Mealtimes with a little one can be stressful. As a parent, it’s easy to feel defeated when your child refuses everything green, or anything that is not animal shaped. I often have parents come to me completely defeated after feeding their toddler nothing but snack foods for days, because they simply refuse to eat anything else.
As an occupational therapist, helping parents understand their little ones’ eating preferences is one of my favorite things to do. I’m a complete foodie now, but I haven’t always been. I used to be an extremely picky eater; I survived most of my childhood eating only buttered noodles and grilled cheese. It wasn’t until I was in OT school that I was able to expand my diet, and now I love teaching parents the most effective ways to expand their child’s diet from the beginning.
Here are my top 10 ways to avoid picky eating from the start:
1. Play with food before eating it.
As a child is still learning about the world and exploring new textures, a new food can be overwhelming. It is vital that, before expecting our little ones to eat a new food, we first allow them to explore that food. Get messy! Talk about the texture, smell, color, size and temperature. Then get creative! I love creating artwork with food and building structures out of food.
2. Never force feed.
This is a big one. Force-feeding your child can create a negative relationship with food, even into adulthood. Contrary to your goals, it may actually lead your child to eat even fewer foods. It can also lead to poor self-regulation around food. We want children to be able to learn how to control how much they eat and develop a healthy relationship with eating. Force-feeding will do the complete opposite! So, don’t force feed, never use the phrase “eat it,” and avoid bribing your child into taking a bite.
3. Let your child be in control.
This one is hard for many parents. Food is personal for everyone, including children. When children feel out of control, they become behavioral and may refuse all foods, often even highly preferred ones. To avoid this, always give your child a few choices during mealtime. Offer carrots, cucumbers or broccoli and let your child choose. Try to always include one preferred food in those choices.
There will be times when they choose nothing, and it’s important to be okay with that sometimes. As hard as it seems, the best thing you can do is to accept that that is where they are on their journey that day and move on. Don’t make a big deal out of it and they won’t either.
4. Make food a social activity.
Sitting down and having mealtime as a family is important. Whenever possible, try to sit down at a table to have a meal with your family. Food is an important part of every culture, and it is very social. It’s important that parents model good eating patterns for their children – and family meal time takes pressure off the child to eat because everyone is enjoying the food.
5. Offer a variety of foods to your child.
It is easy to get into a routine and feed your little one the same foods each week, but this often leads to picky eating. Mix it up and try new flavors each week. This will help prepare your little one for a balanced diet in the future.
6. Never use food as a reward.
It’s easy to offer a child their favorite cupcake in exchange for getting dressed, but using food – and especially foods loaded with sugar – as a reward is a slippery slope. It not only creates unhealthy eating habits, but may also lead to overeating in the future, because children learn to reward themselves with food as they get older.
7. Introduce foods multiple times.
If your child does not like the food on the first try, it’s okay – keep trying. It is completely normal for a child to reject a food when it is first introduced. In fact, it can take anywhere from 10-20 times just seeing a food before a child will try it. Don’t give up and keep introducing new foods. Just remember, do not force your little one to eat the food; let them try it when they are ready. Your job is just to keep putting it on the table.
8. Let them get involved in cooking.
It’s not always easy to build in the time (or deal with the mess), but allowing a child to be involved with mealtime prep not only fosters a sense of achievement, but it helps children understand and trust what is in the food that they’re eating. When kids are involved in the cooking process, they are much more likely to try new foods.
9. Keep mealtime fun.
Mealtime can often become stressful with a heavy focus on making sure that our little ones eat a fully balanced diet. This puts a ton of unneeded pressure on our little ones and makes mealtime more difficult. Keep conversation light during mealtime and make it fun! Talk about your child’s favorite play activities, ask about friends, and laugh at the table. Eating should be fun!
10. Allow your child to refuse foods.
Yes, mamas… it is okay to spit food out! We never want our children to feel like they have to finish a food if they try it. It is extremely important that kids know, if they decide to try a food, they do not need to finish it. They can even spit it out if they don’t like it. Some kids simply will not like certain foods and that’s okay! As adults, we also have our food preferences. If your child refuses outright, start by asking if he or she will allow the food on their plate without any pressure to eat it. They may still refuse (and that’s okay!). To start, just having it on the table is enough.