A child’s selective, picky eating may worry and frustrate the parents for several reasons. Can the child grow and develop by eating hardly anything? It seems pointless to serve new food when the child won’t even taste it. The time, energy and money spent cooking and the resulting wasted food can be annoying. The diet may become even narrower if picky children are only served their favourite foods.
Children may be perfectly healthy even if they eat very little. Remember that interest in new kinds of food also varies with age. A toddler who is eating well may temporarily become a fusspot during the ‘terrible twos’. If this happens, you just need to wait and keep on serving food patiently. If the child is growing normally and is energetic, there’s usually nothing to worry about. However, if distinct changes in growth occur, talk about them at the child health clinic or in school healthcare to the school nurse.
- Present new flavours and foods along with old favourites. Add grated carrot when baking bread, replace the yoghurt in the child’s favourite smoothie with quark every now and then, or add one new flavour among familiar berries. Bring new flavours onto the plate one by one and in small portions. Don’t hide them. If the child asks what is on the plate, be honest and encourage the child to taste the food. Remember to serve something that your child likes at every meal.
- Encourage to taste but don’t force. Pressing, forcing, blaming, threatening, blackmailing and comparing to other children will surely make your child lose appetite. Encourage the child to taste the food. If the child is older, just explain clearly what you want to achieve, such as “I’d like you to be bold and taste everything” or “I’d like you to eat enough to have energy for football training tonight”. Let the child decide how much to eat, and praise the child for tasting the food. Don’t blame the child for eating bread and leaving the main meal on the plate if the child had been brave enough to taste it.
- Stick to regular mealtimes. Stick to a regular eating pattern, even if the child doesn’t want to eat at every meal. Regularity helps the child to remember when there is food available. Continuous nibbling between proper meals may diminish appetite. Find out the child’s eating rhythm outside home too, so that the child will be hungry when food is served.
- Put just a small portion on the plate at first. Let the child portion the food independently whenever possible. You can always serve some more, but too big a portion may discourage a picky eater right from the start.
- Serve the same food for the whole family. The child is more likely to eat if the parents are eating the same food. However, the child’s portions can be put aside before strong spices that the adults like are added.
- Eat together as often as possible. It is important that eating generates positive feelings and situations. Children enjoy spending time with their parents, and this makes eating a pleasure they look forward to. Children also learn by watching others at the table. If the parents eat broccoli then the child is more likely to eat it, too.
- Remember to talk positively. Don’t make a fuss if the child refuses to eat. The child won’t eat in the future either if he or she knows this is a good way to gain attention at the table. Refusing to eat is frustrating, but contain yourself and don’t show you’re worried or nervous. Remind yourself that the child’s health is not in danger, even if a meal is skipped every now and then. Always give positive feedback if tasting and eating went even slightly better than before. Even if the child refuses to eat, say something encouraging, such as “thank you for sitting at the table nicely today”.
- Remove any distractions. The table is not the right place for beeping electronic games, checking mobile phones or continuing play. Tell the child he or she can continue playing after the meal. A good way to calm the situation is to give the child a moment to finish playing before the meal. Set an example as a parent and calm the situation. Don’t answer the phone, busy yourself with electronic devices or glance at the television.
- Involve the child in cooking. Give the child a chance to help with cooking. Even a young child can wash potatoes and older ones prepare a salad. Picky eaters may eat vegetables if they’ve chopped them up by themselves. Children may taste foods without even noticing it when they are not forced to eat. Be sure to notice this and encourage and compliment the child for tasting the food.
- Have a flexible attitude towards food. Banning certain foods is not good for children or adults. Don’t emphasise the health benefits of foods too much or divide them between the good and the bad. Banning all sweet foods may add to the child’s interest in them. A flexible attitude doesn’t mean, however, that you can always eat what you want, but don’t make a show of sweet foods or use them as a reward. Sometimes a dessert crowns a nice meal. Beautifully prepared and neatly arranged fruit is delightful at every meal. With older children, you can draw up clear family rules, for example about eating sweets.
Some of these tips have been adapted from those on the website of the American Heart Association.
Children eat what they like.
They like familiar foods.
Foods become familiar when you keep serving them.