Our fast-paced lives make it really hard to get kids to eat the right balance of foods. Having two young children myself, I have experienced the challenge! It helps if you understand how kids operate. For starters, most children go through a “picky” phase when they are two or three years old. This is usually more about beginning to express themselves than about disliking the food they are offered. Don’t label your child a picky eater just because of these behaviors. Here are five things you can do to overcome picky eating.
1. You MUST lead by example – Kids are like sponges. They see and absorb EVERYTHING. I am reminded of this every day by my two daughters. They do what they see me do, not what I tell them to do. Get beyond your own stories. Get out of the way. Lead by example. Period. Likewise, it is important to not completely restrict “treats”. Some studies have found that severe restriction of these foods causes children to overeat them when given the opportunity. Modeling good food behavior means eating in balance most of the time but also enjoying special foods occasionally. The important thing is not to use food as a reward but to focus on balance.
2. Don’t make a big deal in public about what your child eats or doesn’t eat—Save that conversation for behind closed doors with your spouse or partner. For the most part, “picky eaters” are created and perpetrated by parents who draw too much attention to whether their kids are trying new foods. When labeled as a picky eater, the children behave accordingly, rather than quietly trying something new even though they first said no. If they see their parents eating and enjoying a particular food, they will be curious. Remember that children need to try foods multiple times (more than once or twice!) before they decide they like them. If you label them as picky, they will live up to the label.
3. Nourish, don’t just feed – I understand that in our fast-paced, sleep-deprived, stressed-out world, just getting your children fed seems like a major accomplishment. But understand that nourishing is different from eating. You feed children so they survive, you nourish them to help them thrive. When you nourish your children, they develop both physically and mentally to their full potential. And it forms good eating habits that will stay with them for a lifetime. That means you must minimize the drive-through and take-out meals you serve and make careful choices when you do need to use these food sources.
4. Serve a variety of foods, family-style. Offer a variety of nourishing foods for kids to try and expect to have left-overs. Chef Marshall does batch cooking for his family on the weekends to ease their busy weeknight schedule. They serve food family-style from bowls on the table so it’s easy for children to sample things and they eat what was cooked several times during the week, adding other dishes as needed as the week goes on.
5. Appeal to children’s sense of curiosity and their need to assert themselves. Take them grocery shopping and have them help pick out the fruits and vegetables. Have them help in the kitchen, based on their age level and abilities. If they participate in preparing the food, they are more likely to try it when it appears on the table.
Again, parents must “walk the walk” themselves. Kids do what they see you do, not what you tell them to do. Even if you don’t like a food that is very nutritious, try to remain neutral toward that food and offer it to your child as you would any other. Remember: nourishing is a lifelong goal and big changes don’t happen overnight. time. Baby steps and repetition are the keys to success.