Do you have a picky eater in your family?

Here are a few ideas for helping your child transition to a healthier diet, contributed by Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring of Laptop Lunches.

Prepare your child. Talk with your child about nutrition and the importance of developing a healthy body. Together, come up with a family plan, including a list of steps the family wants to take to transition to a more healthful diet. Post the list in a place where everyone can see it.

Think Positively. If your child sees you enjoying these changes, he will be more likely to join in.

Involve your child. Children of all ages can help with menu planning, shopping, and preparing meals. Children who feel they have had a part preparing the meal will be more likely to eat it.

Introduce a wide variety of foods. Offer a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Offer a few teaspoons of each at every dinner. Even if your child eats only two bites, he will understand that these are the foods that make up a healthy diet. When he/she starts wanting more than two bites, expand your offerings to include more foods. As your child grows, increase serving sizes.

Experiment with old favorites. Offer a new food with a familiar one. Applaud adventurous eating.

Offer the same food prepared in different ways. Offer foods alone and prepared in combination with other ingredients. Cut foods in different ways. Try carrot sticks one day and carrot coins another.

Don’t Give Up. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many children will not accept a new food until it has been offered at least ten times. Continue to offer new foods until your child considers them familiar.

Introduce foods one bite or several bites at a time. Some children become overwhelmed by large quantities of food on their plate. Others will feel more successful if they can finish a small quantity of food you have provided, so keep portions small.

Serve vegetables and new foods as an appetizer. If vegetables and new foods are served last or with other foods, children can easily fill themselves up and leave vegetables behind. Start dinner, for example, with two green beans and two carrots or a green salad as a starter. When everyone has finished their, serve the rest of the meal. Consider serving fruits with the meal or saving them for dessert.

Institute the “two-bite” rule by eating two bites of each item on their plate. Explain that our tastes change as we grow up and what we didn’t like last week we may like this week. Explain, too, that eating a variety of food builds stronger, happier bodies. Remember that children’s food preferences change frequently. What they don’t like on Wednesday might be a great hit on Friday or vice versa.

Consider the possible unspoken meanings of “I don’t like it.” “I don’t like it” might really mean “I’d rather have a piece of chocolate cake” or “I’m not in the mood for that right now.” Insist on the two-bite rule.

Don’t become a short-order cook. Prepare only one meal for the entire family. At first your child may refuse to eat dinner. Remain calm, stand firm, and ignore tantrums. Your child will not die of hunger from skipping a meal, but will likely come to the next meal with a healthy appetite and a willingness to eat what is served. Allow each family member to plan one dinner a week. Doing so will ensure that everyone has at least one dinner to look forward to.

Don’t make a big deal when your child rejects a food. Stay cool and reaffirm the boundaries you have established by insisting that your child eat two bites before leaving the table. Don’t let your child engage you in a power struggle.

Give your child a choice. Give your child some choices within the boundaries you establish. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want for lunch?” ask “Would you like a sandwich, or a quesadilla?”

Do not completely forbid certain foods. Forbidden foods can quickly become the foods of greatest desire. At school, for example, children are more likely to trade for foods that are not allowed at home. Allow your children to choose a special food from time to time and let them eat it guilt free. Teach your children the difference between everyday foods and occasional foods. In time, they will start making healthy choices on their own.

Encourage children to bring home their lunch leftovers. Looking at leftover lunches is a great way to get information about your children’s lunch preferences. Find out why certain foods have come back uneaten. Did your child not like it? Was he/she not hungry enough to eat everything in the lunchbox? Was there a birthday celebration at school that day? Did he/she share someone else’s lunch instead? Maintain a dialogue without criticizing. Consider making a list of foods that your child likes to eat for lunch and update it regularly with input from your child. You may find that he/she prefers romaine lettuce to red leaf lettuce. By making this simple change, he/she might start eating salads more regularly. Providing a dip for carrot and celery sticks might make eating them more fun.

