Picky eaters…do you have one? This is probably one of the biggest concerns I hear from parents during well visits, especially during the toddler and early childhood years. Children may become persnickety when it comes to their meals beginning around 18-24 months of age as this is the time when they realize they do not get to control a lot in their little life except what goes in their mouth. I hear parents explain how they only make certain foods (most typically mac and cheese, chicken tenders, etc.) because they know their child will eat those foods. These are what we call “food jags” meaning when children will only eat one single food meal after meal. Parents worry that if they venture from these staples that their child will not eat and then be hungry. For most healthy children, I can assure you that kiddos will not starve!
“This variability in a child’s appetite is very normal.”
If your child nibbles like a baby bird at one meal, they will usually make up for it at another meal and eat like a bottomless pit. This variability in a child’s appetite is very normal. It is also common that children may eat better in certain situations. For example, I know my children eat far more in amount and variety at school or daycare than they do at home sometimes. This is one instance where “peer pressure” and wanting to be just like their friends can be a good thing.
Parents should make sure that they are in the role of “executive chef” when it comes to meal preparation and not a “made to order” cook. Sure, having input from your children from time to time about what will be on the dinner table is ok, and I certainly encourage parents to allow kids to help out in the process of making dinner as this is a great family activity. But the majority of the menu for the week should be set by Mom and Dad. Once the decision is made on what’s for dinner, then that’s it…parents should refrain from making a separate plate if someone at the table isn’t happy with what is being served.
“A rule that we use in our household when it comes to new foods is the “No thank you” rule.”
When introducing a new food to your child, realize that you may have to offer the food 8-10 times before they are really interested in eating it. A rule that we use in our household when it comes to new foods is the “No thank you” rule. Here’s how it works: when we offer a new food at mealtime, everyone is required to try one bite before saying “No thank you.” They may end up saying “No thank you” the first five times the food is offered, and then on attempt number six, they will eat the entire portion. As everyone knows, if you don’t try something new, how will you know if you like it or not?
“Try to avoid the “happy plate” ideology.”
A few other tips for making mealtimes enjoyable for everyone:
- Try to eat as a family as much as possible but at least several times per week. I know as well as anyone how difficult this can be when you arrive home from work around 6pm and have limited time to get dinner on the table, but try setting at least 2 days during the week that family dinner becomes the priority (slow cooking the main part of your meal using a crockpot can be very helpful in making this possible).
- Make sure the television, cell phones and other electronic devices are not allowed at or around the dinner table.
- Try to avoid the “happy plate” ideology. Kids need to learn to listen to their bodies and stop eating when they are full. The caveat to this rule - make sure children understand that once they leave the dinner table, the kitchen is closed for the night so they need to eat enough to last until breakfast the next day.
- Try to add various colors and textures (i.e. crunch) to the dinner plate. As you know, a colorful plate can be much more appetizing than the monochromatic breaded chicken, corn and rice plate.
The overall goal for parents should be to keep mealtime from being a battle zone. We as parents have plenty of other battles to engage in on a daily basis with our children. Make sure and check in over the next few weeks as I will be sharing more ideas and approaches for food group specific finicky eaters.