10 Ways to Empower Your Picky Eaters to Eat Healthy Food
Live with Picky Eaters?
It is extremely common that I hear about frustrating sagas about picky eaters in the family—often in the context of parents giving up on healthy eating because their child just won’t eat the foods the parents try to give them. But we are laying the groundwork for a lifetime of eating habits. It is critical that we find creative ways to help our children eat foods that nourish their bodies and long-term health. Here are 10 ways to get your picky eater on track to healthy eating:
- Mold Your Picky Eaters Palate. If your child is used to eating meals like macaroni and cheese, pizza, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets they will prefer starchy, sugary, and highly processed foods. You can get your child used to the taste of vegetables, fermented foods, and foods that are minimally processed. This may take time but we DO train our taste buds. It often takes repeated exposure—up to seven times—to develop our taste buds. So if your child doesn’t like a food at first don’t be discouraged and keep reintroducing it. When the processed options disappear and healthy options repeatedly show up, the kids will start eating them.
- Invite Your Picky Eaters to Help. Kids typically love being involved in the kitchen. Give them a task that is appropriate for their age. I notice my kids eat a lot more when they have made it themselves. One day my salad- and vegetable-resistant youngest son made the salad for dinner. I was in awe of the multiple bowls of salad he devoured. He was proud and invested! Putting greens and fruit on the counter and allowing my kids to make their own green smoothies has gone over well also.
- Make Food Fun for Your Picky Eaters. We serve many meals with dips and sauces that kids can choose to put on their food. Always look at the ingredients in condiments and find options with no sugar. Better yet—make your own. Also, my husband teases the kids that there is no way they can eat all the food on their plates—and they love proving him wrong with delight. Another game he plays is pretending that when the kids bite their food it hurts him, like they are biting him. Each “ouch” they receive from dad results in more enthusiastic chewing (and cheering each other on).
- Resist the Urge to Force Feed Your Picky Eaters. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink—right? My advice (from experience) is to quit putting so much attention, energy, and anger into trying to make your child eat every bite of food on the plate. Respect that your child is hungrier sometimes more than others. It is also important to help your child recognize feelings of fullness and hunger. Serve small portions so your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed by eating so much food. If he’s still hungry after finishing the plate more can be offered. When your child doesn’t eat what is on his or her plate at mealtime, avoid offering him snacks before the next meal. If you do he will quickly learn that he can choose when and what to eat, creating a picky eater. See my next post on Eating Rules to learn more about how I decreased frustration and stress during mealtime by creating structure and boundaries at our family table.
- Choose Liquids Wisely. Drinking milk before or during meals can fill your child up so they don’t feel hungry for their meal. If your family drinks milk try saving it for after she finishes her plate—this can be an encouraging reward as well. Avoid using juice as a motivator. We only offer juice for very special occasions—probably less than ten times per year. It is important to realize that juice (even orange and apple juice) have as much sugar as popular sodas, and, therefore, should be limited to infrequent occasions and small quantities.
- Set Boundaries on Snacking Rules for Your Picky Eaters. I notice that when my kids have snacks they don’t eat as well during mealtime. If your child requires a snack then choose a small, healthy, minimally processed snack and try to avoid giving snacks within two hours of the next meal. In addition, we don’t offer any snacks to kids that didn’t finish their prior meal—to avoid picky eating habits during mealtime.
- Turn Off Televisions and Ignore Your Phone. Mealtime is about connecting with each other and nourishing our bodies through food. When the television is on or we are taking phone calls we are not engaging in this important family event. This will also help your children focus on eating as well as recognizing cues of fullness.
- Be a Role Model for Your Picky Eaters. Let your kids see you try new foods that you might feel nervous about eating. My husband will eat anything and everything under the sun without flinching, so this is no problem for him. I, on the other hand, am a bit more particular, and I have ideas about what I like and don’t like. I try to model courage to my kids by trying new things. I might say out loud, “I have tried this before and haven’t liked it, but I’m going to see if I like it now.” Or I will tell them that I also don’t love Brussels sprouts, for instance, but I eat them because I know they heal parts of my body that are damaged.
- Get Colorful and Creative. I try to have the color of the rainbow on my family’s plates—striving for 75% of our plates to be fruits and vegetables. Kids are drawn to colors. I often mention how beautiful our food looks. I invested in a spiralizer so I could create fun looking vegetables like swirly sweet potatoes or spiraled zucchini to replace pasta noodles. This makes cooking and eating more fun for me and the kids. Cookie cutters can also help make food look fun.
- Teach Your Picky Eaters About Nutrition. Many of us need to understand the “why” in order to make healthy decisions. Kids are no different. We need to role model good behavior but it is also imperative to inform our children about how foods affect our bodies. In our family we often talk about the power of chlorophyll in our bodies and the harm caused by sugars. I want my children to feel empowered and informed about food choices, and not just be subject to whatever mom and dad throw on their plates. In public settings, my children often ask adults what type of ingredients are in the foods that are being offered to them and they decide whether or not to have it based on what they know, or feel in that moment. This shows me that they are trying to make informed decisions about their eating habits, even at very young ages.
There you have it! 10 Ways to Empower your Picky Eater to Eat Healthy!
Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN Author of Full Plate
Family Contributor and Nutrition Expert at Clean Eating Programs
Serving up Clean Eating Recipes and Meal Plans for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Snacks!