Avoid food rewards. Neither dessert nor candy should be used as a punishment or enticement. Rather, you must establish and enforce rules for when and how many treats will be consumed.

Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring are the founders of Laptop Lunches, an ingenious system for storing and transporting food. This helps parents provide their children with healthy lunches from home while cutting down on the enormous waste of packaged foods. To find out more, visit Laptop Lunches.

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15 Responses to “Do you have a picky eater in your family?”

  1. I’m broadening my cooking horizons into vegetarian recipes. Need to brush up if I’m going to impress in the kitchen.more about easy vegetarian recipes

  2. Julie says:

    Thank you! I have one child who is an extremely picky eater. I’m a a “nearly vegan” mom. These tips are so very practical and insightful, and provide me with comfort in that I’m doing the right thing in making her eat at least one bite of everything off her dinner plate. For the record, her sister and I are not picky, we’ll eat anything that’s vegan! Thank you so much!

  3. Jacki says:

    What is your suggestion for getting children to eat two bites? I can insist until the cows come home, but nothing short of violence will make even ONE bite of a food get into my 4 year olds mouth. He won’t put something he doesn’t want to eat in his mouth because I want him to, no matter the consequence (barring violence, of course). I would love to hear your ideas for this situation? I have had other parents offer similar advice to yours: “I make them eat one bit (or two..whatever)” How?? How do you MAKE him eat a bite?

  4. Nava says:

    Jacki, I just think you are setting yourself up for years-long power struggle. Some kids are OK with the one or two-bite “rule” and others who are stronger willed will test you and push your buttons if they sense it is so important to you.

    When my sons were young, I usually put lots of very simple foods on the table and let them choose whichever they wanted. And because there was only healthy food on the table, it was a win-win. One day they might prefer broccoli and carrots, and the next potatoes and tomatoes, but no matter what, they always ate some fruits and vegetables. They also enjoyed going shopping with me and when old enough, doing some food preparation.

    If you make eating and cooking a joy instead of a power struggle, you will be imparting a great gift to your son. If you make it a pleasure instead of a pain, he’ll pick up on that, too. You can say, “Guess what? You get to help Mommy decide what yummy food we’re going to eat for dinner. Let’s look at these pictures (maybe in a kid’s cookbook) and you can help me find what we need at the store.” Or see some fun ideas here: http://www.vegkitchen.com/kid-friendly-recipes/fun-food-for-young-kids/ — your son can help wash produce, tear lettuce, open packages — use a lot of positive reinforcement; praise him for helping to make dinner and helping to make it so good.

    Kids refuse to eat certain food for goodness knows what mysterious reasons, but I just don’t believe in forcing. The dinner table should be a place for joy and relaxation.

  5. shell says:

    Thanks makes a lot of sense that I couldn’t figure on my own,,, I grew up eating cheeseburgers and mac n cheese. My one kid is super picky so thanks again.

  6. Kate says:

    I general, I agree, but when we “just let them eat what they want” they only choose the grains. And if there are no grains, my two year old just yells, “I don’t like it”, without even trying anything. So are we seriously just suppose to be fine with a child not eating night after night? Or just having a few apple slices or grapes? We’ve been mainly vegan for about 2 months, and after countless recipes, I still have yet to find something my kids like. My 6 year old has lost 4 pounds (already towards bottom of BMI), and my two year old is slowly going down too. I’m staring to really worry about malnurishment and deficiency. Yes, they take vitamins, and yes we usually have a variety of fruits and veggies plus the main item. My two year old is starting to easily bruise, which is usually iron deficiency. I want to embrace veganism, but I’m starting to worry.

  7. Nava says:

    Kate, it sounds like you should see a registered dietician as well as your pediatrician. Your 6 year old should not be losing weight at this age (unless he/she was terribly overweight). The bruising is very concerning, too.

