Think you know the pickiest eater in the world? Here’s some food for thought that’ll make you feel better: Between 20% to 50% of kids are described by their parents as picky eaters, which means a lot of parents are facing the same challenges you do during meal time. As with any parent, your instincts go into overdrive when your child isn’t getting the nutrition they need to fuel their growing body and mind. You fight for just one more bite. You offer three bedtime stories and maybe even some jello just to get them to even taste their dinner. When all else fails, you go ahead and make mac and cheese— the only thing your picky eater will eat. And voila, it worked! But you can’t help but feel a little defeated.
Is going through this mealtime routine with your picky eater the way to go? Is negotiating back and forth with your child the best way to establish a healthy relationship with food long-term? A lot of how we manage mealtimes and our eating habits comes from our parents, but you may be surprised to learn that old school guilt trips and dessert bribes aren’t the way to go:
Don’t offer up incentives or punishments to make your child eat.
As a child, you were probably told not to waste food and guilted into finishing your plate. But doctors actually recommend the opposite: don’t force your child to eat their meal or even a snack. If you continually bring attention to making your child eat, it can cause anxiety during meal times, and negotiating may lead to a power struggle over food. Never encourage them to finish their plate. Respect your child’s appetite by allowing them to recognize when they’ve had enough to eat and learn how to self-regulate.
Instead, think of fun ways that may entice them to try new foods by cutting up veggies and sandwiches into fun shapes, adding some dip for veggies, and selecting bright-colored foods.
Don’t offer dessert as a reward
Offering dessert as a reward is an oldie—but not so goody—tactic to get your child to eat. The first problem with this is that using food as a reward can create an unhealthy relationship with food later on in life. Rewarding with dessert sends the message that “dessert is the good stuff” and might only increase their desire for sweets, which can lead to chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity. Instead, serve fruit or another healthy alternative after their meal, and save the dessert for holidays and birthday parties.
Don’t prepare an additional meal last-minute to get them to eat.
When your picky eater refuses to eat anything but the one dish they always ask for, the easiest thing to do is to surrender and whip up that mac and cheese. But doing so may only reinforce picky eating. If they refuse to eat what you’ve prepared, don’t force it or place ultimatums on them. Simply remind them that mealtime is family time; and even though you can’t make them eat, they do have to remain at the table until everyone is done with their meal. If they come to you hungry later, offer to warm up their plate from earlier or offer something colorful and healthy like cucumbers and tomatoes with a dip.
You can also ask other moms what healthy school lunch items they pack for their picky eaters so that your child may be encouraged to eat the same types of things that they see their friends eating. Most of all, try to keep a positive environment around mealtimes, so your kids develop a healthy association with this essential part of their day.