How to Raise a Nonpicky Eater
Mealtime basics that can help prevent your child from becoming a picky eater.
When I think back to my favorite food memories, none surround convenience meals like Hamburger Helper or SpaghettiOs that my mother whipped together. The memories that stick out most are remembering when I was in the thick of the meal preparation with my grandparents. I’d sit in my booster seat and help Grandma roll out homemade spaghetti, or I’d stand on a stool to help Grandpa stir the tomato sauce.
I developed a food trust with my grandparents. When my grandmother ordered me liver and onions at a restaurant, I ate it without the slightest whimper of a protest. The same goes with the time my grandfather fed me a sardine during snack time. I ended up eating an entire can all by myself.
Local food experts helped confirm for me that those same mealtime basics can help me raise my son to not be squeamish around kryptonite foods like fish and veggies. Here are some tips on how mealtime basics can help prevent your child from becoming a picky eater.
Winning With Whole Foods
A struggle many parents face is attempting to please everyone. If their toddler doesn’t like the food being served, many parents quickly warm up chicken nuggets and fries so their baby doesn’t go hungry. Everyone should eat the same thing at mealtime with a preference to whole foods. Eating whole foods helps ensure your family is eating as close to the food source as possible — where the most nutrients come from, says Betty Fleming, a pediatric dietitian at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“It’s more important for a child to learn and appreciate whole-food cooking than organic eating,” says Chris Coleman, chef at Stoke Charlotte. “A lot of families buy organic convenience packets. That doesn’t teach children about food like breaking down a carrot.”
So, how do you introduce new, whole foods? First, don’t overwhelm children with them, Fleming says. Stick with one per week. Second, always make sure there is something your child likes to eat on the plate.
You don’t want a picky eater to eat only what they like, so encourage him or her to try at least one bite of the new food, says Stacie Vanderwell, a registered dietitian with the Charlotte Center for Balanced Living.
Here’s where many parents toss in the towel. If their child doesn’t like a food, they simply stop making it. Just because they don’t like it today, doesn’t mean they won’t like it next week. Be mindful that a vegetable or fruit can taste different each time, depending on the farm or region it’s from and the growing season, Fleming says.
Another trick is to blend without blending. Hiding cauliflower in macaroni-and-cheese never teaches a child to eat cauliflower. In fact, many experts say that only damages your child's trust in you.
Coleman suggests incorporating the food into a dish so your child knows it's there. For example, when introducing salmon to his son, Coleman made salmon cakes. Not only is the salmon flavor still in the forefront, but he let his son watch him prepare it, using the whole salmon. His son is now more willing to try other salmon dishes.
Develop a Family Mealtime Routine
The foundation of getting back to mealtime basics lies in developing a family mealtime routine. Once a day, the entire family should sit down together without the interference of TVs, smartphones, or tablets, and share a meal.
“Family mealtime is not only important to help encourage children to be healthy eaters, but it’s also essential to maintaining the family unit,” Fleming says.
With conflicting schedules, sitting down for a family dinner can sound impossible, but a family meal doesn’t have to be at dinnertime.
“When I worked dinner six nights a week, getting together for (a family) dinner was impossible, so we made other meals important. Breakfast was our family meal,” Coleman says.
The meal doesn’t have to be elaborate — just healthy. There’s nothing wrong with picking up a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work and ripping open a bag of salad.
Let Kids Cook With You
“If you don’t want picky eaters, get the kids in the kitchen,” Vanderwell says. Not only involve them in the cooking process, but also invite them to assist in the meal planning. “When you give children a chance to choose, you not only empower them but you encourage them,” she says.
Dedicate a few hours each weekend to meal planning and preparation. “Think like a chef and create a menu," Coleman says. “Visit a farmers market and prep some of the basics ahead of time. This will not only get your kids involved but make weeknight meals easier.”
He also suggests making dinner an event. In his house, mealtime is treated like dining at a restaurant where his kids set the table, plate foods and serve each other.
Lead by Example
Do you think I would have tried a sardine if my Grandpa wasn’t eating one first? Never! Not only are they not very pleasing to the eye, they also smell something terrible. But, he was eating one so I had to try it. The same goes in the reverse. If either parent is a picky eater and refuses to eat vegetables, you’re only inviting your children to refuse vegetables as well.
“You have to emulate what you want your child to eat,” Fleming says. “Parents are the single most important guidepost to a child. Good or bad. It’s who they look up to.”
Cut Yourself Some Slack
At its root, eating is a control issue. Children are dependent on parents for almost everything. The one thing they can control is what they put in their mouths and bodies. Thus, mealtimes can explode into a fight as parents try to convince children to eat the right foods. To avoid this, Vanderwell warns against putting food on the “bad” list.
“We’ve almost gotten into healthy versus unhealthy too much. We’ve created food that children don’t want,” she says. If you truly are worried, only offer parent-approved food at home. Parents feel a lot of guilt and shame when it comes to their children’s eating habits, and they shouldn’t.
“We’ve never done this before as parents. We’re going to make mistakes, but we learn from our mistakes,” Vanderwell says. “Sometimes you have to call it a day and not a food fight.” Remember, it’s OK for a child to miss a meal. They won’t starve to death.
Cheat meals are also OK every once in awhile. “I would be lying if I said our kids ate organic, well-rounded, healthy meals all meals a week,” Coleman says.
Take the pressure off yourself by remembering that it’s not about this meal, but the food and meals they eat the rest of their lives. Make it fun and exciting, and watch your family flourish over food.
Bryan Richards is a craft beer, food and travel writer who recently added family travel writer to his credentials with the birth of his son. When he’s not traversing the globe, he enjoys the craft beer scene in Charlotte and experimenting in the kitchen with his wife. He’s also the author of The Wandering Gourmand, a culinary and craft beer travel blog.