As feeding professionals, we are often asked to share our number one tip for parents of picky eaters. And it’s not an easy question! Partly because there is just so much you can do to help your child build their eating confidence, so choosing just one thing is a big ask. But – more importantly, perhaps – we know that tackling picky eating is not about just one strategy or trick. There are no magic bullets, as much as we wish there were. So we’ve kind of dodged the question here; instead, we are being greedy and we’re going to share our top nine picky eating tips with you.
This might sound obvious. It might also sound impossible. Of course you want to enjoy meals, but while every meal is a battle, how is this even an option? Well, we are here to tell you that meals need to be relaxed and positive (for both you and your child) BEFORE you can begin thinking about helping them eat new foods. If you can shift your focus from what gets eaten to how meals feel, this can be truly transformative.
‘Family style’ is a term referring to communal meals where everyone serves themselves. Kind of like a buffet, but sitting at the table… Often, picky eaters are looking for control during meal times. It’s a kind of coping strategy; eating is hard, so they cling to a narrow range of accepted foods for dear life. We can meet this need for control in a positive way, by letting kids serve themselves from the foods we provide. They can take what they like and are put back in charge of their eating decisions.
If you’re feeling worried about your child’s diet, you may feel like you need to give them every opportunity to eat. Or you might think that if they say they’re hungry, you need to seize the moment and give them a snack while they’re asking for it. Here’s the problem: if children have lots of small eating opportunities throughout the day, they don’t get a chance to get into a natural rhythm of hunger and fullness. They get divorced from their internal signals and have less of an appetite at main meals. Offering food on an age and stage appropriate schedule will really help your child.
Did you know that, according to researchers, the thing that has the biggest impact on children’s eating is what they see you eating. Not what you tell them about nutrition. Not what you train them to do by using sticker charts or other incentives. Not even what they see their friends doing. If you can eat a wide variety of foods in front of your child, not only is this great for you, it’s also the most powerful lesson you can teach them. Family style serving is a brilliant way to ensure that your child is exposed to lots of different foods in a zero-pressure environment.
If your child only eats a few foods, before you know it, you can be in the habit of rotating the same two or three evening meals, identical sandwiches every lunch time and the same bowl of dry cheerios at breakfast time each and every day. If you can optimise variety, it might not feel nutritionally important BUT it is an essential step towards meaningful progress. If your child has enough accepted foods, try not to serve any one thing twice in two, or even three days. If their diet is super limited, swap the times and combinations of foods served. Cheerios for dinner, anyone?
When we are laser-focused on getting food down a child, we are caught up in short term thinking. The meal becomes about what the child consumes, even if this results in stress and increased anxiety. Changing your attitude, so that you are able to prioritise your child’s long term relationship with food, will help so much with picky eating. This means No. More. Pressure. It’s okay if they don’t eat two more peas. It’s not okay if they leave the table with tears – your and theirs – of worry and frustration.
We know that telling you to stop worrying and to start relaxing is possibly easier said than done. If you have genuine worries about your child’s health, the first thing you need to do is to have a chat to their health-care professional. Chances are, you don’t need to worry. And if there is a problem, you can feel confident that you are on the case. Concentrating on your own emotions at mealtimes is just so valuable. Children are emotional sponges – if you are tense and anxious, they will be too.
Knowledge is power. That feeling of confusion and powerlessness that comes from not really knowing WHY your child is a picky eater, can really grind you down. There are several – often overlapping – root causes of childhood feeding problems. If you can figure out what is behind your child’s picky eating, this will empower you to help them. Sometimes you may need professional assessment to help you figure this out.
As with understanding why your child finds eating hard, helping them move forward can also require professional input. This may involve face-to-face sessions with a range of professionals from different disciplines. Or maybe you just need to learn all about how to approach mealtimes and how to respond to picky eating, so that you can help them thrive and grow into a confident eater. Every child and every family is different.
If you are a Your Feeding Team subscriber, we’ll take you step by step through all the different things you need to know in order to help your child enjoy eating and broaden their diet. We talk you through the different types of professional support out there and when you might need it. We help you think about what may be contributing to your child’s eating behaviours. We share age-appropriate meal schedules, practical guidance on serving family style, alternatives to pressure and so much more. We also love answering your picky eating questions in our private facebook group, once a week. As Your Feeding Team is a monthly subscription service, you can see if it’s a good fit for you with no lock-in. Give it a try; together, we’ve got this!
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