What to do if your child is a picky eater
Your child’s refusing to eat the beautiful meal you spent all afternoon cooking. They only ever want noodles with butter. How can you encourage them to try new foods?
How do you deal with a picky eater?
It’s normal for kids to not like every food, let alone the first time they try it. That said, it’s important to expose your child to a variety of foods.
You should also give your child many opportunities to taste new foods, as it may take more than 20 meals before a child is willing to try something. And that still doesn’t mean they’ll like it right away. They may need more time to get used to the texture and flavour.
Division of responsibility
According to the division of responsibility model developed by nutritionist Ellyn Satter, a specialist in children’s nutrition, adults are responsible for the following:
The menu, that is, the food served at the meal (what)
The meal and snack schedule (when)
The area where the family eats (where)
For their part, children are responsible for the following:
The amount of food they eat (how much); they might even choose not to eat any food at all, and that’s okay
Applying the division of responsibility model helps your child develop their tastes so they can enjoy more foods over time, as it provides a reassuring framework at mealtime and allows children to discover new foods at their own pace. This model also helps you have more enjoyable meals together as a family, because you let your child eat without commenting on what they are or aren’t eating.
Most children go through a phase of food neophobia where they refuse to eat new foods, or sometimes even foods they used to like. If this is the case with your child, keep applying the division of responsibility model. It’s the best way to get through this phase.
Serve food from the table
At mealtime, try placing all the food in the middle of the table so that everyone can help themselves instead of preparing individual plates in the kitchen. When all the foods for the meal are on the table, your child can get used to seeing them, and that’s a step in the right direction. By getting used to having certain foods around and seeing other people eating them on a regular basis, your child will become more familiar with these foods, more likely to reach for them, and more likely to end up enjoying them.
If your child is having a meltdown and says they’re hungry, but refuses to eat the meal that you’ve prepared, stay calm. Then explain to them that there are different foods on the table and that they can pick what they want.
If a child is solely focused on dessert, it’s recommended to put dessert out at the same time as the rest of the food. That way, they can have their treat right away and then concentrate on other foods.
Here are some tips for serving from the table:
Place all the food for the meal in the middle of the table so your child can see their options.
Always include one or two foods that your child already knows and likes.
If your child is aged 2 or under, place a small portion of everything you’re serving for the meal on their plate or on the tray of their high chair. Then, let them pick what they want to eat.
If your child is 3 years old, encourage them to serve themself with easytouse utensils, and help them if needed. They could also show you what they want you to put on their plate.
From about age 4, start letting your child serve themself.
Avoid commenting on what they do or do not put on their plate.
Eat with them and show them that you are enjoying the meal.
Is it a good idea to make another meal?
Some parents may be tempted to give their picky eater another meal, like cereal or a peanut butter sandwich, just to make sure they eat something. But this is actually a bad idea.
It may solve the problem in the short term, but it sends the message that it’s okay to refuse to try new things. Therefore, your child will be less likely to try new foods in the future.
Children should only be given the option of eating what’s on the table. That means you need to make sure that every meal includes one or two foods that your child likes so they’ll be sure to eat something (e.g., cheese, rice, vegetables).
Keep to a schedule, but be flexible
According to the division of responsibility model, you, the parents, decide on the meal and snack schedule. This schedule is based on your family’s routine and appetites. You can shift your meal times forward or back 30 minutes when needed. But don’t put off eating too long, because the longer you wait, the more tired your child will be, and fatigue will affect their appetite. Here are two points to keep in mind about eating schedules:
Snacks and meals should be far enough apart for your child to feel hungry once it’s time to eat.
If your child is not hungry by mealtime, ask them to join you at the table anyway so you can spend time together.
Why do some children always want to eat the same thing?
It’s normal for a child to be reluctant to eat, or even taste, certain foods.
It’s also normal for a child to like some foods more than others. Kids’ favourite foods are usually the ones that are most familiar and safe to them. There’s no risk involved since they already know they like them.
To expand their palates as they grow up, kids need to be exposed a variety of foods. It’s the parents’ responsibility to vary their child’s diet to introduce them to other foods.
If you present your child with new or less appealing foods regularly, these foods eventually become more familiar. It is important to let your child explore these new foods at their own pace without forcing them to try any.
If your child always wants to eat the same thing (say, bread or pasta), remember that the division of responsibility model states that you decide what to serve at mealtime. Bread or pasta may be a regular part of meals, but don’t plan your meals around it. When it’s time to eat, let your child have their favourite food while teaching them to share. Explain that, for example, one person can’t eat all the bread on the table because other people want some too.
How can you encourage your picky eater to try new foods?
- Invite your child to have some of every food on the table, but don’t insist, as that might discourage them from trying what is offered.
- Offer your child one new food at a time, and always put at least one food they like on the table.
Your child will be more likely to try a food if they see that you like it.
- If your child says they don’t like something, tell them it might not taste the same as last time since people’s tastes sometimes change.
- Set an example by eating the new food yourself and showing that you enjoy it. Since you are your child’s role model, they’ll want to be like you.
- Don’t force your child to try something, since they’ll start to associate the food with negative emotions. If your child feels anxious or insecure at the table, that will set back their progress.
- Avoid getting angry, scolding your child, or negotiating with them to try a food. The most important thing is that they develop a taste for a variety of foods. The chances of your child trying and enjoying new foods are very low if mealtime is associated with arguing and crying.
- Involve your child in meal planning by letting them pick a meal. Try giving them two meals to choose from so they have guidelines. But remember that you shouldn’t base the whole meal around your child’s preferences. Whenever possible, take your child to the grocery store and encourage them to cook with you. If your child is proud of their homemade pasta, for instance, they’ll be more likely to try the final dish. Even 2- and 3-year-olds can help out.
Here are examples of things you can say to encourage your child to try new foods:
“Here’s what we’re having for dinner tonight. Put whatever you want on your plate.”
“I really like this food. It’s crunchy and a little bit sweet.”
“Grandma used to make it this way when I was little, so it brings back good memories when I make it myself.”
Here are examples of what you should avoid saying:
“I’m not happy because you didn’t eat your meat.”
“You can’t leave the table until you eat some cauliflower.”
Why do children refuse to eat?
There are many reasons why a child may refuse to eat. Sometimes it’s because they don’t like what’s being served, but other times, there’s something else going on. It’s important to look at factors beyond food to understand why your child won’t eat.
Here are a few possible explanations:
Their growth is slowing down.
They’re not hungry.
They’re uncomfortable or in pain.
They’re not sitting in a comfortable position.
They need to move.
They’re distracted by something else.
They feel pressured to eat.
They want to eat alone (trying to establish autonomy).
They’re going through a phase of food neophobia.
They have strong preferences for specific foods.
Your child may not be old enough to tell you how they feel, and they probably don’t understand what’s going on themself. One thing is certain: they’re learning, and they need your patience, consistency, trust, and compassion to develop their tastes. It’s normal for this process to be hard, but be kind to yourself. Your value as a parent isn’t determined by what your child does or doesn’t eat.
Things to keep in mind
Even if your child doesn’t like a certain food, it’s still important to offer it to them regularly so that they get used to it.
Do not serve your child another meal if they refuse the one provided.
Don’t force your child to try something.
Show your child that you like what you’re eating.
Research and copywriting: Stéphanie Côté, M.Sc., nutritionist
Updated: October 2021
Photos: Adobe Stock/Kaliantye and GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages and omgimages
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