Every parent of a picky eater can relate - mealtimes are not what you envisioned it would be.
Instead of mealtimes being a time to connect and enjoy time together as a family, it has become a stressful battle of wills. Instead of conversations and laughter it is filled with tantrums and drama.
Having a picky eater can often feel like losing the joy in cooking for your family, especially if you end up being a short order cook, scrambling to make pasta or chicken nuggets so your picky eater will just eat something. Or grabbing the cereal and milk when dinner is rejected...again.
If this sounds familiar, here are 5 tips on how to bring the joy back to cooking and mealtimes.
1. Be considerate without catering.
This means that you cook what you enjoy to eat as a family AND you ensure that there are two foods that you know your picky eater will eat.
This can mean ensuring that you have some pasta and fruit on offer. It doesn't mean cooking a separate meal, just adding foods to the menu that will put your child at ease so they will participate in the meal.
When picky eaters see that there is food on the table that they want to eat, they relax and start eating without the drama of "there's nothing that I want." Once they start eating, they are more likely to keep eating.
2. Eat with your child, enjoy your meal and DON'T make your child the focus of the meal.
Parents of picky eaters can often find themselves cooking two meals and not eating their own meal with their child. You are the most important role model for your child when it comes to eating and enjoying food. Making a simple change by sitting down and eating with your child.
Make the conscious decision not to place any demands on your child at mealtimes "just take one more bite", "why don't you just try it?" these all have the opposite effect and children actually eat LESS when pressured to eat.
Instead, keep a poker face, bite your tongue and enjoy your own meal. Simple questions like "tell me something funny that happened at school today" is a great way to bring a more relaxed atmosphere to mealtimes.
3. Aim to underwhelm.
Only offer small amounts of the "new" or "disliked" food that you would like your child to try. For example, only offer one teaspoon of mashed potato. When picky eaters are presented with a big portion they are easily overwhelmed and may decide not to try it at all.
4. Keep offering the foods you would like your child to try.
This may seem obvious, but it happens without us even noticing. I hear this from so many parents. "I've stopped offering (insert food here) because he refuses to eat it." Your child will never learn to like a food that they are not offered. To minimise waste, offer small portions. If it keeps showing up on the table, it sends the message that the food is "safe" and "familiar" and this will help your child to accept it eventually.
5. Let your child serve themselves.
This is such a game changer! If you would like your child to be more invested in the meal you have prepared - give them a pair of tongs and let them dish up for themselves. A sense of control helps picky eaters relax at mealtimes and let their guard down when it comes to trying new foods.
Phrases that help make mealtimes more relaxed:
If your child demands a food that is not on the menu:
"pasta is not on the menu tonight, let's put that on the menu tomorrow night". This helps set boundaries that you will not jump up and cook the pasta, this is what you have prepared. When you know there is a food on the menu that your child will eat, you can say this with confidence.
If your child refuses to eat the meal you have prepared:
"what would make it better?" This helps your child feel in control - it may be "tomato sauce" or "more salt".
If your child says: "Yuck I don't like it"
"that's ok, you are still learning to like it" - this is not a complete opt-out where you say "you don't have to eat it". You are helping your child understand that learning to like a new food takes time.
Lastly, we do need to be realistic - children are naturally cautious when it comes to trying new foods. It is important to keep mealtimes relaxed and stress free by staying calm, modeling what you would like your child to do (enjoy your own meal) and not place pressure or demands on your child at mealtimes.
Have any questions? Leave a comment below, we would love to hear from you!
- Lizalet Oosthuizen, paediatric dietitian