Does your child only ever want to eat a few types of foods? Young children are notorious for their picky eating behaviours. Before you let the stress of mealtime get the best of you, consider these tips to help prevent mealtime battles.
Does your child only ever want to eat a few types of foods? Perhaps it’s grilled cheese, or peanut butter and toast. Do they refuse to try anything new? If mealtime is a struggle in your home, you’re not alone.
Young children are notorious for their picky eating behaviours, which can cause parents a great deal of stress. Before the stress of mealtime gets the best of you, consider these strategies and tips to prevent mealtime battles.
What does the research say about picky eating?
Model healthy eating
If you want your child to try new foods, you should eat them too. Encourage your child—in a positive way—to try the foods you’re eating, and remain neutral if they decide not to.
Reward good behaviour
Children like to be rewarded for good behaviour. Think back to potty training: what did you do to help establish this behaviour? Research recommends using non-food reward items, such as stickers, to help encourage trying new foods.
Introducing new foods is always best when children are hungry.
Children may need to be exposed to a new food 10 or more times before they accept it, so keep trying—and be patient.
Be a role model for your child and keep offering new foods without pressure. Eventually, they just might like it.
Let your child decide—within reason
To help reduce mealtime stress and prevent food battles, focus on your role as the parent/caregiver and let your child decide the rest (yes, this will be challenging).
You decide what, when, and where.
What You decide what foods and drinks are served at each meal. Make one meal for your entire family, and don’t cater to each child.
When You decide when the food is served. Plan meal and snack times so your child knows when to expect food.
Where You decide where the meal or snack is eaten (at the kitchen table, on the floor—picnic style, in front of the TV during their favourite show, for example).
Your child decides whether to eat and how much. This is the challenging part for parents and caregivers, as the child is ultimately responsible for how much they want to eat. Remember, children’s hunger varies day to day; trust that they know if they’re hungry.
Following these roles will help eliminate mealtime battles. When mealtime becomes a battle (pressure, convincing, tricking) your child knows someone has to win the battle (and in most cases they do). In addition, their hunger will vary based on their activity, growth, and energy that day. This variation is completely normal, and it’s why their hunger should be trusted.
The next time mealtime has you feeling stressed, remember your role, practise patience, get creative, and trust that you’re the expert in your own family.
Simple strategies improve mealtime, reduce battles
Try a reward chart
Set up a weekly reward chart that your child can place stickers on whenever they try new foods. At the end of the week, reward them with a small prize, such as a trip to the park after dinner.
Create fun taste tests
Create kid-friendly review cards with facial expressions (smiling, laughing, frowning, etc.) they can use to rate their meal. It can be a fun activity for the entire family when testing out new recipes.
Grow your own
Have your child grow their own herbs or vegetables in your home or garden. Teach them about the importance of growth during this process. Have them pick out a recipe to try out the “fruits” of their garden labour.
Involve kids in meal prep
- Have your child(ren) pick out a meal they would like to eat each week.
- Bring them grocery shopping (have them pick out their favourite veggie) or help choose foods based on choices you provide.
- Find things they can do in the kitchen, such as tossing salads, mixing batter, or making dressings.
Children are more interested in eating foods they’ve helped prepare.
Establish mealtime routine
Keep mealtimes consistent so kids know when to expect a meal. Children both love and need routine. Try to incorporate routine times to enjoy meals together with the entire family. Use these times to set the example for them to follow.
Make mealtime fun; this has the benefit of being more enjoyable for everyone. Make dips for your veggies or have make-your-own meal nights, such as burrito bowls with optional toppings.
Set a time limit
Try to keep mealtime to 30 minutes. Extending mealtime beyond 30 minutes can make it an unpleasant experience for everyone. If your child doesn’t eat in that time period, remove the food from the table and offer food again at the next meal or snack time.