Picky eating can affect the whole family, often leaving both parents and children feeling anxious, stressed and dreading mealtimes. Parents constantly tell me they worry about their child’s diets; not getting enough vegetables, eating a limited variety of foods, refusing to try new foods. I know only too well just how stressful this can be as I too was the parent of an extremely fussy eater. Parenting a picky eater is tough but the good news is that picky eating can be avoided and even reversed. Regardless of the extent of your child's picky eating, their age or temperament, your child can learn to try new foods, expand their diet and enjoy mealtimes.
Here are some of my top tips to reverse picky eating and help you raise a happy, health and confident little eater.
1. Get Them Involved
Let kids help you plan, shop for and prep for dinner. Start with a simple recipe you know your child likes and let them get their hands dirty. Using their senses to explore - ask them to describe the smell, listen to the sound it makes when chewing or chopping. Encourage them to touch and feel, rip and tear vegetables. Talk about the ingredients, where they came from, how they were grown, discover a few fun facts about one of two of the ingredients. This approach completely transformed my own son’s relationship with food. Once an extreme fussy and sensory eater, he now enjoys a wide variety of foods and continues to try new foods on a regular basis. Food play forms a very important part of helping a child build a healthy relationship with food. Research as well as my own personal experience as a nutritionist and mum of 3 has shown that a child who is more involved in the kitchen is much more likely to enjoy more a healthier and more varied diet.
2. Don’t Bribe, Coax or Beg
Just two more bites. If you eat up all your vegetables you will get dessert. No more treats for you if you don’t start eating your dinner.
As parents we have probably said all of the above to our children at some point. They are always said with the best of intentions, in an effort to get our little ones to eat foods that will nourish them and help them grow. However, this approach to feeding can put pressure on kids that often results in them wanting to eat less and less. Offering a child a treat for eating their vegetables is teaching them that vegetables are a punishment and the dessert the ultimate reward. These well-meaning tactics do not promote healthy eating habits and may cause long term negative associations with food. When trying to get your child to eat more vegetables or try new foods, serve it with a food your child likes and put no pressure on them to eat it. Research shows that it could take 20 + exposures to a new food before a child is comfortable eating it. Many children try a food once or twice and are never offered it again if they dislike it. It’s important to constantly expose a child to food whether they eat it or not. Overtime and with constant exposure, they are more likely to try and eventually enjoy eating that food.
3. Lead By Example
As parents, we play an important role in shaping our children’s eating habits and their relationship with food. Although there are other factors that determine eating behaviours in children, parental influence is a significant yet often overlooked factor. One of the first things I ask parents about when I start working with their family is what their own relationship with food is like. Have they spent years on restrictive diets, do they have a healthy relationship with food, how do they react to foods they don’t like etc. Children are always watching and observing and as parents we play an important role in shaping our children’s future eating habits.
4. Create a Relaxed Mealtime Environment
When mealtimes are associated with fun and pleasure, children will be relaxed and therefore more willing to try more foods. Keep the table clean and clutter free, an inviting space for children to eat. Let them help with setting the table as this allows them to become an active participant in the meal – kids respond really well to this. Remove all distractions like TV, phones and ipads switched off. Take all the focus away from what or how the child is eating. Don’t talk about food at all, use this time to chat as a family.
So, if you are the parent of a picky eater, know that you are not alone and there is so much that can be done to take the stress out of mealtimes. It is possible to reverse picky eating and improve your child's relationship with food. It takes time, consistency, patience and a healthy dose of humour but you will get there in the end.
Clare Hegarty is a certified nutritionist and health coach who specialises in helping parents reverse picky eating and raise healthy and confident little eaters.
Clare’s next 3 week online course ‘Raising Confident Eaters’ will be running in May 2022.