Picky eating—does it ever end? I am fairly certain that my little Texans would eat a cheese quesadilla at every meal if I let them. Why are foods like pizza, grilled cheese, PB&J, and chicken fingers always on kids’ menus at restaurants? At what point do kids refine their palates enough to eat off of a full menu? Will your picky eater outgrow his habits?
The quick answer is no, without your help and direction, your picky eater can become more and more restrictive in his food choices. Some kids are picky about flavor, others about texture; others will only eat Chick-Fil-A nuggets…three times a day…every day of the week. The good news is that it is never too late to make positive changes that will make eating less stressful for everyone involved.
When it comes to eating, children claim the majority of the power. Have you ever tried to force a child to eat? It can be nearly impossible. This is exactly where the picky eating behaviors start. No mom wants her child to go hungry, so she is more likely to cave in and provide a desirable food when the original option is rejected. The problem is that while that child is actually eating, the mom has reinforced the restaurant-like atmosphere and the child has learned that he can get his way.
Did you know that it can take 8–15 different presentations of a food before a person will accept that food? I am not saying that your child needs to eat foie gras and caviar, but he should be able to sit down at any meal and be OK with what is being served.
This change does not need to be a long process. With consistency, you can see dramatic results within one to two weeks. I am not saying that this is going to be easy. If your child has been a picky eater for a long time, then he has learned a trick or two to get his way. Don’t worry—you set the stage and he will eat when he is ready. Here are a couple of things to try:
1. Quit being a short order cook. Everyone in the house eats the same meals.
2. Set up a schedule. Try three meals and 1–3 small snacks at fairly regular times during the day (e.g., breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, snack). Do not let your child graze during the day. He is more likely to be successful if he comes to the table hungry. (Allow him to have water whenever he asks, though!)
3. Avoid distractions during meals. Turn off the TV, put away the toys, and focus on eating.
4. Be realistic when it comes to portion sizes. Did you know that the appropriate portion size for small children is 1 tablespoon per year of age? For example, a small piece of cornbread, a tablespoon of chicken, a tablespoon of green beans, and a tablespoon of applesauce for a one-year-old. I know that seems like a tiny amount of food. They can always have more but need to finish the small variety of food you provide before seconds.
5. Set up some ground rules. Is your child a super slow eater? Limit meals to 30 minutes. Does he get in and out of his seat? Let him know that the meal is over if he leaves the chair.
6. Look at your own eating. Do you think others would describe you as picky? Hmm.
7. Aim for a variety of foods at every meal. It may help to plan out the week in advance.
8. Don’t fret if your child refuses to eat. Use that hunger to your advantage and provide a challenging food at the next eating opportunity.
9. Most importantly, stick with it. It’s OK if he doesn’t eat every meal. Your only job is to provide the meal. It is his job to eat it. Stop worrying about having to argue and beg. As I tell my children when they start to complain about the food, “Well, this is dinner.” Then they can choose to take it or leave it!
DISCLAIMER: There are times when picky eating needs outside help. Do not be afraid to contract your pediatrician if you think you have more on your plate than you can handle. If you do want to implement these suggestions and you think your child will be particularly stubborn, think about tracking your child’s weight to make sure that he is not losing too much.