I love to cook. And I come from a huge Italian family chock-full of “good eaters.” You want a clean plate? No problem. Pile on the seconds! So when I got pregnant with my first baby boy, I erroneously assumed that he would fit right in with the rest of my gluttonous family. Cut to my one-year-old toddler spitting out everything I put in front of him, and me turning bright red and fuming that nothing I made was satisfactory to his delicate taste buds.
My first-born is now a picky three-year-old. Not much has changed (except that he now has a one-year-old brother who will happily chow down on anything that is placed in front of him. I finally birthed a good eater!) But I still have my older kid to contend with. I have read countless articles, consulted with nutritionists, and have commiserated with friends whose children belong to the same picky eater club as my kid. If your child also holds a membership card to this incredibly frustrating club, then hopefully some of these tips will help you stay sane, and help your little one eat more than bread, cheese, and pasta.
1. Don’t make them finish.
If your kid doesn’t want to eat, don’t make him. Yes, it will tear you up inside as your mama bear instincts will want to make sure that your child is nourished and has a full, happy tummy. But there is good logic behind letting your little one eat as little as he wants. First, he might actually not be hungry. At this time in his life, he is learning about listening to his body. If he is hungry, he will eat. “But then he’ll be starving later!” you say. Yes, probably. And that will lead to him eating his next meal. The trick here is to stand firm. If he doesn’t want to eat now, that’s fine. But that also means that he cannot have access to snacks five minutes before bedtime. When dinner is over, the kitchen is closed. After a day or two of this, you’ll find that your child will begin to eat more and more at every meal.
2. Have everyone eat the same thing, together.
If your child is in school, then this can be difficult for lunchtime, and even breakfast. But try to eat as many meals together as a family as you can. It will teach your child that mealtime is not only the time to eat food, but a time to be social and talk about the day. It is important that you all eat the same food as well. If she sees you and your partner eating broccoli, eventually she will too. Good habits are learned. And if she doesn’t eat it? Refer to #1 above.
3. Include kids in the process — from buying to prepping to cooking.
If you put a plate in front of a child and it has strange, new ingredients on it, the chances of it being eaten by a picky eater are not good. But if you involve your kid in the whole process, it takes the mystery out of it, and it even makes it fun. The next time you want to introduce a new ingredient — maybe like asparagus — have him pick out the bunch at the store. Show him how asparagus sucks up water from the bottom of the stalks. Buy him a kid-friendly knife and have him help you cut the veggies for dinner prep. Maybe dress it up in a little butter to make it seem more appealing. By involving him in the process, he comes to the table as a well-informed eater and will be more likely to at least taste the item.
4. Meals and snack times should be consistent.
Kids thrive on routine. Be sure that all of their meals and snacks are at or around the same time every day. This will cut out any desire to fill up on unhealthy finger food when the next meal is imminent. It will also help if they’ve chosen to not eat much at a previous meal (see #1 above).
5. Cut out the buffet.
This might be redundant but it is worth repeating: if your child doesn’t like what you’ve prepared, c’est la vie. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT transform into a short order cook and prepare whatever their little hearts desire in that moment. You’re the adult, and you decide what the meal will be once. If they don’t like it, they don’t need to eat it. Besides, what does that teach them about life in general? That they can always get what they want? Nope.
6. Put something that they already like on the plate so it’s not a scary proposition for them.
If you’re going to introduce zucchini, then don’t just give your kid a plate of zucchini. You’re setting you both up for failure. Instead, try putting a little of the zucchini next to his chicken and potatoes — two things that he loves. It will send the message that zucchini is no different from those things and that he might like that too.
7. Most importantly, breathe.
Having a picky eater is difficult, but it’s not something to lose sleep over. Just stay calm, stand your ground, and don’t give in!