Each milestone a growing child reaches is exciting and memorable. When little ones eat solids, parents rejoice in sharing their favorite foods and are excited to see a young eater’s reaction with each fresh bite and flavor. However, if you’re dealing with a picky eater, meals can be worrisome. You want your child nourished with a healthy variety of fruits, vegetables, and proteins, but they may not agree. Luckily, getting a picky eater to eat doesn’t have to be a battle. Read on for a list of ways to get the picky eater in your life to clean their plates. 

Focus on Exploration

A plate of empty food that a picky eater was able to finsh

empty plate” licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr by fr1da

Everything with kids is more fun if you use the element of play. Children learn through play, socialize through play, and take in the world through play. It is only natural to help them experience food through play as well. When you create curiosity and invite exploration, picky eaters are more likely to willingly try a new food. Introduce the item alongside other foods they typically eat, and encourage them to talk about the food. Ask them about the color, the smell, the texture in their hands. You can even create new games with them to show that food is fun. 

If your picky eater has a favorite toy, invite the stuffed animal over to the table for a meal. “Feed” the new food to your child’s toy and have your child feed it too. You’ll see your child’s curiosity pique. 

Refrain From Using Labels

When we use labels with children, we can often inadvertently build walls and provide excuses. This can compound problems later on and reinforce unwanted behaviors. If you say something like “all she eats is mac and cheese,” your child will follow that rule as well. Make sure you encourage your child to eat different things through your words and actions. Instead of focusing on eating habits, focus on the process.

Identify textures that your child likes, and introduce foods using those same textures. Instead of macaroni and cheese, try cauliflower and cheese. If your little one loves French fries, try some veggie fries. They’ll begin to see that food is versatile and will be more accepting of different flavors and textures. 

Don’t Use Food as a Reward

Don’t make food a reward by saying things like “If you eat your vegetables you will get dessert.” This well-intentioned action has adverse effects. When you use one food as a reward over the others, you unintentionally place more value on the “reward” food and show the child the sweet food is what they should crave and work toward. Instead, try offering everything from the meal at once, including dessert. When you provide dessert on the plate along with the rest of the meal, children see that dessert is just part of the meal, and it holds the same value. 

Even away from the table, try not to offer sweets as a reward for good behavior. Giving candy, something labeled as bad for nutrition, for doing something good sends mixed signals. Instead of candy or food, offer something of high value to provide children with incentive. Stickers and coloring books are fun rewards for good behavior and won’t create bad eating habits later on. Food isn’t a reward, but a means of nourishment. 

Make Meals Relaxing

A meal should be an invitation, not a requirement. When parents focus on forcing a child to eat, the child will naturally resist. Instead of forcing a child to eat everything on their plate, make sure everything on the plate has some solid nutritional value. In that way, no matter what your child eats, they will be getting some vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and grow strong. 

As you eat, you can discuss the different nutritional values of each item, and explain the importance of things like vitamin C, protein, or calcium. Your picky eater might be young, but as they grow, they will learn that food isn’t just about flavor, but about keeping healthy. Connect food and meals to learning and bonding. As your picky eater develops and learns, their eating habits will adjust and grow as well.

Offer Variety

Provide children with different opportunities to try new foods. Giving variety provides children with choices and increases the chances that they will eat a more varied diet and try new food. Try changing up the menu to show children the different ways they can prepare food and help them learn that flexibility is key. Children are creatures of habit, so if you always serve peanut butter and jelly for lunch, that will become their expectation. When you stop, they will resist. Change things up, be unpredictable, and they will respond with an open mind. 

Another option is to offer the same food in a variety of different dishes, with different flavors, and at different times. According to the CDC, it normally takes picky eaters ten or more times trying a new food before they like it. Taste buds regenerate about every two weeks, so even if they didn’t like a food twenty days ago, they may like it later. 

Make It a Process

Children love to be included in everything. Make meal time less about the meal and more about the process. Have a picky eater prepare the food with you. They can season the food with some salt, help you wash the veggies, or mix up the salad. Teach your picky eater to set the table and show them that a meal is about being together and having great conversation. When you take the focus off of the food, the entire experience becomes more enjoyable and children will intrinsically develop a more varied palate and healthier eating habits. 

Getting a picky eater to eat healthy and to enjoy their food doesn’t have to be a battle. You want an inviting atmosphere that helps a little one learn to eat and explore food in a way that is fun and exciting. Here at Crème de la Crème, we focus on supporting parents in providing their children with the best possible childhood and preparing them for a successful future. Contact us for your childcare needs so we can work together to help your picky eater succeed in all things.