Picky eating starts out as a child’s first way to express that they can make their own choices and that you just have to deal with it. As a parent, a family member or the babysitter this can be frustrating and nerve wracking. This can be especially challenging if the child is specifically picky about eating vegetables and healthy foods; then the whole issue is wrapped up in the guilt of feeling like this child is not being properly nourished.
It is important to remember that you know best. Children do need vegetables, and will have a stunted development and are at higher risk of illness and disease if they eat mainly unhealthy foods ( ie: chicken nuggets, mac & cheese, ketchup, white rice, white potatoes, refined flour products and processed sugary foods).
If your child is picky about eating things that are not good for them ( chips, crackers, pops, pasta, refined flour, refined rice, corn or dairy) let that go, let them have it. It may be annoying time and again, but in the end, they are better off. However, the universal rule for eating at someone’s house whether you are with them or not ,should be that they eat what’s in front of them – unless they have an allergy or intolerance to something they are served. But it goes without saying, you should alert a host days before you arrive of food allergies and intolerances to make sure there is something available for your child, and if not, this gives you time to prepare something yourself. If you let your child get away with being picky at friends’ houses and as a guest in general, you are setting them up for social failure. Not only is this universally regarded as rude behaviour, but you are teaching your child that people will always accommodate them, and that their selfishness is acceptable behaviour.
So how do you help your picky eater out of this rut?
1. Variety is key. Don’t let them eat the same things all the time, switch it up, you should strive to have 5 colours on plate at all times. What are the most colourful foods? FRUITS & VEGETABLES! Fruit being the smaller portion of course; it should be a 1:4 ratio of fruits to vegetables. Treat fruit as dessert, that’s what it is. If it’s not paired with vegetables, it should be a treat and not the only plants they are eating.
2. Branch out of how you usually prepare foods, and what cuisines you eat. Take them out to try new foods. As soon as you are comfortable taking your kids out, you should be trying new foods with them. At 3 years old I developed a love for Asian food; dim sum and sushi were, and still are to this day, some of my favourite foods. Explore new cuisines in your kitchen. Children who are only exposed to bland foods have a much higher rate of being picky because their comfort zone with food is so small.
3. Do not use sugary treats as rewards for eating healthy foods. Do not use food as a reward at all, with the exception of going out somewhere special to eat for an occasion (fast food is not special). When you reward your child with food, you are teaching them when they do something, basically anything they deserve a food reward. This complicates your child’s relationship with food. Studies have shown that children as young as 5 can be emotional eaters.
4. Pick Your Battles. If your child does not like something that isn’t particularly good for them (like dairy, or pasta), let it be. They are not missing out on any key nutrients by not eating something that isn’t good for them. However, if they are refusing to eat vegetables, you need to take a stand, get them to eat their vegetables as an appetizer to their meal so they can’t eat everything else and say they are full. If they tell you they don’t like one vegetable, maybe skip that one or at least disguise it by chopping it into oblivion or pureeing it and adding it into dishes.
5. Make it a game. Sometimes kids get so in-their-head about not liking something it can take some real creativity to get them out. I have noticed if you can take enough focus off the stand-off situation they are in, they will usually move along and get over it. For example, I had a little boy in a cooking class last week that said “I hate broccoli, I’m not eating this.” I responded, “I thought you were a dinosaur, I guess I will have to find another dinosaur to eat all of these tiny trees”. He gobbled up the broccoli salad before my eyes, then proceeded to stomp around the room growling. You already know that as a parent sometimes you have to be a magician, I’m just telling you to get a bit creative with your illusions.
6. Help them understand why. We have all heard that too much candy will give you a tummy ache, but I’m hoping at this point you are only giving your children foods with refined sugars on special occasions, and that doesn’t mean every time they do their homework or go to karate ( this means, birthdays, Christmas, etc.). Explain to your child that every time they eat vegetables it is helping them grow, and that some foods help they grow, and some foods (like packaged and refined foods) slow them down, and make them grumpy and tired. It only takes 21 days to develop a habit, so breaking old patterns is hard, but starting new ones only takes few weeks. Also be confident that their taste buds will develop and adjust, and they will like a wider variety of foods once they are used to foods tasting like food instead of sugar and fake cheese flavour.
7. Get them in the kitchen. Children are ambitious, creative and eager to please. The kitchen is the perfect environment for hands-on learning. Helping your child learn to cook gives them ownership over their food; this takes away the fear of trying something new because they know what’s in it. They were there. Also, they will need to cook eventually. Getting them in the kitchen as soon as you can makes that transition easier. Just like swimming or riding a bike, this is a life skill that is beneficial to their health and life.
So that’s it. Hopefully you have a few more tools in your belt now, and you can pull them out when needed. Also know that it’s not you, it’s just part of your child trying to stand on their own and show you they can make their own choices. And they can, just not when it comes to being properly nourished or not.
If you think your child’s picky eating is out of your wheelhouse and you need some back-up, give Sure Chef a shout, and we will help you come up with a plan to get your kid back on a path to healthy eating habits!