I don’t know if I did something right in my parenting, or I just got lucky, but food and mealtimes have never been a struggle for me with my kids. My children eat all of their food groups (mostly) without coercion, and dinner is a pleasant time to make conversation as a family. We don’t have three hour standoffs over whether or not the child will eat the broccoli. Picky eating is pretty much a non-issue in our house.
Like I said, we might have gotten lucky.
But my parents did raise me pretty well in the making-sure-I-ate-my-food department (they did ok in other areas too, but I digress), so I think those parenting strategies just kind of came to me naturally and easily.
Why is it important to raise kids who aren’t picky?
Kids tend to choose a few different types of foods that they like, and resist eating anything outside of the small range of choices they’ve determined are acceptable.
It’s practically a social expectation that your three year old will subsist on nothing but chicken nuggets and french fries. Restaurants make separate menus just for kids, for crying out loud.
As parents, its a lot easier go along with this expectation. To just feed the kids what they want. You avoid the battle, the child gets fed, and everybody’s happy, right?
But in the long run, its so much extra work for you to cater to a picky eater. You wind up cooking a separate meal for them every night. You have to haul around food that they like so that they’ll have something to eat when you’re out and about.
Not to mention that kids rarely choose broccoli as one of their chosen foods, so they probably aren’t getting the nutrients that they need.
More than that, if they never grow out of their picky eating habits, life as an adult picky eater can create a whole host of problems.
So much of our culture is centered around food. We gather together for meals. We celebrate with food. When you’re not willing to eat most of what other normal adults eat, social situations can create a lot of anxiety.
So what I do to keep picky eating at bay is pretty no-nonsense.
What’s for dinner is for dinner
Since the beginning of time, our kids have never gotten a PB&J sandwich for dinner if we weren’t having PB&J for dinner. Even when they were tiny babies. If I fed them spinach and they didn’t eat the spinach, I assumed they weren’t hungry and moved on with life. No filling up on peas or applesauce, or other foods that they had already developed a taste for and were willing to eat.
My job as a parent is to offer a healthy variety of foods to my child at mealtimes. It’s totally up to them whether or not they decide to eat it. If they don’t want it, that’s cool, but they aren’t getting anything else as a substitute.
As a result, they’ve each gone to bed without dinner plenty of times. I’ve never had an issue with them waking up in the night because they were hungry, they just go to sleep as normal. Then they perhaps eat a larger than normal breakfast the next morning.
What motivation would a kid have to eat something that they don’t like when they know you’ll give them cereal in 10 minutes if they refuse to eat what you originally offered them? Being a short-order cook is a vicious cycle, and kids will continue to get more and more picky the more you cater to their whims and desires. That’s what my pediatrician told me anyway.
I’ll admit there’s plenty I don’t know about picky eaters – texture problems, gag reflexes and the like.
But I’m just saying I don’t think the starving children in Nigeria have texture issues with their porridge.
My kids don’t like cauliflower, but I’m pretty sure that if cauliflower were the last available food on planet earth, they would eat it eventually. So we keep working on it with them, because kids can be taught to learn to like anything. Or at least tolerate anything.
If you absolutely can’t get your child to eat a certain food in a sitting, don’t let that be the end of the story. Don’t assume that because they wouldn’t eat it the first they tried it, they’ll never be willing to eat it in the future.
It can take many attempts at trying a food before a kid will start to grow accustomed to it and start being willing to eat it. If they didn’t like it at dinner, serve the leftovers to them again at lunch the next day to give them more exposure to the food.
Make that dish again in a few weeks and repeat the process. Just keeping trying. You might be surprised one day when you look over and they’ve eaten every bite of a food they hated the first time they tried it.
If I’m feeling generous (or if it’s leftover night), I’ll give my kids a limited number of options and let them decide what they want to eat. Maybe they get choose between PB&J or a quesadilla for lunch. Or they get to decide if they want ranch dressing or peanut butter to go with their carrots.
The conditions? Once they’ve decided and the food is front of them, they can’t change their mind. They made their choice, now they have to live with it.
But it’s usually a win-win for everybody. They have a say in deciding what they’re going to eat, and I still get to feed them something wholesome and healthy.
Make sure your picky eater is actually hungry
Of course none of these strategies will work if your kid isn’t actually hungry at mealtimes. We keep snacking to a minimum around our house. Our girls eat such a big breakfast that we don’t even do a morning snack, so they are more than ready to eat whatever I prepare for them at lunch time.
After they wake up from their naps they get a light snack, usually just some fruit or vegetable sticks of some sort. That’s it, and honestly I think even that afternoon snack ruins their dinner sometimes.
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense that the kid who just filled up on granola bars and gummy bears half an hour ago has no motivation whatsoever to eat that lasagna you slaved over.
I know it’s super tempting to pass out snacks while dinner is cooking to avoid all the pre-dinner whining of hungry children. But I promise you aren’t doing yourself any favors if you want to avoid dinner time battles.
Try to find other ways to distract them, if you can. Alayna went through a phase where she threw an absolute fit while I worked to get dinner on the table each night. Instead of giving in to snacks, my husband started taking her outside to play. It kept her mind off of food, and worked like a charm.
When my husband works late and can’t get home to help out, I absolutely turn on the TV for a few minutes to keep the children occupied while I cook. Guilt-free.
Those are my strategies to overcome picky eating, for what they’re worth. What works for your family?
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