How to Get Fussy Eaters to Eat the Food You Give Them
Toddlers are notoriously fussy eaters; their palates are more finicky than those of four-star chefs. And their parents are notoriously frazzled when it comes to mealtimes — which often descend into a battle of wills between parent and child. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If your toddler is spurning veggies or even a full plate, read on for some strategizing around healthy meals for fussy eaters — but be warned: no quick fixes. Getting a toddler who is a picky eater to eat what you set before them takes consistency and patience from parents.
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When dealing with fussy eaters, Do…
Set good mealtime habits.
Make sure children have structured mealtime habits, such as: sitting in a chair, using a plate/cutlery, eating at specified times, and feeding themselves. When meals are unstructured — we’ve all seen the child who is being chased around the house with a spoon — food becomes fraught for kids.
Snacking throughout the day means that kids are never really full and never really hungry. Which means at actual mealtimes, they’re never fully in the mood to eat. Setting and sticking to developmentally appropriate meals throughout the day ensures they eat the right amount of food as well as that they’re hungry enough to eat whatever food you put in front of them.
Keep portions small.
Don’t stress about your toddler eating too little; remember, his stomach is tiny compared to yours, so what you think is a normal portion is physically impossible for him to eat. If he eats a few peas and then stops, that’s fine — as long as he’s growing and gaining weight over time, you have nothing to worry about.
Use positive reinforcement.
Positive discipline techniques encourage long-term behavioral change in favor of vegetables. So, every time your toddler has a bite of pasta, don’t react — but every time she eats a bite of vegetable, throw a party! Jump around, make eye contact, smile, and provide verbal encouragement. Or compliment her in front of her other caretakers or favorite toy (“Hey Mr. Froggy, did you see Aarti ate all her peas today? I was so impressed!”).
Make mealtimes fun bonding time.
When mealtimes are fun, kids want to eat. If you can’t eat with them, try to make sure that when they eat, someone is always sitting and chatting with them, making eye contact, and making them feel engaged. This goes a long way in fostering a positive attitude toward eating, rather than turning it into a boring chore.
Model the eating habits you want to see in your picky eaters.
Children model the behavior they see in their parents and other close caretakers — if you are eating Lay’s potato chips, don’t expect your toddler to appreciate broccoli. But if your kids see you eating vegetables and other healthy food routinely, they will accept the same as a normal and integral part of their diet.
For kids’ eating habits to change in the long term, all caretakers must follow the same approach. So make sure nannies, friends and relatives are all up to date and on board with your new mealtime strategies. None of this works if a regular adult caretaker is undermining new habits.
Ease in veggies slowly.
Don’t expect a toddler who is a picky eater to adore steamed broccoli right away. Try introducing these flavors in a more appetizing way first — for example, broccoli with cheese sprinkled over it — as you use other strategies like positive reinforcement. Then slowly cut down on the cheese, butter, oil, or salt.
Parents’ stress over mealtimes can turn them into a showdown of control, manipulation or attention-seeking. It’s not fun — for anyone! So relax; it may take a few weeks of commitment, but your toddler will come around to her healthy food eventually.
When dealing with fussy eaters, Don’t…
Don’t offer alternatives.
If your child doesn’t want to eat the lunch or dinner provided to her, do not provide an alternative meal. Alternatives show fussy eaters they never have to eat anything put before them because there will always be other options. The meal is the meal, period. If they don’t eat it, fine. Toddlers are not capable of hunger strikes; they will eat the meals you provide long before they risk starving.
Don’t make vegetables the enemy.
Lots of frustrated parents resort to this tried — but not true — method with picky eaters: “You have to eat four bites of spinach before you can have pasta.” This only makes vegetables into a horrible punishment that has to be endured before your toddler can get to the good part of a meal. Instead, talk about how tasty and yummy vegetables are, how they will make your child run faster and grow bigger. It may feel silly, but convincing your kid that veggies are the best thing EVER will be more impactful.
Don’t reward or punish with food.
This is another fallback for desperate parents, but using food — whether sweets or a favourite dish — to get kids to do (or not do) something only teaches children that food is tool for negotiation, not nourishment.
Don’t ever force feed.
How would you like someone holding your head and shoving something you don’t want into your mouth? Kids feel the same. Force feeding immediately creates resistance and control issues, not to mention anxiety over mealtimes.