Mental Health

5 ways to help your picky eater at mealtime

Mealtime.  It can be a battlefield – am I right?  And if you have a picky or selective eater at home, the stress can feel so overwhelming.  Where do we even begin?  You may want your child to try new foods, or even just take a bite of food at the table.

Let’s talk about 5 ways to help your picky eater at mealtimes – to create more peaceful meals at the table.

5 ways to help your picky eaters eat at mealtime

  1. Encourage, but don’t pressure

HOW we talk about food can be just as important as WHAT food we are providing.  How many times at mealtime have you encouraged your child to “take another bite…” only to be met with crossed arms, a closed mouth, a frown or a tantrum? 

Children sense our anxiety and back off when they feel pressure at mealtime.  Instead, try to encourage your child.  TALK about the physical properties of the food and HOW the food feels when you interact with it.

INSTEAD OF: “Take a bite of broccoli.  I know you like it.”

TRY: “How does this broccoli feel when it touches your lips?  It tickles my tongue, how does it feel on your tongue?”

2. Lessen expectations and follow the 75% preferred, 25% new food.

Most children have a list of foods they usually eat, some they eat “sometimes” and foods they are learning to like.  I call these: “Yes – Sometimes – Not Yet” foods. I encourage families to make a list of these foods (check out my guide HERE where you can fill in these foods).  

At meal and snack times provide mostly YES foods, with small amounts of sometimes or not yet foods. 

This helps in a few ways: provides exposure to a new food and when you pair the new food with something familiar your child may be more likely to try it.

INSTEAD OF: providing a new chickpea pasta with spinach (that your child has never eaten)

TRY: pasta (yes food), chickpeas

3. Pack that nutrition punch

One of my favorite sayings.  Does your child like muffins?  Pancakes?  Cookies?  Make nutritious forms of these food items and store and freeze.  Some of my favorites include THESE green muffins and THESE chickpea cookies.

One Some of my favorite additions include: chia and flax seed, alternatives to whole wheat flour like teff, almond and chickpea flour, vegetables like carrot, spinach and zucchini.  

INSTEAD OF:  boxed pancakes

TRY: boxed pancakes with chia seed, blended sweet potato and grated carrot

4. Baby steps: celebrating small wins

Kay Toomey, PhD is an occupational feeding therapist.  She talks about the steps to feeding.  

When many adults think of feeding we think of it as a two step process: 1) the food is in front of us 2) we eat said food. 

BUT for many children there are many steps they will need to get comfortable with before they will eat the food.  Some examples: tolerating the food on their plate, touching the food, smelling the food, kissing the food, licking the food… the list goes on and on.

When we think of our only goal is that a child will eat the food presented, many times we are disappointed.  Instead, think about those steps. 

Did you offer your child a carrot tonight and they licked it instead of touching it? That’s a WIN!  Did you offer your child yogurt and they smelled it instead of it just sitting on their plate?  That’s a win! 

Feeding changes don’t happen overnight, but when we can celebrate small wins we get closer to reaching feeding goals.

INSTEAD OF: Feeling disappointed that your child isn’t trying the piece of chicken on their plate

TRY: Celebrating that they touched and smelled that piece of chicken! 

5. Relax

Take a step back and know that feeding is not going to be perfect all the time.  Children are finicky and can be fussy eaters.  Eating more on some days than others is normal.  The more relaxed we can be during mealtime, the more relaxed our kids will be too. 

If you are concerned with your child’s intake or growth, contact me and we can chat specifically about how your child may or may not be meeting their nutrition needs.  But trust your child to self regulate – and know when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

INSTEAD OF: Watching your child eat every bite, hoping they will finish their broccoli

TRY: Not worrying about their intake.  Did they eat some fruit today or yesterday?  Chances are, they are meeting their vitamin and mineral needs.

There you have it.  5 ways to help your picky eater eat at mealtimes.  Feeding kids is something we have to do every-single-day and there are absolutely ways to make it less stressful and more fun!  We can help by encouraging, thinking about our own expectations – and even adding some nutritional value to what our kids ARE eating. 

These are absolutely 5 effective strategies for feeding a picky toddler or child, and can help encourage healthy eating as well.

Want even more tips?  Download my free guide: 4 steps to help your child try new food, with actionable simple tips you can try at your next mealtime.

5 ways to help your picky eater eat at mealtimes