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Picky eating is a normal phase kids go through, but are there ways to minimize the effects and set them up for successful eating in the long term? Of course! Here are some great ways to discourage picky eating and encourage healthy habits instead!
Model good eating habits
Have you ever noticed that to your children, the food on your plate always tastes better than whatever is on their plate? Make sure that what you are putting on your plate is healthy food! Your children will be more inclined to try things if they see that you are eating and enjoying them. Serve a variety of foods on a regular basis and show children that you as parents eat whatever is being served.
Try the same food prepared in different ways
Growing up, I didn’t like most cooked vegetables. Cooked spinach, cooked broccoli, cooked carrots… Yuck! But I loved all of those vegetables raw! And over the years, because I liked them so much raw, I found that eventually I even started liking them cooked. When I got married, my husband thought he didn’t like kale until I served it to him sautéed with olive oil and onions and drenched in balsamic vinegar. Now he asks me to buy kale when we go grocery shopping, and is even trying to convert the rest of his family!
Just because your child doesn’t like bell peppers on pizza doesn’t mean they won’t like them chopped up in a salad. Keep trying different ways of offering the same food and don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t respond positively the first time. According to this mom, who has a Three Try Rule, her daughters usually end up liking the food by the third try!
Although I tended towards pickiness as a child, and my younger brother was a downright picky eater, both us were taught that when we were in someone else’s home, we ate whatever was put before us. Growing up overseas in a missionary family, “whatever was put before us” included some very strange things including but not limited to: bats, frog legs, shark fin, fish head, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables we had never been exposed to before.
Some of my quickest conversions from “There’s no way I’ll ever like that!” to “Wow, this isn’t bad” came from politely eating whatever was put in front of me. My brother can attest to the same fact.
Encouraging politeness in children is a good thing for many reasons: it reflects positively on you as parents, it saves you from the embarrassment of “Ew! That look gross”, it sets your child up for success for the rest of their life, and it exposes them to new foods they might not otherwise have tried.
Involve them in the cooking process
Involving your child in the cooking process not only helps them learn new skills, but also allows them to feel invested in the meal. They will be much more likely to eat something they are proud of making than some mysterious food that magically appears on the dining room table. Additionally, it allows them to see what ingredients are going into the food and familiarize themselves with each component.
They DON’T have to eat everything on their plate
An old-fashioned misconception is that children should always finish whatever is on their plate. While it is good to encourage children not to waste food and to only get what they can eat, forcing children to eat everything their hungrier-than-tummy eyes might have put on their plate can lead to future problems. If children regularly eat more than they need, their body responds by pushing its satiation signals back further and further, resulting in your child eating more in order to feel full.
Humans are born with two types of satiation signals: a physical “full” feeling in their stomach when it begins to stretch too far, and a hormonal signal related to blood glucose and other hormones indicating that sufficient levels have been reached. When we “trick” our body into not signaling as quickly, we end up eating more than our body requires which can lead to obesity and other related issues (Source).
Eating as many bites as your age
Instead of requiring your children to eat everything on their plate, try requiring a certain amount of bites so that you can be sure they are trying each type of food. Growing up, I was required to eat as many bites as my age (when I was sub-ten). If you have a three-year-old, encourage them to eat three bites; a five-year-old should have five bites, and so on and so forth. You could also just set a number and require that many (full!) bites. However you choose to do it, giving them a goal to work toward allows them to feel some control over the situation.
Allow children to be hungry
Have you noticed that when you start to get really hungry, more and more foods begin to sound appetizing? Even foods you don’t normally care for all that much? It’s a simple inverse correlation: the hungrier you are, the less picky you become. The same is true for children.
If they are continually fed snacks and never allowed to feel hunger in the way that our bodies are meant to, they can afford to be choosy when it comes to meal times. Instead, make sure that no snacking occurs for a few hours before each meal so that your children will be more willing to eat what is served to them.
Children will not starve themselves
This is a fact. Children are much more in tune with their body signals than adults are because they haven’t had as much time to train themselves to ignore them. Consequently, when children get hungry, YOU KNOW. They get grouchy, fussy, whiny. They can’t just ignore their hunger like an adult might (granted, I can’t do this either and I’ve had 24 years). Older children might be more stubborn and skip a meal or two (which will not hurt them!), but eventually THEY WILL EAT.
Don’t give in as soon as your child goes on hunger strike because they don’t want to eat their lima beans. Doing so will A) Teach your child that this method works and make them more inclined to do it again in the future and B) Puts power in the hands of your child rather than you as a parent. Be patient. They will eat.
Don’t give second servings until the first have been finished
I was the meanest lunch teacher at the daycare. Why? Because I didn’t allow any child to have a second serving of whatever food they wanted until they had eaten what they had to begin with. This may seem contradictory to what I said before about not forcing children to eat everything on their plate, but hear out my reasoning.
It was a rare child indeed that wanted more green beans before they finished their macaroni and cheese. Usually, what they wanted was to get away with eating only the most nutrition-less part of the meal and then have seconds without ever eating the stuff that was actually good for them.
What often happened when I instituted the mean-teacher rule was that by the time they had finished eating the healthier parts of their meal, they discovered they weren’t actually hungry any more. And if they did eat all of their fruits and vegetables and still asked for seconds, I could be certain that they were actually quite hungry.
Make mealtime a game
This fun plate turns meals into a game. Challenge your kids to cross the finish line by eating all of their food! But be sure to load the plate with healthy foods so that they are eating the right things.
Lastly, remember that most children go through a picky phase which is completely normal. You can help them outgrow their pickiness and learn how to eat a variety of good healthy foods!
If you enjoyed this post, read How to Explain Healthy Eating to Kids!