  8. katie says:

    Thank you so much for this post!! I have a VERY picky four year old and I am a vegan. I have been making two meals for us for the last year and a half and I just cannot do it anymore. It has been a power struggle with us for weeks! I love the two bites rule and introducing little teaspoons at a time! I will be trying these techniques!!

  9. Nava says:

    Good luck, Katie. It’s a great gift to our kids to inspire them to be open to new foods and flavors.

  10. Nat says:

    I’ve been a vegetarian (hoping to become vegan) since the new year and have been struggling to get my 3, almost 4, year old to eat what I put on the table. He takes a bite and says yumm so I’m happy about it then he only eats that one piece I give him then runs off. I have been using kid friendly meals as well and nothing works. I always end up giving in and making him a separate meal for him. I think I will take your advice and let him skip a meal so that he comes to te table hungrier and more willing to try new foods.

  11. Nicole says:

    I find that bribery works extremely well :)

  12. Nava says:

    I totally agree. Adult life is set up that way; we need rewards, especially for things we don’t particularly like to do but need to (boring day jobs, tedious family obligations). Why not for kids? I used to bribe my kids all the time when they were young. Thanks for the comment, Nicole!

  13. Nava says:

    Nat, sorry I forgot to reply to you. The authors of this post (Amy and Tammi) have some really good suggestions. If making a separate meal, or a simpler version of what the adults are having is working, I would go with it. These phases always change and are sometimes outgrown. I never did the “two bite rule” as I never wanted meals to be power struggles. Kids’ palates are really different than adults. One strategy I used was to always have several super-simple things to choose from. That worked really well in our family. So it’s a matter of trial and error, and also realizing that what works one week, might not work the next!

  14. Loretta says:

    Thanks for posting this info. I am not vegetarian, but eat very little meat/seafood. I have 2 girls, 10 and 6, both so picky with all foods, sweets included. My younger is a fanatic vegetarian, but I find myself so limited by her pickiness and my inability to make fun vegetarian meals that we all would love! I’ve been making two meals for years and now have declared “no more”!!! Any veg recipe suggestions to ease us into the one meal for all? My husband is totally on board for a more vegetarian diet, and my 10 yr old is too. And I’m all for a little bribing/reward for dessert! (Only if they make it through the meal :-)

  15. Nava says:

    Hi Loretta — thanks for your comment. It is a challenge to get everyone on the same plate, so to speak. It’s great, though, that your husband is on board, so that you won’t have to make three meals, let alone two! There are a couple of resources I’d like to recommend; first of all, VegKitchen’s Veg Kids and Teens page is filled with articles and tips, in case search brought you to the picky eaters post only: http://www.vegkitchen.com/kid-friendly-recipes/

    A strategy for engaging picky eaters is to give them some of the power to plan meals. Make it a family activity. It doesn’t take long, and however long it does take will save you untold hours and grief in the long run. Tell each girl she gets to plan one dinner every week. Simply give her a few menu choices — this main dish or that; this veggie or that. Make it fun and then get them to help you shop for the ingredients. Better yet, get them to help make the dinner, giving them tasks that are within their capacity, all the while making it seem like a hugely fun game. Kids are much more likely to eat what they have been invested in creating. Look at all these edible schoolyards — kids who grow the veggies love them, and are even introducing their parents at home to new vegetables. You need not go this far, but you get the idea. Put some power in their hands, as sometimes pickiness is a kind of power play.

    Next, at the risk of doing a commercial for myself, my book, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook is a big book of recipes and tips (even specific tips for picky eaters within many recipes), from breakfast to dinner, from school lunch to desserts and snacks. My kids grew up on the recipes in this book, and we went from veg to vegan during its creation. It contains vegetarian and vegan options throughout. Here’s more info: http://www.vegkitchen.com/navas-books/the-vegetarian-family-cookbook/ — the only drawback is its lack of photos, as it came out in 2004.

    Hope this helps, and looking forward to a progress report!

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