Can you stop picky eating before it starts?

Original text by Rhya Strifling, University of Kentucky. Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

There are so many picky eaters around these days that most families almost expect one or two of their children to develop a fussiness about food. Some even show a reluctance to eat at all. This makes mealtimes very stressful for everybody – and can spoil those special occasions too, when sharing a festive meal should be such a joy.

Sometimes parents misunderstand a child’s seeming avoidance of food.  You might believe a child is picky about food because they don’t seem to eat much but this might related to a child’s age and growth rate. Children aged two to five have a slower rate of growth and therefore have smaller appetites.  It’s normal for most children to eat small amounts of food at one meal—sometimes just a few bites—and then a larger amount at a later meal or the next day.  Most children have an inbuilt ability to regulate how much to eat and usually do not starve themselves. If their growth curves are within normal limits, you shouldn’t worry about how much they are eating.

One of the best ways of preventing a child from becoming a picky eater is to make mealtimes enjoyable with a variety of small portions of healthy foods. Mealtimes should be relatively short, and children should not be expected to finish all the food you put on their plates.  Some children react to this by refusing to eat if you try to force them, punish them or bargain with them. The more you try to make them eat, the more they might begin to refuse.

Provide your child with a variety of healthy food choices in small, tablespoon-sized portions, then relax and focus on your own meal. The less focus you put on what they eat, the better they will eat. If they say they don’t like what you have prepared, tell them that’s OK and give them the same food options as the rest of the family, then return to your own meal. They will either eat, or catch up at the next meal.

Encourage your child to try new foods from an early age.  A child might try a new food 10 to 15 times before developing a taste for it. Don’t be afraid to try new foods, but don’t get frustrated if your child rejects them. The best way to get children to try new foods is to eat them yourself. Be sure to give them lots of praise and encouragement for taking even the smallest bite of a new food.

To help children eat better at mealtimes, follow some of these tips:

  • Try to limit beverages prior to meals.
  • Schedule snack time instead of letting them “graze” throughout the day.
  • Serve as a role model because children to feed themselves by experimenting with new foods. 
  • Sit at the table as a family to demonstrate healthy eating choices and habits.



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