by Robin M Nuse, RDN, LDN
Think of the first way that you would use to describe mealtime in your household. Did it go something like this?
“Rushed! We all have such busy schedules we never sit down to eat together. Our kitchen table is used my kids’ craft station.”
“My kids refuse to eat fruits and vegetables, they will only eat about 5 foods! Mealtime is so frustrating!”
“Stressful! My kids are SUCH picky eaters I never know what they will eat so I make so many different things only to hear them complain!”
These are some common phrases we hear from parents of picky eaters. Mealtime can be stressful when we are concerned about children’s nutrition and eating habits. But have no fear, Family Food is here to provide you with essential and well researched practices, developed by Ellyn Satter, RD, to implement in your own home and lifestyle to help with your troublesome picky eaters and make mealtimes pleasant.
- Talk it up! Don’t spring new foods on your children right as the meal starts! This would be comparable to going out to a restaurant and the waiter immediately putting down crickets, caviar and liver and expecting you to eat it. All of it! It is unrealistic and that is how a child can feel when a new food is placed in front of them. Talking it up before the meal can be helpful to increase their acceptance of the food. Take them to the grocery store to start and let them see the food whole. Then, have them in the kitchen with you while you prepare the food so they can see the changes it goes through to become what will be served for their meal. Finally, at the meal remind them of the steps the food took to get where it is now.
- Sit at the table, always! We can’t stress this enough, even for adults! Distracted eating is not positive eating. Put the devices away, turn the TV off and enjoy mealtime together. Distractions can lead to higher calorie intakes of food because our body ignores fullness signals. We want to preserve those signals in children for as long as possible to maintain healthy weights and promote good habits later in life. Distractions and devices should also never be used as rewards at mealtimes, this leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and does not solve the root of the problem, acceptance of new items.
- Make it exciting! Just like adults, kids need excitement when they eat! Trying new recipes, ways to prepare their favorite foods or new foods and even how the food is presented on a plate can make all the difference at a meal. Using shapes, kabobs or fun dishes can be a way to add excitement to a meal that might otherwise be boring! Remember you eat with your eyes first!
- Introduce one new food at a time. The more new foods you present to a child at once the less likely they are to try them because they will feel very overwhelmed. Keep mealtimes simple by pairing a new food with at least one or two preferred foods which will help to increase acceptance. Your child may not eat a new food the first time they see it but that doesn’t mean they don’t like it! On average, it takes 10-20 times of introducing a new food for a child to actually eat it. So, remember to be patient!
- Do be a good influence! You are their role model especially at mealtimes. Prepare the same foods for your children as you prepare for yourself, including the vegetables! This modeling sets a positive example for your children and promotes well rounded habits for the entire family. Children are more likely to accept a new food if they are not being singled out by eating it.
- Leave the pressure at work. Nobody likes being told what to do, especially a child! When you start to use phrases like, “try it you will like it” or bribing children with desserts or toys you take the fun out of eating. Trying new foods and eating now becomes an obligation to get something they want and you lose sight of what eating is really about, nourishment and growth. Instead, talk positively about the new and old foods that are out for the meal and ask your child to describe it rather than telling them what to do. Children will waste food, they are great at it! But any step you make towards acceptance and eating a new food is a win!
- Make family mealtime routine. Recent studies show that children who participate in family mealtimes perform better at school and in sports, have better self-esteem and lower rates of obesity. Incorporating five family meals each week (breakfast, lunch or dinner) can help your family and children reap these benefits. We can’t think of many other things a family can do together that packs such a punch!
Making meal times pleasant is just one of many different strategies you can use in your household to help correct eating behaviors. Slowly incorporate these changes in your mealtimes so you don’t overwhelm your child. And remember that change takes time! We also encourage you to seek additional support through our one-on-one nutritional counseling with a Registered Dietitian. Stay tuned in to our blog to review additional tips for picky eaters in the upcoming months!