Every parent has a unique mealtime experience with their children, every day.
But then, there are days when we wonder:
“When did my child become fussy about food?”
“Is my little one a picky eater?”
“Why have mealtimes become a hassle?”
This happens at everyone’s dinner table at some point in the growing-up years.
In this article, we will journey through picky eating, why kids can be picky eaters, how to handle them, and what not to tell them.
What is picky eating?
Picky eating is when someone or a child is reluctant to try new food, eat the required portion, or has a strong preference for the food they will eat.
Fussy eating is often displayed in the early years, as a child explores the world around them and begins to assert their independence.
Research shows that picky eating is common during childhood. There is also an understanding that children grow out of this trait. Also, picky eaters are likely to remain picky if it is not addressed at the onset.
This doesn’t mean we as parents set strict rules, but address this in such a manner that mealtime, food, and eating are seen in a positive light.
Before we explore the different ways, let’s understand which type of picky eater is your child?
Types of picky eaters
From avoiding vegetables to chomping on cheese, kids have their reasons for being picky.
Sometimes, their excuse can be as simple as: “Broccoli looks like the Hulk and I don’t want to eat!” or “I don’t like the name ‘butter’ and so I don’t want any butter on my toast!”
The Independent-minded eater
These children are often decisive about their eating habits — they know what they want to eat and what they don’t want. They assert their independence in a manner that can be unnerving
The proud non-eater
These children take pride in not eating, which often leads their parents to shrug. In some children, especially between the ages of 2 and 4, this could be their fear of trying out new tastes. They tend to throw a tantrum when it is mealtime.
The make-an-excuse eater
These children love to make an excuse about why they don’t want to eat. They may choose to eat but definitely after making a lot of excuses! Parents can become exasperated by this.
The dairy eater
Yes, these children use milk or dairy as a substitute for eating. This could be because they have been fed milk during mealtime or before mealtime — not the milk in cereal!
The attention eater
These children generally are not fussy about eating their food, but about attention from their parents. So, when parents settle down with them to eat and talk to them, they eat better. Otherwise, there is a tantrum in the waiting!
Generally, when we as parents insist that children finish their plate without negotiating, it can affect their approach to eating, right?
So, how can we handle this habit of fussy eating without negatively impacting their relationship with food?
9 positive ways to handle a picky eater
1) Start early
By the time your child turns 2, it is better to have introduced them to fruits and vegetables. Also, different tastes and textures. So, make the same thing you are eating for your little one. This eases them into mealtime. Ensure there is no choking hazard. Allow them to play and eat their food.
2) Make an offer
This works if your child is older and has already a preference on what they want to eat. Give them 2 or 3 vegetable options to choose from for the meal. It is time to negotiate and then put your foot down. Eg: “Please choose between carrots, spinach, and beans?”; etc. When you make an offer, this makes them feel that they are helping you plan the mealtime. This can reduce their fussiness towards food. If they do have a tantrum, talk to them about it.
3) Cook together
This is a wonderful way to introduce new foods and a sensory exploration time. When you prep for the meal, engage your child in helping you out. When you cut vegetables, talk to them about this process and how you are going to prepare the meal using them. Encourage them to participate. They can mix, help you make a salad, speak about the smells, etc. Depending on your little one’s age, you can give them child-safe knives for dicing.
4) Family mealtime
This is a wonderful way to reduce fussy eating in children. When you eat together, your child gets your attention and observes how their parents eat. It is a bonding time! You can set aside 20-30 mins for dinner. Talk about the food and the different flavours. Explain how you prepared them. It’s okay if your child doesn’t finish their entire plate. If it is a new food, give them time.
5) Regular mealtimes
Have set mealtimes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Talk to them about it every day. An hour or so before mealtime, you can tell them that it will be time to eat soon. Have a count down to eating. Get them to help you set the table, wash their hands, etc. This eases them into eating their food.
6) Limit snacking
Having a snack a few hours before mealtime is fine, but not within a short span of mealtime. Your child’s stomach is small and they can feel full quickly. Hence, it is ideal to avoid giving them snacks around mealtime. You can also decide on the portion of their snack.
7) No force-feeding
When you force-feed your child, it creates a negative impact on their eating. This makes them fussier as well as there will be tantrums for sure. It is all right if your child doesn’t finish their plate. Younger children often display non-verbal actions to indicate that they are full. When they are hungry, they can ask you. When you force-feed, this sets their eating pattern for life. Eg: Overeating just to have an empty plate, eating disorders, etc.
8) No reward, bribe, or punishment
Meals are important and not chores. Rewards or briberies do not help create a healthy eating habit. Instead, it can lead to an unreal expectation about mealtimes. Eg: “If you eat your vegetables, I will give you a piece of chocolate”; “Since you finished your plate, have some ice cream”, etc. This encourages fussy eating in them. Punishments don’t help, either. Eating a meal will be associated as a punishment, instead of a necessity. Avoid strict rules. Keep it direct and have a conversation instead.
9) Calm & stress-free
Having a stress-free mealtime can work wonders for you and your child. Settle down with your family and plan your meals every week. This enables your child to feel that they are part of the planning. Also, this can ensure calmer mealtimes. If your child is smaller, use pictures to enable them to choose vegetables, etc. At mealtime, ensure there is no hurry for your child to eat.
10) Not a screen time
Screens are distracting and they can make your child fussy in the long run. Mindful eating encourages your child to be involved in a sensory manner — touch, smell, sight, taste, auditory. When there is a screen in front of them while eating, it is distracting them from essentially understanding what they are eating and if they are full. Yes, screen time can seem like a blessing, however, it is not. Ensure that screens are off even during family mealtimes. Instead, enjoy wholesome meals. (If you are working from home, this can be wonderful screen-free time!)
11) Pretend play
Pretend play helps break the misconception surrounding mealtime and food. Start from how you buy your vegetables, fruits, etc. — from the market to the table. This helps build a long-term habit of conscious eating. Plus, you can narrate amazing stories or read storybooks about food. You can also address their picky eating habits using this powerful, yet simple tool.
To Conclude: Picky eater = natural progress to healthy eating
Let’s demystify the fact that being a picky eater is a huge problem. Certainly, this is not the case all the time.
Children can grow out of it or they can become long-term picky eaters and all of this depends on us, parents!
So yes, here is a simple checklist for you:
- Have a conversation with your child
- Form a plan with your child and spouse about mealtime
- No force-feeding
- Avoid screens
Most importantly, remain calm and patient.
After all, kids are full of surprises.
Make mealtime fun and shoo fussy eating away!
Perhaps, you can introduce this as part of your child’s preschool learning!
With Flintoclass@HOME, a research-based learning program for children between 1.5 and 6 years.
Our curriculum is designed to promote holistic learning in children.
Through exploratory activities, they are introduced to different concepts, including food habits.
There are activities such as pretend-play with vegetables in the market, creating healthy wrap, planting seeds, creating food pyramids, etc. There are storybooks too!
Flintoclass follows a blended approach, thus combining hands-on activities and pre-recorded guidance sessions. Also, all the materials are shipped directly to your doorstep! You can learn more about Flintoclass@HOME>>