There are only so many things that children can themselves control. They figure out pretty quickly that they are in charge of when and how they go to the bathroom, whether or not they sleep, and whether or not they eat. You can try to get your kids to do these things but you simply can’t make them happen if the child is unwilling.
There really is just one tip: LESS IS MORE. The more you try to get your kids to eat, the more pushback you will get. The less you seem to care and try, the more likely they will be to take bites and be adventurous with new foods.
Of course, there are lots of little tricks and strategies you can use to help pave the way for more success with eating.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind when it comes to successful mealtime with your young child:
- Fewer snacks are better. Your child likely needs a snack or two each day but try to have them happen at a consistent time or in a consistent manner so that they understand it’s not just endless crunchy things in little bags whenever they want. You can say, you get two snacks per day, one in school and one after school. Try to stick to this.
- ~When you break the rule, just say that, “Today is a special occasion so we are having more than our usual two snacks.” The more your child snacks between meals the less hungry they will be and the less inclined they will be to try new or healthy foods at the table.
- Don’t forget the “safety food”. At meal times, there always needs to be a “safety food” on their plate. Something that you know they like and will eat. The other items can be new to them or things that they are sort of liking but aren’t sold on.
- ~As long as you have that one definite preferred item on their plate, there is no chance that you will need to go back to the kitchen to fix them something else. You really want to avoid doing this as it leads to more food refusal down the line.
- Don’t put too much on their plates. If you only serve them a little bit of each thing, they can finish things and ask for more, giving them a sense of success.
More tips for picky eaters to keep in mind:
- Family meals are important. Family meals are hard, especially during the work week, but if you can get at least a few family style meals in each week, it will really help your child see eating normalized and modeled for them.
- ~When you eat with them, focus on your food, do not ask them to take bites of theirs. Just model normal eating. You can talk about the food in terms of its properties but not in a way that is pushing them to try it.
- ~For example, you might say “hmmm, the cauliflower is great, it’s a bit crunchy.” Instead of “You will love this cauliflower. Mommy loves it too. Try it.”
- Don’t worry about mess or manners. If your child is struggling with eating and only eats a limited number of foods, drop the prompts to use manners and stop worrying about mess. It's okay if they get food on the table, on the floor, and all over their face. They are exploring and learning. This is healthy and normal.
- ~If your floors or table are special to you, then get a drop cloth or place mat. Don’t mention the mess and don’t keep wiping their faces while they eat. Leave them be.
- ~Tell the other adults in your child’s life (nanny, daycare providers, family members, etc) to do the same. Explain the rationale to them. “Right now we are focusing on food discovery, exploration, and trying new things. We will get to manners, proper use of utensils, and cleanliness later. Please don’t ask her to say please and thank you right now and please leave the mess until the end.”
- ~You can also teach kids to clean their own faces, which restores some power to them as well.
If your child is refusing to eat, it's likely one of two things:
- You have overdone it with trying to get them to eat and it's time for adjustments (see above tips)
- Or, they may have some oral-motor or sensory issues and you should consult with a feeding therapist. They can do an assessment and let you know the best course of action.
Most, if not all, children fluctuate on whether or not they like a given food. Any one child might change their stance on avocado several times in just their first 5 years of life. Your job is to not be flustered by it. Instead, keep serving the food to your child in small portions from time to time. Finally, get out of the way, say less, do less, and enjoy your own meal!