When my eldest, Jack, was a toddler, I thought I had it all figured out. He was (and is) curious, easy going and eager to please. Naturally, these temperamental qualities translate to him being a good and adventurous eater.
As a dietitian, I gave myself a big ol’ pat on the back. Surely, his good eating skills were because of me, right?
Well—go figure—kid No. 2 had different ideas in mind. My girl, Caitlin, is sweet, observant and smart, but she’s stubborn as all get-out. Plus, she struggles with sensory processing, which can make eating a challenge.
As an infant, she refused all purees. As a toddler, she’d have a huge meltdown at the sight of yogurt (which, coincidentally, was her big brother’s favorite breakfast food). And, now, as a kindergartner, she’ll be the first to say "no" when a new food comes her way.
The good news: We’ve made lots of progress. While Caitlin still has her food challenges (I mean, who freaks out at the sight of chocolate?!), I’m happy to say that she now has a wide repertoire of healthy foods that she loves. But it definitely didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken a lot of focused work and dedication to get to this point. And while there are some nights when I want to throw in the towel and order delivery, the hard work has been more than worth it.
As a dietitian, I have a leg up on closely following what all the scientific literature has to say about picky eating, as well as strategies that work. While these proven strategies are a few of our favorites, as a mom, I know that every kid is different. If you’d like more tools in your toolbox, my free ebook, 21 Picky Eating Hacks, has lots of helpful advice.
Here are five simple strategies that have worked with my kids.
1. Reframe your thinking. Labeling our kids doesn’t do them (or us) any good. Instead of defining your child as a "picky eater," reframe your thinking by telling yourself that your child is "still learning to like new foods." This simple shift in thinking brings more positivity and patience to mealtimes, which often results in better eating.
2. Talk less. Encouraging a child to “take one more bite” or “clean your plate” can add pressure to mealtime, as well as position healthy food as a punishment. When kids aren’t pressured to eat, studies show that kids actually eat more food and make less negative comments about their food.
3. Put a sticker on it. Kids, like adults, are suckers for good marketing. In one study, when an Elmo sticker was placed on an apple, the kids nearly doubled their choice of the apple. When I first tried this with my kids, they ended up literally duking it out over the apple. Oops, maybe this strategy works a little too well!
4. Create hands-on opportunities (away from the table). New foods can be super-intimidating to kids. So, give them lots of opportunities to become familiar with a food, before it ever makes an appearance at the table. Using fruits and vegetables in art projects and science experiments, as well as reading from food-themed books can all help.
5. Move, dance or play before a meal. Work up an appetite and get the wiggles out by engaging your child in physical activity before a meal. Research has shown that when schools have recess before lunch, the kids make healthier food choices. Bonus tip: Have a snack sampler ready, so your kiddo can nosh on fruits and veggies as an appetizer.