If you are a parent of a fussy or picky eater, then this post is for you! Working with fussy eaters can be a challenge but using these strategies and tricks might help you through this phase.
Working with fussy eaters
Hi! I’m Noelle. I am a mom of three young boys and a registered dietitian. If you are a parent of a fussy or picky eater, then this post is for you! First, let’s talk about what we mean when we use these terms. The truth is there is not an exact definition for “fussy eater”. A parent often feels their child is a fussy or picky eater when they
1) Ask for the same foods over and over;
2) Are not eating what is served to them; and/or
3) They eat a lot at some meals and nothing at others.
This can be concerning for a parent who does not know if their child is adequately nourished. Sound familiar? You are not alone!
Here is some background info:
Quite often a baby eats most of what they are offered. Then around 15 months there is a shift. Suddenly they refuse some foods, act out at meals, eat a ton one day and almost nothing the next. The reality is that this “picky eating” phase is very NORMAL. It is part of the development of autonomy. Just like a child who pushes the limits at bedtime or refuses to put their own shoes on. In a way this turns into a parenting piece as opposed to whether the child truly likes the food or not. The great news is that there are ways to help you and your child through this.
TIP #1: DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY:
The parent/caregiver chooses WHAT is served and WHEN and the child choose HOW MUCH they will eat of it.
The reason this is so impactful on dealing with a picky eater is that it takes away the stress and pressure on both sides. Parents choose what will be for supper. A child chooses if they will eat it or not. If the child refuses, then the parent does not need to be stressed or upset because they know they have offered a healthy and complete meal. They also do not need to get up and prepare something more desired.
The most common question I have on this topic is: What if my child says they are hungry 5 minutes after leaving the table?
Answer: Have a conversation with your child before they leave the table to help them understand that this is their chance to eat supper and they won’t have another chance for food until evening snack time. Remember that the TIMING of the snack lies in your hands. Then when evening snack time comes, offer them a healthy snack. Perhaps one that contains some of the same nutrients they missed at supper. For example if you served chicken, rice, and broccoli for supper and they did not eat much or any, you could offer whole grain crackers with mashed pea, avocado, and black bean dip for snack. Both of these option have whole grains, iron, protein, antioxidants, and more!
TIP #2: HAVE THE CHILD INVOLVED
Young children LOVE to help and be involved in decisions of all kinds. They love the feeling of autonomy and importance.
Here are three ways that you can involve your child and increase their interest in food.
1) Take your child(ren) to the grocery store. If you find it hard to get a full grocery shop done with your children in tow, then you could limit this to a short shop. The point is to have them help. Ask them to pick out a vegetable that they would like served for lunch or supper that day. Ask them if there is anything they see that they would like to try. Ask them to find a fruit or vegetable that is their favourite colour. They will feel excitement from being involved and be more likely to try the foods they have helped choose.
2) Let your child(ren) help in the kitchen. Toddlers can help out spinach in a salad bowl, lay carrots on a plate, sprinkle cheese on steamed broccoli. They can also help stir and pour in baking too!
3) Offer choice as often as possible. Yesterday we talked about the fact that a parent chooses WHAT is offered and WHEN. Sometimes there can be choice within this. For example, you may want your child to have a fruit at snack time, but you don’t really care which one. If you ask which fruit they would like they may have a hard time thinking of one and just state they don’t want a fruit. Offering a more specific question can be useful for both them and you. For example, “would you like a sliced apple or sliced pear with your cheese at snack time?” And if you want to take the question to the next level, then try “do you think we should have apple or pear with our cheese at snack time?”. This tells the child they are making a decision that affects you and them AND they know you will be sitting down to eat with them. All VERY exciting for a toddler/preschooler.
TIP #3: START SMALL AND LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Toddlers can find large portions overwhelming offering a small portion of each food option at a meal or snack can be less intimidating. They can always ask for more.
At meal times, ideally everyone has the same foods on their plate in varying portion sizes. Children watch their parents and siblings and are more likely to eventually eat what is on their plate if everyone else is having the same things.
TIP #4: MAXIMIZE ON THE HUNGRY TIMES
When working with parents who have a hard time getting their children to eat vegetables the first question is ask is: “what snacks do you offer and when?” Quite often children are eating gold fish and granola bars late morning and late afternoon which take up a lot of space in little tummies. Offering veggies at the start of a snack or a little before a meal increases the likelihood of interest because the child is truly hungry. Offering veggies on a platter with dip can also feel less pressured for the child and result in increased consumption.
TIP #5: FOOD JAGS ARE REAL
“Food jags” is the label given when children love blueberries one day (perhaps eating a whole container) and then hate them the next time they are offered. They may label them as mushy or just flat out say they don’t like them. How frustrating when you just bought 3 more containers!!! Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s so hard to do, but remember the division of responsibility we talked about a few days ago? It comes into play here. You decided to offer blueberries. The child said no. End of conversation. No coaxing or bribing is needed. No alternate food needs to be offered. Your child is saying no and it is our job as parents to accept that. They may in fact love blueberries again tomorrow but right now they don’t feel like them and their way of telling you that is to say they don’t like them. If we push back on this then they will likely push back harder and profess to not like blueberries for a long time to come. If we let it go and just offer the blueberries again tomorrow, then the child will not see it as an autonomy struggle but rather just food that was offered yesterday and is offered again today. Some children will go for days before liking the food in question again and some will go back right away. But it is key for us as parents to avoid the battle, avoid the pressure, and let the child choose if they will eat what is offered.
TIP #6: BE AWARE OF LIQUIDS
Did you know that toddlers and children should only consume 2 cups (16 oz) of milk per day? If they have more than this they may be filling up on liquids that take the place of food AND they may take in an excess of calcium which interferes with iron absorption. Outside of milk, water is the best thing to satisfy thirst. There is no need for juice…not even diluted.
Thank you so much for reading.