Picky Eating

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Happy encounters with food at any age help set the stage for sensible eating habits. Handling food and picky eating situations positively encourages healthful food choices. Picky eaters can be a challenge. Parents—you are not alone. Stay positive!

Common Childhood Eating Situations & Strategies

Will only eat one, and only one, food meal after meal: Food Jags

  • Allow the child to eat what he wants if ‘jag’ food is wholesome. 
  • Offer other foods at each meal. After a few days the child will likely try other foods. 
  • Don’t remove the ‘jag’ food, but offer it as long as the child wants it. Food jags rarely last long enough to cause any real harm.

Refuse to eat what’s served: Short-Order Cook Syndrome

  • Have bread, rolls, or fruit available at each meal so there are choices that the child likes.
  • Be supportive, set limits, and don’t be afraid to let the child go hungry if he won’t eat what is served. Which is worse – an occasional missed meal or a parent who is a perpetual short-order cook?

Want to watch TV at mealtime

  • Turn off the TV at mealtime. Mealtime TV is a distraction that ruins family interaction and interferes with a child’s eating. 
  • Value the time spent together while eating. Often it’s the only time during the day when the whole family is together. An occasional dinnertime with TV that the whole family can enjoy is fine.

Whine or complain about the food served

  • First ask the child to eat other foods offered at the meal. If the child cannot behave properly, have the child go to his room or sit quietly in a corner until the meal is finished.
  • Don’t let him take food with him, return for dessert or eat until the next planned meal or snack time. 
  • Children test parents with bad behaviors. Remember if they are just copying adult behavior, parents can’t justify being “heavy handed.”

Will only eat bread, potatoes, macaroni, and milk: The Great American White Food Diet

  • Avoid pressuring the child to eat other foods. Giving more attention to finicky eating habits only reinforces the demands for limited foods. 
  • Continue to offer a variety of foods. Encourage a taste of red, orange, and green foods. Eventually the child will move on to other foods.

Refuse to try new foods: Fear of New Foods

  • Continue to introduce and reintroduce new foods over time. It may take many exposures to a new food before a child is ready to taste it and a lot of tastes before a child likes it.
  • Don’t force children into trying new foods.

Strategies to Avoid Mealtime Battles

Keep a clear division of responsibility. Remember parents provide, kids decide. See Healthy Eating Tips for Parents for more information on the division of responsibility.

  • Children are the best judges of how much they should eat.
  • Parents are the best judges of what they should eat. Adults are not responsible for how much a child eats or even whether a child eats.

Here are 5 important jobs for parents and caregivers:

  1. Buy healthful food
  2. Serve regular meals and snacks
  3. Make mealtime pleasant
  4. Teach good manners at the table
  5. Set a good example

Your child’s eating habits will take time to change…but every small step you take each day will lead them closer to a lifetime of healthy eating!

Everybody’s food preference is different—the same is true with children.  If your child dislikes particular foods, consider trying different methods of preparing them that your child might enjoy more! Sometimes, it is simply a matter of how a food is cooked. Ask your WIC nutritionist for tips on cooking and seasoning techniques that may help improve flavor.

Set a good example

Children learn by imitating what they see. Adults who eat poorly can’t expect their children to eat well. Set a good example by eating regular meals and making healthful food choices. 

Parents and caregivers act as “gatekeepers,” controlling what foods come into the house. Having lots of healthful food choices available eliminates the need for a “food dictator” at mealtime. Limit the undesirable foods you bring home. This helps children understand that healthful food choices are a way of life.

Prepare children for meals

A five-minute warning before mealtime lets them calm down, wash their hands and get ready to eat. A child who is anxious, excited or tired may have trouble settling down to eat.

Provide consistent food messages

  • Be a smart gatekeeper: buy only the foods you want the child to eat.
  • Don’t worry if the child skips a meal.
  • Set an example by eating good foods.
  • Let children make their own food choices from the good choices you provide.

Additional tips

Here are a few more simple tips to make mealtime a more pleasant experience.

  • Be patient with new foods. Expose your kids to a new food more than once ‐‐ at least 10‐15 times!
  • Make it fun!  Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters or make up names for foods like calling broccoli “trees”.
  • Let your kids help. Ask your child to help you pick out fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods and let them help prepare the meal with you in the kitchen.
  • Set a good example.  Your child is more likely to eat healthy if you do.
  • Hide the veggies!  Add chopped broccoli or green pepper to spaghetti sauce.  Or try adding grated vegetables like zucchini or carrots to meat loaf, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and other hot dishes.
  • Don’t use food as reward or punishment. In the long run, food bribery usually creates more problems than it solves. 
  • Don’t offer dessert as a reward!  Your child will think dessert is the best choice for food.
  • Limit high calorie drinks. Your child may become full and eat poorly at mealtimes. Stick to water between meals and white milk at meals.
  • Set a meal schedule. Planning snack and meal times is important for growing children to meet their nutrition needs.
  • Offer choices.   Avoid asking, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” Instead try, “Which would you like for dinner — broccoli or cauliflower?”
  • Make a garden.  In the summertime, have your child help you plant a garden or a pot with your favorite fruits and vegetables.
  • Make mealtime pleasant.  Mealtime is not a time for watching television or arguing. Distractions should be limited.

Occasional meal skipping and finicky food habits

Well-meaning parents, grandparents and caregivers often think the worst if a child skips a meal or won’t eat any vegetables. Keep the big picture in mind. Offer healthful, nourishing meals daily. Over time, children will get everything they need to grow and develop normally.

  • Plenty of variety and a relaxed, happy atmosphere at mealtime are the ingredients for a well-fed child. 
  • Childhood food binges, food strikes, and other unusual habits are usually a part of normal development even though adults often view a child’s odd food and eating behaviors as a problem.
  • Children use the table as a stage for showing their independence. Sometimes, food isn’t the issue at all. The eating process is just one more way children learn about the world.

This post was last updated on January 3rd, 2020 at 9:15 AM

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