Annie Keeling: Help! My child is a picky eater |

Annie Keeling: Help! My child is a picky eater

Small plates can help slowly introduce children to new tastes they are unfamiliar with. Start with tiny bits of food and gradually increase the size.
Photo by Annie Keeling

Many young children could be described as picky eaters. If the child is used to breastmilk, formula or sweet-tasting foods, it can be quite a transition to eat foods that awaken the other tastes. Alert! Alert! Strange taste in mouth!

Young kids are also new to making decisions and experimenting with control. One thing they can control is what goes into their bodies. As children grow, they may develop habits that are difficult to change — like only eating sweet tastes, soft textures or certain colors like white foods.

Before we get into picky eaters, let’s look at suggestions for healthy mealtimes.

Mealtime Basics

Everyone helps before and after the meal. It’s much easier to start a meal together if everyone is in the kitchen with a responsibility. Even the youngest can help measure, pour, put out silverware or carry a plate.

Everyone sits together. Even if someone is not hungry, this agreement emphasizes a major family value — family time is important. Give the youngest a reasonable time limit to stay at the table. You expect her to be with the family. Eating the food is her choice. And kids usually eat a more nutritious diet, with more fruits and vegetables, when seeing others model it.

Make an agreement: no toys, books or cell phones at the table.

Increase the meal’s significance with a ritual. Light a candle, give thanks, say a prayer or have a short check-in to help everyone slow down and focus on coming together as a family.

As much as possible, everyone eats the same meal. If someone doesn’t like something, leave it and say nothing. If there is something that’s liked, encourage family members to say so.

Teach the expectation that there is no throwing food at the table. (Later, find a safe place where together you can practice throwing things.) This is usually a sign that the child is done. Teach sign language for “Finished.” (Start with palms facing in, then turn the hands so that they are facing out.) Put the food away. It can come out again later. That helps the child learn to signal that they really are all done.

Acknowledge feelings and desires. “You want to come back to the table and eat more after you showed me you were done. I see how that upsets you. It will be time to eat again later.”

In all food related activities, it works best for the parent to keep a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor that is non-judgmental. Trust your child do the rest. She’s capable of focusing on her meal and autonomously eating all she needs. Believe in her.

Snacks and Junk Food

Even if your child likes candy or chips, don’t feel like you must give in. Kids can’t run to the store to buy them, so don’t keep them in the house. If your child wants candy, simply say, “We don’t have any.” Instead of chips, Cheerios, or other “quick” foods, have kid-size portions of healthy foods available for snacks. Use an ice cube tray and place small bites of a variety of foods within reach for snacks.

One mother was tired of her son only asking for yogurt as a snack. Determining he had about five snacks throughout the day, she made five picture cards: apple, carrots, trail mix, strawberries and yogurt. There was only one of each. He got to choose one of each throughout the day.

Lay the Groundwork for New Foods

Provide healthy, educated choices. Sugar (read labels — there are 50 names for sugar) and food additives (dyes, preservatives, chemicals, genetically modified foods, etc.) can negatively affect behavior, making kids more susceptible to tantrums and big emotional releases. Even 100% fruit juice can be problematic because it lacks the fiber to slow down the fruit sugar absorption. In addition, the negative nutritional value of lots of “foods” out there can impact the child’s ability to make good decisions at the next meal.

Avoid milk and juice right before a meal. This can diminish her appetite and decrease her willingness to try a new food being offered.

Try A Before B. If she only wants to eat a limited palette, use the practice of A Before B: Good food (A) before something sweet (B) — like dessert or fruit.

Small Plate / Big Plate

But wait, you say, my child is really a picky eater. What can I do?

Many parents will say, “Just try one bite,” but the daunting mound of orange or green stuff may turn the child off so much that he can’t even manage that bite.

Here is a strategy to guide your child to more variety:

Start each meal — for every family member — with a small plate. On each plate, put tiny amounts of approximately five different foods that you have seen your child try but does not like. Very small means a smidgeon of sweet potato, ¼ of a pea, a button-size cooked carrot, the smallest corner of a lettuce leaf. These small bites will barely have any taste.

Only after eating what is on this plate does your child move on to the big plate which contains some slightly larger portions of food from the small plate as well as some food you have made for dinner that your child does like.

Use this consistently for a period of time. Toleration will grow. In a 2010 study (by Lakkakula A1, Geaghan J, Zanovec M, Pierce S, Tuuri G.), “the number of children who reported liking or liking a lot for previously disliked vegetables was greater after eight or nine taste exposures.”

This may seem like a lot of work at first, but the tiny bites are of foods that you have prepared for the meal. You are not asking your child to finish off large portions of something that tastes bad to them. And you are not making separate menus for each family member.

Parents’ desire to remind, urge or praise needs to be kept in check. Your child’s natural hunger and desire to do what other family members are doing will take over. If your child is especially determined to say no, it will only take a few meals before they are truly hungry. Try this for the first time when you can stay home for a day or two and help the child through crankiness or unwillingness.

Resist the urge to give the child snacks during this experiment. What you can do is give a small plate earlier than the scheduled meal if he seems truly hungry.

If the child is frustrated, mirror back what you see: “It seems like you don’t like this new change.” “You wish you could eat snacks for dinner.”

Use positive witnessing to show your observation of any step in the right direction: “You tasted the green stuff. We value green foods like spinach in our family.” “You took a bite of cauliflower. How brave. And you didn’t say yuck.”

It might be hard to imagine that your child’s tastes will change. These small people are dynamic and resilient. With your help, their food preferences and palette will grow.

Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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