I hear it time and again, “How do you get your child to eat?”.
As a mom of veggie lover adventurers and a nutrition advocate I can tell you no parent has ever said, “feeding kids healthy is easy” including myself. I can also tell you the time and energy you put into their health is worth every minute. As a nutrition student I have read countless scientific studies and articles about picky and selective eating. I know first hand this is the challenge standing between parents and children who love healthy food. Here I would love to share with you some great tools and information I have gathered around the way to help shift and prevent long term picky eating.
Did you know that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the age of 5? The brain is far more impressionable in early life than in maturity. Therefore, the decisions and experiences your child has in the first 5 years can shape them for a lifetime. There have been many factors proven to impact the development in the first fives years, which include: daily experiences, environment, sleep, parent responsiveness/interactions, nutrition, physical activity, play, genetics and love. I firmly believe early childhood is the best time to invest in teaching children the value of their health and why healthy eating is important. It has been proven that if you teach kid about health, read stories, talk about the importance, read about healthy food, and provide education on healthy food…kids will make healthier choices. It is important to teach children that food is the information and energy the body needs to function, grow and thrive.
Studies also confirm that food experiences in a child’s first 2 years of life predict dietary variety in school-aged children. As a result, the time and effort you put in now will pay off in the many years to come.
Here are 20 ways to prevent picky eating or change your picky eater’s habits. Many of these guidelines are proven by extensive research and will prepare your child for a lifetime of healthy eating:
Patience. Accept that shifting eating habits is a marathon, not a sprint. If your child has cultivated a habit of picky or selective eating through much of their lives, it will take time to make changes.
Accepting that it takes time and hard work to shift a behavior is the first step. It did not take a matter of days for these behaviors to form, therefore you need to give adequate time to see changes. If you have an older child who has been eating this way for some time, start out with one or two shifts at a time. With patience and commitment, great change will come. If your child is just starting out their food journey, congrats as you have the opportunity to start from the beginning with great habits.
Define health as a family and make this a part of your family conversation
Healthy can mean a variety of things to different people. Food and lifestyle choices have a major impact on your health, but what are you trying to achieve with good health? It is important to discuss what healthy means to your family and help give your children a clear picture as to why your family values health. This will give children a framework for making a lifetime of good choices.
Here is what the most recent conversation looks like with our 4 year old:
“Healthy means being able to do the monkey bars and climbing the ladder to the slide. Healthy is having energy to smile and laugh. Healthy is singing and dancing with my sister. Healthy is building my worlds with blocks and writing my letters. Healthy is being with my family. Healthy is playing family with my friends.”
Ask yourself, “What does health mean to my family?”
Build a connection between health and food
Food provides the information for all the moving parts of your body. It also provides the energy children need. Build a connection between understanding what healthy means and how to nurture health. Help children understand the correlation between putting food into their body and what they get out of their body. This will equip them with the information they need to make their own great choices. Another great tool can be children’s books about food and health. Through stories, children can build a stronger connection. Check out our favorite kids books about food and health on our reading list here. Visit your local library and ask your librarian about their favorite books about food and health.
Accept responsibility that we as parents control the what, when and where. The children decide how much, if they are going to participate, and which of the what they are going to eat.
On of my favorite pediatricians once told me, “a toddler will not starve themselves”. This was a great reminder as a new mom who was at one time eager to get calories into my children, versus quality food. With a discerning preschooler and selective toddler it can feel overwhelming to put energy towards new foods realizing that there is a likely chance they will not even consider participating. I cannot tell you how many meals I have prepared and presented that were left untouched by their little fingers! I celebrate the wins and use the next meal as a chance to start fresh. I resist the desire to become a short order cook and prepare something else. If their lack of participation leaves them hungry between meals, I ensure that their choice outside of the healthy meal I created are healthy, nourishing snacks. Offering a healthy snack will give them what they need, and allow them a fresh start at the next meal. As Michael Pollen once said, “if your not hungry enough to eat an apple, your not hungry”. If in between meals you provide them with sugary, refined and processed foods…it will be hard to convince them to participate in healthy foods. When unhealthy snacks are a regular occurrence, you will find kids waiting for snacks to fulfill their calories and opting out of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
WHAT: If you want your children to make healthy choices, you must offer them healthy choices. You absolutely get to decide what your child eats. If you bring unhealthy options into your home and to the table, your child will eat these unhealthy options. You are the gatekeeper in your home. It is key to develop their palettes to have a preference for healthy foods like fiber filled vegetable, this starts with your choices from day one.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner: When building a meal try offering 1-2 things you know your child loves, and a healthy food you are not positive they will enjoy.
Snack Time: All snacks are not created equal. This is another opportunity to provide nourishing, healthy food. Use the same critical considerations when building snack habits. Try to emphasize vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and whole grains. You can enjoy refined snacks such as crackers, pretzels, and bread along with healthy foods, but make these things truly an occasion as in not a daily occurrence. Try to include these foods in moderation.
It is important to allow them to eat as much as their bodies are telling they need, if you are offering healthy foods then the amount should not be a concern. Try to allow them to guide their bodies and decide what feels like the right amount of food. They need to develop their ability to figure out when they are full. Instead of focusing on how much they are eating, ask them if their belly feels full. Give them the language and knowledge to learn to understand what this might feel like.
WHEN: It is important to build consistency around mealtimes. Mealtimes need to be predictable so children know what to expect and can eat accordingly. It is often confusing for young children if snack time doesn’t have a clear beginning and end. If they are snacking most days until dinner, it is not surprising they do not have an appetite for dinner. Snack times that last a long time can then distract from eating the healthy meals you have planned for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Try to have a clear routine where snack time has a beginning and an end. Of course it is important to remember children have growth spurts so there may be days and weeks where they require more food than others. If their growth spurt leads to snack time carrying on, be sure the snacks you are offer are healthy. In addition, if you are out and about or there are distractions from a proper meal or snack time…this does not mean you can’t move away from your consistent schedule. Allow flexibility when necessary. It is just a good framework to have a general schedule so that young children understand what to expect.
I usually recommend a schedule that looks something like this, give or take depending on your child’s sleep schedule:
7:00 /8:00am Breakfast
10:00am Healthy Snack
3:00pm Healthy Snack
WHERE: What do you want mealtime to look like in your home? If you hope to have your child sit down during meals, make this a part of your routine and habits for as many meals as possible starting from a young age. Sitting down at a table for mealtime prevents choking and builds consistency. Structure mealtime so that it is focused around social interaction and nourishing your body. Try to remove distractions like television, cell phones and technology. Mealtime can be an incredibly transformative times for family, so when possible try to sit down together. It is important to consider from the beginning what you hope family meal looks like. It is much easier to convince a 7 month old to sit down and have a meal, then it is to convince a 3 and 4 year old to stay seated. If you set the expectation and habit from the beginning, it will be easier to carry this through as they are older. Set your child up for success by creating a comfortable place where your family can eat together. Having adequate seating that allows your children to reach the table comfortably can help them learn to sit still and focus on a meal. At our house we have found our children are much more successful sitting at an adult table with appropriate seats for their height. They are easily distracted when sitting at a kid table and it is much easier to get up from a kid’s table and start walking around the room. See what works best of your family.
If your child is older and you hope to make this a part of your routine, have a conversation about this with your children. Explain to them why you think it is important to sit together as a family. Give them time to understand these expectations. If they are used to being on the go, start with gentle expectations. Consider it a win if they stay seated for 5 to 10 minutes, set a timer and celebrate their success. Slowly extend the time. Do not be afraid to set clear boundaries around mealtime. For now on we are going to eat dinner sitting at a table together. When you step away from the table, dinner time is over until you resume your seat at the table. When possible model this behavior, if your child sees you walking around the room always eating…they will want to do the same.
CHILDREN DECIDE THE HOW MUCH AND WHAT THEY WILL PARTICIPATE IN: So you have done a great job considering the what, where and when for meals and snack time. You have begun having great conversations about the value of health and how food nurtures health. You have created a great environment for mealtime. Now you step back and allow them to decide what they will eat and how much. Set the meal in front of them and try to remove your influence from the experience. Gentle conversation through out the meal can be inserted, but the key word is gentle. Talk about how much you enjoy certain parts of it, how grateful you are for the food, how much energy it will give you to accomplish parts of your day, and how you hope they take the time to get the energy they need for their day with more specific details that are relevant to your child. Give them the space and control to eat during mealtime without stress.
Give up the power struggle
Power struggles have a negative effect on their relationship with food. Do not try to force your child to eat anything as this can create larger issues later. You can build language around trying new foods that fits your family values. It is also important for children to learn that they cannot decide if they like something if they do not try. You can try to create positive family values around the idea of trying new foods at least once. This does not mean you force the child to try, but you can gently encourage them. Show them your willingness to try new things. Read books and tell stories from your experience about the importance of trying new things and try to foster this value as a family. Try to remove any form of punishment and bribery from their relationship with food as this can lead to adverse relationships with food. The only form of bribery, should be your honest celebration of their accomplishments, such as:
Zoey, I can’t believe you ate all of your carrots, you are going to have a lot of energy this afternoon when we hit the playground.
Variety is important. Avoid only preparing their favorite foods.
Research clearly indicates that variety leads to an increase in acceptance of fruits and vegetables. Ensure mealtimes offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds to expand their palette. Avoid only preparing their favorite foods as they will build a preference for only these foods. This habit will only further perpetuate picky and selective eating. Being a short order cook reinforces neophobic behaviors around food.
Children need 8-2o experiences with a new food before they can begin to enjoy.
It takes 8-10 exposures for a child to accept a new food. Sometimes even as many as 20 times to enjoy a new food. Keep trying, don’t give up. Children are physiologically wired to reject new foods, it is believe this is how children in early civilization protected their bodies from poisonous food. Increase the exposure of new foods not only during mealtimes, but also during snack times. Research has confirmed offering the food in a variety of environments can increase acceptance. Take the new food out to the park during snack time, offer it at the dinner table, and prepare it in different ways.
Parents often feel frustrated when a child does not accept a new food that a parent has spent time preparing. It is normal for parents to give up too soon, but try not to take the lack of early excitement as personal. It is important to give your children many exposures and give them the time and space to fall in love with these new foods. Children will not learn to love every food, over time they will establish a preference. Ensure you give them adequate time to find their preference. I have met many children that for the majority of their lives did not enjoy a food they were offered over and over again, and then when offered months later this food became one of their favorites. So even if you have tried 20 times, don’t be afraid to come back to this food later and try again. If your child does not enjoy after many exposures, you accept their preference. If this is a food others in your family enjoy, continue to prepare this food at mealtimes and enjoy.
Offer small portions, this allows children to finish and ask for more. Giving them a great sense of accomplishment.
Remember their stomachs are the size of their fist. If you offer your child smaller portions on their plate it allows them to finish and ask for more. This feeling of accomplishment will be a total win all around.
Appetites will shift with age, this is developmentally appropriate.
From 0 to 2 years old is a period of rapid growth. From age 2 to 5 they are still growing, but the rapid growth will slow down. Their eating habits will shift as their rapid growth slows down. In most cases, unless otherwise advised by your pediatrican, you do not be concerned about the amount of food they are eating. In most cases toddlers will eat when necessary in order to grow. Stay focused on your values around healthy eating. Their bodies will tell them how much they need to eat based on where they are in their development. A drop in food intake, does not uusually mean you need to change gears.
Picky eating can be developmentally appropriate. Stay the course and remain relatively stress free. This too shall pass.
As children learn to navigate the world they are trying to understand what is within their control. In early childhood there are stages of development in which children often experiment with their control over food. This is developmentally appropriate. What is important is that you do not create new bad habits in response to this development stage. Try to resist the urge to become a short order cook preparing whatever their heart desires. Keep steady with your values around eating. Offer 1-2 things you know they enjoy and keep offering other things during mealtime that they might not necessarily want. Try to remain consistent. If your child decides to not participate in a mealtime, it is likely she will be ready to participate at the next. Allow them to experiment with this control and try to leave your personal stress and concern for their eating out of the equation. Remember, most toddlers will not starve themselves.
Be a role model, practice what you preach.
Children learn by modeling the behavior of their parents. You are wondering why it is hard to get your little one to sit still at the table during mealtime, do you sit down with them at mealtime and model this behavior? You want them to eat more veggies, do you sit down with them and eat your veggies?
Kids eat what you eat. Resist the urge to become a short order cook and create kid specific food.
I strongly believe there is no such thing as kid food. From day one children’s food offerings should reflect the eating traditions of your family. You want them to learn to eat the same variety of foods that you eat as adults. This in the long run will make your life easier as you do not need to get into the habit of creating two meals at mealtime. With a little creativity you can meet the needs of your little one while meeting your own mealtime needs. Offering a variety of foods at a young age will ensure they grow up to have a diverse palette. Do not be afraid to include flavor and spices, as no one really enjoys bland food. Develop their palette from day one. Create one dinner and let them know this is the only options available for that one dinner.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, eat a variety of healthy food. Children’s palettes being developing in the womb and at the breast while breastfeeding.
A child’s first experiences begin in the womb. The flavors of the foods you eat are transferred to the baby through the amniotic fluid. Early exposures to a diverse amount of healthy food will develop a child’s palette for preferences for these foods. Their flavor profile is developed further during breastfeeding. Flavors and nutrients are transferred from mother to baby, allowing another great opportunity to develop a preference for a healthy variety of food. Studies continue to prove that a variety of healthy foods during pregnancy and nursing leads to greater acceptance of desired foods. Reminding us that it is important to make great choices as mothers while carrying and nursing our children.
Eliminate as many distractions as possible during meal and snack time.
Unhealthy foods or foods with little nutritional value can often be a distractions for children. It is hard to make good choices when these foods are available in abundance. Refined grains like bread, pretzels, crackers raise blood sugar quickly versus their counterparts made of whole grains. This dramatic response from blood sugar naturally increases your desired to eat more of these foods. This is why these foods can often become a distraction from healthier choices. Other foods that can be distractions include anything with sugar, processed foods with additives, and juices. It is natural for children to gravitate towards foods that give them a biochemical response. Removing these foods from mealtime will allow them to focus on healthier choices. There is a time and place for foods like this, but it is important to remember that foods like refined grains, sugar, and processed foods do not offer the same nutritional value as their whole food, unrefined counterparts. Try to offer these types of foods in moderation.
Milk can also distract from healthy foods filled with fiber. If your family enjoys drinking milk, offer milk at the end of the dinner. Milk before a meal can leave a child feeling full with little room for the rest of their food.
Television, iPads, and cell phones can be great distractions from quality mealtimes. Studies continue to find that children who do not watch TV during mealtime consume more vegetables and fruits. Studies have also found children are more like to be obese, consume a diet high in sugar, and are distracted from reading their own biological cues about food when watching television during mealtimes. Try to take advantage of mealtime as a great quality time with your family. There have been countless benefits for children who have the opportunity to connect with their families at mealtime.
Keep it on the plate: keep offering a variety of foods and keep putting it on their plate regardless of preference.
Consider it a win if you can get new foods on their plate and even if you think they do not like it…keep offering it. If your family enjoys broccoli, and they never eat it, keep trying. You might be amazed one day they might decide to give it a try again. Over time children’s taste buds change and shift and a food they may avoid could easily become a favorite food a few months later. It is much easier to get in the habit of offering the less than desirable choices on their plate from a young age, then to convince a 3 year old who has clearly decides broccoli is the worst food on earth to allow it to take up space on their plate. For parents of older kids, I am not saying it can’t be done. If your older child will not allow it on their plate, try talking about it with them. Continue to emphasize trying new things, and that new thing can simply be allowing room for something new on their plate.
It can be incredibly compelling to use treats as a reward, but this can easily lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. It reinforces the idea that kids deserve sugar and empty calories for their good behaviors. It is also easy to see providing sugary treats to little ones as a form of giving love. Try to reverse this conversation and see providing healthy habits and foods to your children as a form of love instead. Many of us have developed our own unhealthy relationship with food or sugar as a rewards. This is your chance to not pass these behaviors to your children. It is not surprising that your child will continue wanting more and more when sugar involved. Sugar is addictive and provides a clear biochemical response, which leaves the body craving more. It is only natural that children desire more and develop cravings. Also remember that when your children indulge on sugar on a regular basis it shifts their tastebuds become conditioned to crave sugar. Try to remember creating healthy boundaries around sugar, does not mean you do not love your child.
If this isn’t enough to consider, remember that sugar can lower immune function, lead to obesity, fill a child up on empty calories, leave them hungry and tired, as well as make them irritable and hyperactive. I think we could all agree these are things we hope to avoid with our children.
Try to find other positive, healthy rewards for good eating behaviors. Talk about how much they are growing, how fast they are running, how high they can climb at the playground, how much energy they have through the day, how high they jump, how far they can make it across the monkey bars. Remind them when they are filled with energy and great behavior that there must be a connection between their great morning and their morning breakfast.
Consider a more predictable or unpredictable routine for treats. Some families of older kids choose days that begin with the letter “S” for sugary treats. This takes the guessing and power struggle out of the experience. Other families enjoy treats truly on occasion, such as once a week. Breaking the daily routine of sugar is hard at first, but when it becomes something that is not tied to mealtime or a daily routine you might find they start asking less. These families get in the routine of not tying treats to behaviors. Children and adults who do not eat a lot of sugar, do not crave as much sugar. You can also consider healthier treat options such as dates, prunes, dried fruit or foods that are sweetened with dates, maple syrup or honey. Sugar can cause adverse reactions and behaviors for many children, so these healthier alternatives can be great options.
Cutting back on sugar is something that can benefit the entire family. An easy place to start is cutting out foods with added sugar, read labels and inform yourself. You might be surprised how many of your packaged foods have snuck additional sugar in. Another consideration is removing foods with sugar from your home, and only bringing sugar in for intentional occasions. It is very easy to say no to cookies and candy, when there aren’t any cookies or candy in the house. Save sugar for the true “treats”. From there you can cut back on treats. Try to remember if your family has come to enjoy sugar not in moderation, it will take time to shift this behavior. Talk to your children about these changes. Consciously explain to them how you are all changing together, why you think it is important. I truly believe if children continue to receive the information, they will learn to make healthy choices on their own. It will likely be less painful if you gradually make changes in your sugar routine. Do expect push back and know that in time behaviors will changes as children learn to understand new expectations.
There is a time and place for other foods you might enjoy. Potato chips, french fries, or whatever your other favorite diversion might be. Make room for these as a family and come to place where you enjoy these foods in moderation. Shifting eating habits towards healthy choices does not mean you always have to say no to sugar and fried foods.
Make it fun. Mealtime should be a stress free, fun time with family.
Mealtime is a time for enjoying family and connecting. While you can infuse discussion around why we eat healthy food, it is important to remove the stress and pressure so that children can make their own choices about participating. Creating these positive experiences will go a long way in cultivating a life long healthy appetite. Spend meals having conversations that are no centered around eating.
Get kids involved at the grocery store, farmers market and cooking in the kitchen. While sometimes this can seem daunting, it is worth the investment of your time. Let your little one help you pick out the produce at the grocery store or farmer market, allow them to open the pea shells and pull out all the peas, find a kid friendly knife and let them practice cutting while you are preparing dinner, let them pull the green stems off the cherry tomatoes, they can easily toss the ingredients into the blender and turn it on with supervision. Taking responsibility for the work that goes into preparing health food will increase their participation in eating it. There are jobs big and small that little ones of all ages can participate in. Click here to check out our ideas on cooking with kids.
Show gratitude and appreciation for your food.
Showing gratitude and appreciation for food can increase children’s overall opinion and willingness to participate in eating healthy food. Celebrate the hard work that made it possible to get food on the table. Give thanks for the farmers, the grocery store owners, the cooks, and anyone who made it possible to put meals on the table. Showing that you value food that is not always available to many will build a healthy relationship that does not allow children to take food for granted. Consider volunteering at your local food bank or organization that provides food to families in need.
It is important to try new things. Embrace and model this behavior for your children.
It is especially important for children to try new foods. I can honestly say I personally at times find cooking with new foods intimidating. When I moved from suburban Pittsburgh to San Francisco, I was surprised to find so many vegetables I had never head of. Parsnips, rainbow chard, kale, sun-chokes…it was as if California spoke a different language. Learning to step outside my comfort zone and experiment in the kitchen lead me to fall in love with nutrition. My education started at the farmers markets and grocery stores. I am sure many parents can relate to the hesitation about trying new foods and empathize with your children. Share your experiences and stories with your children, help them understand that you have experienced the same feelings. Show them your willingness to try new foods with them.
At times I still find myself afraid to try new things, very much like my children. With a discerning preschooler and selective toddler, it can feel overwhelming to put energy towards new foods realizing that there is a likely chance they will not even consider participating. I cannot tell you how many meals I have prepared and presented that were left untouched by their little fingers.
Yet with consistent research emphasize 10-20 experiences for a child to enjoy something new, I keep trying new foods. In addition, studies consistently show by limiting the food offered to children to only foods you know they love, we are only further perpetuating selective and picky eating. Equipped with this knowledge, I do not let those untouched meals stop us from trying new things. Try together as a family to build values around embracing new things. Children’s books can help reinforce this idea, here is a great list of children books to help inspire your children to try new things.
Give children choices.
Shifting eating habits is not about showing children you are in control. If you lay the ground work by educating them on the whys and the connection between our bodies and food, allow them room to make great choices. Children are more likely to participate when they have choices. The choices can often all fit within your values around healthy food, but give them options. For a snack present them with 2-3 choices so they feel in control and empowered. At times you can give them room to make less than desirable choices as there is a time and place for everything. Giving them room once in a while, removes the power struggle.
Do you have any additional tips and tricks to prevent or change picky and selective eating? If so comment below and share with the community by commenting below. Feel free to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org