Top 10 Picky Eating Fixes

Dinner time at my house is pretty boring.  I’ll open the freezer for something that looks appetizing and pull it out to defrost.  Add in a carb, some veggies or salad, and voila, dinner is ready!  Meal times can be stressful, with constant interruptions about homework, neighbourhood kids knocking on the door, text messages and emails from work, laundry flipping, doing dishes, and calls of “mom, she pulled my hair!”  As a parent, you just need a solid 20 minutes without interruptions to make dinner. Is that too much to ask?

And of course once dinner is just about made,  requests to set the table are met by shouts from the basement of “my show’s almost done!”

Cue eye roll and sigh.

Does this sound familiar to you?  I’m sure this scenario plays out across homes everywhere.  Once the meal is ready, I can hear you thinking “Kristal, my kid will just say ‘I don’t want that!’ and turn up their nose.” Maybe you’ll wind up making a second dinner for them. Maybe this happens quite frequently.  Behind sleep problems, picky eating seems to be the most popular complaint among my clients, so you are in good company!

Guess what?  There are three things you definitely can’t force your child to do: eat, sleep, and use the potty. As a parent, we falsely attach how much our child eats to how “good” of a parent we are.  Let’s stop this damaging idea in it’s tracks. We all love our kids and want the best for them! 

The situation is not hopeless.  Luckily, I’ve got ten strategies you can use tonight to overcome this cycle of picky eating in your family, with no cajoling, threats, guilty feelings on either side, or bribery.

1. Make it fun! Guess what? My kids eat brussel sprouts!  We recently started serving these to our kids, and once they got over the funny smell they really started enjoying them.  A few nights ago I called them “brussel shouts” and my 6-year old promptly put one in her mouth, and shouted.  Never one to be upstaged, my 10-year old followed suit.  If you don’t mind a bit of loudness at your table, engage your child in some silliness to encourage them to enjoy eating with you!  Being a parent is all about marketing to your kids.  You’ll be surprised what a bit of parental goofiness can do (also see tip # 4).

2. Teach your child about how foods fuel their body.  What can their body achieve when they eat protein?   When first introducing salmon to my kids, I told them it would make their hair shiny (the omega oils!).  My daughter took a bite, then said “Mom, is my hair shinier now?”  and I assured her it was. Healthy skin, hair and muscles are a great side effect of healthy eating.

3. Teach your child to listen to their body. Your child has taken a few bites and says “I’m full.”   Show them a glass of water on the table and say “On this glass, show me how full your tummy is.” It helps them to visualize how full they are and learn about their body.  Simply put, a child can’t eat as much as an adult.  Your stomach is roughly the size of your two fists put together, so encouraging them to be aware of how much they can eat will help them learn their “fullness signals” and prevent overeating in the future.

4. Engage all the senses.   Of course, when my older daughter was little, vegetables were not really on the top of her list. This idea is not my own and I can’t recall the originator, but I am happy to pass it on as a fun way to encourage your child to eat raw vegetables.  Present a plate of sliced peppers, carrots, broccoli or cauliflower.  Then say “I better not hear any dinosaurs crunching carrots!” Then, because kids usually do the opposite of what we say, watch your child pick up a carrot and loudly crunch it, all the time watching for your reaction.  Of course, when they do it, make a big deal and say “I told you I didn’t want to hear any dinosaurs crunching carrots!” And, repeat. (You’ll thank me later).

5. Let them serve themselves. Wherever you serve the food from (stove, island, table top), your child can use a serving spoon to decide how much they would like to take.   This can help them feel control over their meal and not feel pressured to eat the amount you have served them.  Check your health service’s food guide to see the latest recommendations on the types and proportions for the foods that should fill your child’s plate.

6. Half ‘n Half it.  When we serve the brussel sprouts, we don’t all eat them “the same way.”  Once cooked, I divide them into two bowls.  My husband and I like them warm with balsamic glaze, some bacon bits, and feta cheese.  One day my kids may also eat them this way, but for now, butter and a bit of salt is enough to satisfy them and assure me they are getting the benefits of this vegetable. 

7. Remember, you control the kitchen cupboard (and the grocery buying!).  When doing the grocery shopping, don’t bring in foods that you don’t want your children to eat (or yourself for that matter).  And, have a special cupboard for “treats.”   Ultimately, you should be the one who manages access to the food in the cupboard or fridge.  Have your child ask you first if they want something. Make a special drawer or cupboard that they know they can choose from any time, if you are not available to ask.  We’ve all heard this ten minutes before supper “Mom, can I have a cookie?”  In this case, simply say “I know, cookies are so delicious!  But they’re not on the menu right now because dinner is almost ready.  But guess what? We may have cookies for dessert!”

8. Take your child shopping for ingredients and have them help prepare the meal. My kids love to surprise me or my husband with a “restaurant” meal at home.  Have them take on age appropriate duties like cutting vegetables, stirring the pot, setting the table, writing up a menu, and making a sign for the door.  This participation around the family meal can bring positive feelings and encourage them to enjoy eating the meal they had a part in creating!  We like to change into a fancy outfit, use candles and I’ll admit, even play a little bit of smooth jazz while we eat!

9. Serve dinner when they get home. Kids are often extremely hungry when they get home from school or daycare.  This is when they eat the best!   Serve them some leftovers from the previous day if you want, instead of cookies and treats. They can eat again when you finally sit down for supper, perhaps just toast, a bowl of cereal or oatmeal at that time will suffice!   This will also allow you to get the littler ones to bed on time (wink, wink!).

10.  Model your own enjoyment & relax. Give yourself some space to relax around this issue, and know that your child will eat when they are hungry.   Know when to seek help for your child if all the above doesn’t help.  According to nutrition expert Jill Castle, if your child’s food choices are becoming more restrictive over time, it’s time to bring up these concerns to your child’s health care provider.   Most importantly, when eating, model your own enjoyment of the food.  Say “thank you” to whomever prepared it, and watch your child copy you! Encourage your child when they take even one bite — even a small movement in the right direction should be celebrated!  Above all, remember it’s your job to present the food to your child, and it’s their job to eat it!  Bon Appetit! 

Kristal Miller is a Child Behavioural Specialist and offers affordable home or phone consults for all parenting related matters. Email to inquire.

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