By Vesanto Melina, MS RD and Kristen Yarker, MSc RD
As many parents can attest, toddlers and preschoolers typically go through a stage where they become picky eaters. Whereas some are picky from the start, for others the pickiness starts suddenly. A meal that has been served many times before is set in front of the child and it’s met with “Yuck! I hate that!”–and a refusal to eat.
While there’s no way to “cure” picky eating, certain strategies can minimize the situation and, without being forceful or sneaky, you can create a climate of willingness to try new foods and share in family meals. These approaches build a foundation of good nutrition for your child and instil life-long healthy eating habits.
Make mealtimes pleasant. This is also called “being good company”. While many practical tips can work, they won’t unless the right foundation is in place. They may even (unintentionally) make the situation worse. Being good company is the base upon which other strategies can be built. This involves choosing to talk about any (pleasant) topic except what food is and isn’t being eaten. Yes, this means avoiding the topic that is so easy to let come out of your mouth: “Eat two more bites of your peas”. Naturally, you want your child to eat what you’ve prepared, yet saying it only backfires. As the saying goes, your actions speak louder than words. You made the meal and put it in front of your child. It’s obvious (even to little ones) that you want them to eat it. Nothing need be said.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s difficult to have the requisite patience when your little one rejects a food that you’d really like them to eat. But studies show that the more times you present an item, the more likely it is that she or he will eat it. Studies also indicate that while it takes, on average, ten times before a child will try a new food, parents usually give up after five offerings.
Allow touching, smelling, licking, and spitting out. All of these activities let a child get to know the food. For many little ones, putting a food in their mouth is a very intimate action. Encourage them to explore sensory aspects of the food; in these ways they work themselves up to swallowing it.
Be a healthy eating role model. Serving a healthy meal and role modeling eating (and enjoying) it sends the message loud and clear that you want your child to eat the food. The number one way to guarantee that your kids won’t eat vegetables is by not eating vegetables yourself. Role modeling is especially important for the parent of the same gender. For example, little boys quickly learn that ‘boys don’t eat vegetables’ if Mom eats veggies but Dad doesn’t.
Vesanto Melina is co-author (with Brenda Davis) of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Express Edition; given star rating by the American Library Association as “the go-to book” on vegan nutrition, finalist for a ForeWord Book of the Year award in the U.S. and winner of a 2014 Canada Book Award.
Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (also with Brenda Davis) is a new and fully referenced version, for health professionals. Also see https://becomingvegan.ca/reviews-2/ and www.nutrispeak.com
Kristen Yarker is known as “The Dietitian Who Transforms Picky Eaters into Food Confident Kids”. From introducing solids through the picky eating years, she helps Moms and Dads be confident that they’re giving their kids good nutrition and instilling a life-long LOVE of healthy eating. Get scientific evidence-based answers to real questions from real parents (recipes too!) Sign up for her 101 Healthy Snack Ideas at: vitaminkconsulting.com.