Help for picky eaters: dos and don’ts for parents

Are you struggling with a toddler or child who is a picky eater? Here are some dos and don’ts to help you survive these tricky years.

We all have preferences when it comes to food. But if your child has crossed the bridge into the land of the picky eater, something as normal, enjoyable, and fulfilling as a family meal can instantly become wrought with stress, discord, and unhappiness.

Here are some ways to avoid picky eating at your table and encourage your child toward a healthier, balanced diet.

Do: Offer many options

The ‘it’s my way or the highway’ mentality may not work in your favour when it comes to dealing with a picky eater.

There’s a stubbornness about kids when it comes to food, and your need to get dinner finished and bath time started so you can head to bliss (otherwise known as bed time) is pretty unlikely to stand up to that resolve consistently.

And, as any wise parenting expert would tell you, parenting is largely about consistency. Instead of being a staunch eat this or die activist, consider offering your child a variety of healthful options at meal time. If your child has the ability to make choices, they are more likely to feel in control of the situation and less likely to engage you in a power struggle.

You want them to understand that food is not something to be stressed about, that dinner time is synonymous with happy family time, and eating is more about being healthy than it is about emotional things (like bending to your will). Besides, having a more varied meal will probably result in personal happiness as well.

Do: Allow plenty of snacks

Despite the general wisdom that you should eat three meals a day and not snack in between, some people enjoy a life that is fuelled by grazing.

In fact, it may even be healthier to offer your child frequent, small meals throughout the day. Remember, too, that snacking does not have to include junk food. Make sure that the majority of what you offer is healthy and you can’t really go wrong. No parent ever complained about a kid who ate too many carrots and hummus.

Do: Lead by example

The pickiest parents often create similarly picky children. If you want your child to eat a balanced diet, you need to emulate that lifestyle. If your child constantly sees you turning your nose up at things you don’t like, the chances are they will do the same.

Don’t: Use vegetables as punishment

I can’t even count how many times my parents used the ‘you will eat vegetables for dessert’ threat on me. Vegetables (like reading and other good for your kid’s things) should not be used as punishment.

It’s certainly okay to withhold your child’s post dinner snack if they don’t eat a reasonable amount of their food, but offering cold vegetables hours later, or forcing them to sit at the table until their potatoes au gratin turns gloppy is no way to stamp out their disdain for a healthy food item.

Instead, offer them their meal and, should they decline, remove it and allow them to go on with their day. Remind them that they won’t be able to eat again until the next meal time (meaning no fruit snacks in an hour), at which point serve them whatever fresh item was already on the menu.

Don’t: Confuse sometimes foods for anytime foods

The whim of the toddler is a difficult thing to resist, especially when it comes to food. As parents, we never want our children going hungry. It evokes something primal in us, and you will often see mothers scrambling to offer their children whatever they can find that they’ll eat, just to ensure they have something in their belly.

Kids get that. And, while it’s certainly okay to give your child cheese and carrots with buttered bread every day for lunch for three years straight, it’s less okay to give them Oreo cookies and deep fried corn dogs at the same rate.

Parents can anticipate that their children will develop long term infatuations with foods; it’s in their nature to do so. With that in mind, make sure they develop those infatuations with food you’re okay with them eating by not offering them the alternatives you can’t tolerate on a daily basis.

It’s okay to enjoy Oreos and deep fried corn dogs sometimes, you just need to ensure that your child isn’t allowed to make them sometimes every day at noon.

Don’t: Let stress get you down

As worrying as living with a picky eater can be, it’s important that parents keep in mind that, as is the case with most things, picky eating, if properly discouraged, is likely just a phase.

Don’t let your child’s food refusals frustrate you into giving up. Continue to fight the good food fight, and eventually they will change again and you’ll have a new battle to fight.

You are not alone. Food battles go on in every family’s home during the toddler years. The key to making it through without creating a lifelong picky eater or compromising your child’s nutrition is to remain offering them healthy choices consistently.

Eventually they will move past their toddler-ism and realise that being healthy and eating a balanced diet is not an optional part of life.

Hannah Butler works as a writer for dissertation writing services.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema