Dinnertime: the ancient battle between mother and toddler. Tiny fists ball up around a fork, as your eyes widen, pleading.
“Just three peas.” you say, pushing the plate a little closer to that tiny, drawn-down brow.
“No.” he pushes the plate away, insistently.
“Okay, just two peas. If you eat just two peas, you can have ice-cream.” You know you’re begging; you know you’re bargaining with a child. And you know you’re losing.
“No.” he looks up at you, the hunter surveying his prey, “One pea. And I get sprinkles.”
You sigh. He’s got you. And he knows it. “Okay.” you agree, “Just one pea, and you can have ice-cream with sprinkles.”
You watch his eyes narrow as he pierces a single pea with the prongs of his fork, pursing his lips together. Reluctantly, as though you were asking him to eat some horrendous substance, he places the pea between his lips and swallows. Any hopes you had that he would realize he likes the vegetable are erased. He pushes his plate away, turning to you with a smile, “Now can I have ice-cream?”
Must all mealtimes end like this, with begging, with pleading, with threats and tears? Must there be this constant battle?
No. You can opt out of the power-struggle today. With the following tips for picky eaters, you can end the war, helping your child eat healthier and have a better relationship with food for years to come.
1. Don’t Engage In Power-Struggles
Don’t try and force your child to eat if they’re not hungry. Trying to force your child to have a snack, to clear their plate, or attempting to bribe your child to eat foods they don’t like will place you and your child on opposite sides and draw you into a battle, making mealtimes a time of stress and anxiety for both of you. Although it can be frustrating if your child doesn’t want to eat something you’ve cooked, you have to let them judge their own hunger.
Be nonchalant if your child leaves food on their plate.
If your child routinely leaves a lot of food on their plate, try giving small portions and let your child ask for more.
2. Introduce New Food Alongside Old Favorites
Whenever you introduce a new food, introduce a small amount of it alongside something you know your child enjoys. For example, if your child loves potato fries, try serving it with a new vegetable: for example some bell-pepper slices or tomatoes. You could put some fruit over a favorite breakfast cereal, or add some vegetables to macaroni cheese.
3. Conceal Vegetables
A lot of toddlers and young children think they hate vegetables. While the long-term goal should be to encourage your child to eat vegetables that are openly placed before them, in the short-term, you can improve your child’s diet by concealing blended vegetables in bolognaise sauces, dicing vegetables and adding them to cheese sauces (most toddlers will eat almost anything that’ served in a cheese sauce), or blending vegetables to add to the tomato puree of a pizza.
4. Make Food Fun
There are many ways you can make food fun. Try using cucumber chunks and bread to make a funky Very Hungry Caterpillar that your child will love; simply use a sandwich filling your child enjoys (see Annabel Karmel’s website for more information – it makes a great centerpiece at a toddler’s birthday party).
Alternatively, try having a Teddy Bear’s Picnic, and sitting at a small table with finger food and your child’s favorite teddy-bears and dolls. Not only is it a fun activity your child will enjoy, but they might try food they wouldn’t ordinarily eat, under the guise of playing.
You could also try using fun names for food. “Green beans” don’t sound very exciting to a child, but “power beans” sound strong and fun. Broccoli is boring, but “Dinosaur trees” sound cool and exciting. Research published by the British Psychological Society showed that using fun names help children eat their veggies. See what fun food names you can come up with.
5. Set A Good Example
If you want children to eat healthily, make sure you set a good example. Don’t buy unhealthy snack foods (such as cookies or potato chips). Load your plate with a sensible, balanced meal and eat-up. If you cook Brussels sprouts or spinach, make sure you have some on your plate (and eat it). Cooking something and then saying you won’t eat it encourages your child to become a picky eater.
6. Get Your Child Involved
If your child won’t eat vegetables, take them to the supermarket and let them pick their own vegetables. Let them hold them, smell them and choose the one they want for dinner. When you get the vegetables home, get your child to wash the vegetables you bought. It’ll be messy, but your child is much more likely to eat something they chose and prepared.
7. Stick To A Schedule
A routine gives children security. Kids like to know when mealtimes are and when snacks are coming. So make a schedule for meal- and snack-times and stick to it. Children are more likely to eat at meal- and snack-times if they know they only get fed at those times. In between those times, keep your child hydrated without filling their stomachs by offering water or milk.
8. Eat At The Table
If you eat in front of the TV, your children will be distracted by the dancing images and may not notice if they’re full. By eating at the table, you will have time to talk as a family. Your children will also be able to observe your behavior, making it the perfect time to model positive eating habits.
9. Never Use Dessert As A Reward Or Punishment
Offering dessert as a reward for good behavior or withholding it as a punishment for undesirable behavior will increase your child’s desire for sweet treats, increasing unhealthy eating habits later in life. Dessert should be offered regardless of behavior earlier in the day. Offer healthy desserts most of the time, such as yogurt or fresh fruit.
10. Don’t Encourage Fussy Eating-Habits
If your child has rejected the meal you cooked, don’t cook a special meal just for them. Preparing a separate meal for your child will encourage picky-eating. Not eating for one meal, or just picking at one favored component, won’t harm their development. Encourage them to stay at the table, so your child can watch the rest of their family eat and enjoy the meal they’ve rejected; they might be encouraged to try eating something while waiting for everyone to finish.
Your child’s eating habits won’t change overnight, but by taking small, consistent steps, you can encourage the long-term development of healthier eating habits that will pay dividends in the future.
Video: More Great Tips To Get Your Picky Eaters To Eat
(Note: If you’re concerned about your child’s growth or development, or if your child is becoming extremely selective with food, consult your doctor).