We’ve all experienced it: the transformation of that babbling baby who happily ate all of the baby food groups into the terrible toddler who only wants to eat crackers.
Every parent deals with picky eaters because every child goes through a picky eating phase.
Of course, some children take picky eating to more of an extreme level than others! Our firstborn was easy, our second was challenging, and our third and fourth (twins) offered another perspective altogether.
Nevertheless, how we react to this picky eater phase (much like any other phase) helps determine whether our children remain stuck in that phase or whether they grow through it.
Thus, I offer you these picky eater tips based on my thirteen-plus years of parenting so far.
6 Principles for Picky Eaters
1. Decide ahead of time where you’ll draw the line and stick to it!
If you first set out with the goal of having your child eat all of her veggies and later decided that’s too difficult, your child may see this as a sign of weakness. Any sign of weakness will lead to a doubled effort on the child’s part to break you – seriously. At the first glimpse of weakness, your tiny tyrant will “seize the day” and your picky eaters will suddenly become that much more difficult.
2. Use the “Try at least one bite” rule
This rule came directly from my mother, and I find it very suitable still. At our house, the kids are not allowed to turn down an entire plate of food, especially something new, without even tasting it. Even now that they are older, every food group must be at least tasted before they are allowed to reject it.
When he was a toddler, our middle child became so adept at turning down food, that I feared he would be adversely affected. However, when I mentioned my mommy fears to our seasoned pediatrician, he just smiled knowingly and kindly pointed out that my toddler was perfectly chubby and wasn’t going to “starve” any time soon. It was our doctor’s obvious revelation that gave me permission to wait our strong-willed toddler out. Here’s the doctor-approved technique we used:
- Offer the plate several times, giving the child a few minutes to try in between. Be on your toes during this phase. If it lasts too long, you’re likely to experience the ceremonial dumping of the plate. 😉
- If the food is repeatedly refused, take it away and end mealtime altogether. (This step will prevent much frustration for everyone – including older children – and can even prevent irritations such as plate dumping, fit throwing, cup tossing, etc.)
- Remove child from highchair or table with the reminder that the food will be waiting when he or she is hungry.
- Cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate if necessary.
- Re-heat whenever the child asks for food and offer plate again. If your child is very strong-willed and you don’t want to reheat the food often, show the child the plate. Tell the child if he or she is hungry, this is what he or she can have. If he or she immediately refuses, don’t even bother re-heating.
- If the food is again refused, put it back in the fridge.
- Repeat cycle until the child eats (how much is up to you) or until bedtime. Most children will break down and eat it when they get hungry enough. However, I once re-heated a plate FIVE times within the space of two hours for our middle child. So, don’t be surprised if your child continues to test until the process is well-established!
- Important Note: absolutely NO snacks or milk should be given in the meantime (only water). This was per our pediatrician’s advice, and it makes sense. A glass of milk is more than enough to satisfy hunger pains for an hour or two, especially for small children. By caving in with a little bit of milk or even a single cracker, you will undo all of your hard work thus far. (Obviously if your child has a medical condition that does not allow for depriving them, follow your own doctor’s advice.)
- Above all, be consistent! I cannot emphasize that enough. Once we started using this technique, we rarely had to employ it after the first few victories. Toddlers and Preschoolers alike are quick to learn when we are consistent in our parenting.
*Disclaimer: this technique doesn’t work as well when that stubborn toddler becomes a sly four-year-old. One day, we set out the plate at lunch time and had to put it back in the fridge. We got it out at snack time and put it back. We got it back out at supper time and put it back. We got it out once more at bedtime, at which point my son grinned wickedly and said, “But I won’t have to eat it for breakfast.” Well-played, son, well-played. I decided to let him have his small victory, but he still went to bed hungry. It hasn’t happened since then. 🙂
*Disclaimer #2: This technique should only be used for healthy children! Please see the note of caution at the end of the article.
3. Create a test
Especially for your picky eaters, create a test to see if your child is truly full, or if they just don’t want to eat what’s in front of them. If our children are asking for more of something they liked (or for dessert), but they haven’t eaten the other items on their plates, I ask them to finish the majority of the other items first.
For example, our daughter loooooves bread. When presented with a plate of half of a sandwich, fruit, and fresh veggies, she will often eat the bread and the fruit, leaving the meat and the veggies. Then, she’s likely to ask for more bread or more fruit. We make her eat the majority of what she left behind (the meat and veggies) before giving her more of what she desires.
Tip: I use a similar method when my children ask for seconds of an unhealthy treat or snack. “If you’re really still hungry, have some carrots.” If they eat the carrots, they were really hungry and they ate a healthy snack. If not, then they weren’t hungry and just wanted more cake, cookies, etc. Children are often smarter and more devious than we realize!)
4. Use the “take ______more bites” rule.
If one of our children wants to be excused from the table, but I can see they haven’t eaten very much of their meal, or very much of their veggies, I usually insist on at least a few more bites. I only do this if they’ve eaten less than half of the portion. Most times, they are able to stomach at least a few bites of whatever food group they’ve chosen to reject.
Start with a lower number of bites and then increase the amount as they grow older. An alternate method would be to divide the portion in half and ask them to eat only one half. This method works well with older children.
*Disclaimer: if your child is visibly gagging on the food, think long and hard about whether or not you want to clean up a pile of puke before you choose to enforce this rule. I’ve learned through experience that sometimes, they just CAN’T eat the foods we’d like them to – it’s not a matter of disobedience or control, but rather an uncontrollable physical response to a particular taste or texture. Again, see the note of caution at the end of the article.
5. Make it fun!
Remember when your stubborn child was a smiling baby and you would makes spoonfuls of baby food into airplanes, or choo-choo trains, etc.? Remember that baby smushing food on the high chair tray and running a finger through piles of goo? But to the stubborn toddler we say, “quit playing with your food” or “sit still and take a bite.”
Now, I’m all for table manners, but somewhere along the line, we parents often quit making food fun! If you make food fun, or even the eating experience itself fun, your child is likely to stay at the table longer and eat more of that healthy food you worked so hard to prepare (or at least arrange on a plate). How do I make food fun, you ask? Tune in tomorrow for a short post on Making Food Fun! 🙂
6. Be patient
OR…. Win the war, not the battle. Naturally, patience is the last thing on your mind when your picky child dumps his or her plate for the second, third.. seventy-fifth…time of the day. Many of my most desperate prayers for patience were inspired by mealtime battles with our middle child. However, take a moment to remind yourself that this is only a phase. You may lose battles here and there, but the goal is to win the war!
In retrospect, I think the mantra for all mamas of small children should be, “This too shall pass” because it is true. The parenting problems that so often seem unbearable today will be gone tomorrow, replaced by a new phase with its own set of problems.
If we can keep the years of picky eating in perspective, we realize that there is no need to stress about our children’s eating habits. All we can do is our best to encourage them to make healthy eating choices, and then we have to trust God with the rest.
If you’re looking for tips specifically on how to include veggies in the diet without a fuss, read our 9 Ways to Sneak In Veggies!
I hope you find these picky eater tips helpful. If you have a tip to share with the rest of us, leave a comment!
*Reader Kimberly makes an excellent point – if your child is extremely picky, please consult your physician! There may be underlying physical issues, such as food allergies or intolerances, that are causing the trouble. Thanks, Kimberly! 🙂
Enjoyed this article? Check out this post on how to keep those picky eaters happy during meal-prep.