behavior, so displaying a positive attitude towards food can inspire them to be more open-minded.
Try new foods together: Make trying new foods a shared experience. Explore unfamiliar ingredients or dishes as a family. Encourage everyone, including yourself, to take small, adventurous bites and discuss the flavors and textures. Your willingness to try new foods alongside your picky eater can create a sense of togetherness and make the experience more enjoyable.
Engage in food preparation: Involve your child in meal planning, grocery shopping, and food preparation. Let them assist in washing, peeling, or chopping ingredients. This hands-on experience fosters a sense of ownership and curiosity about food. When children are involved in the process, they are more likely to be motivated to try the final result.
Share positive food stories and memories: Share stories about your own positive experiences with food. Talk about memorable meals you’ve enjoyed or the joy of discovering new flavors. This can create a positive association with food and spark curiosity in your picky eater.
Avoid negative food talk or pressure: Be mindful of the language you use around food. Avoid negative comments or pressure to eat specific foods. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of trying new things and emphasize the importance of variety and balance in a healthy diet.
Celebrate small victories: Acknowledge and celebrate your picky eater’s efforts and accomplishments. Praise their willingness to try new foods, even if they only take a small bite or show interest. Positive reinforcement can boost their confidence and motivation to continue exploring different foods.
Lead by example: Model healthy eating habits by incorporating a wide range of nutritious foods into your own meals. Let your child see you enjoying fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and other wholesome choices. This can help normalize these foods and make them more appealing to your picky eater.
Remember, every child is different, and it’s important to be patient and understanding. Keep the atmosphere positive and encourage a relaxed approach to mealtime. With time and perseverance, you can help your picky eater develop a broader palate and a more adventurous approach to food.