Little girl happily eating a strawberry

Family Health

5 Phrases You Can Use To Get Your Picky Eater Eating On Their Own

May 13, 2019

Kids are little sponges — constantly absorbing information and learning. And this gives us great power as parents. We teach them their ABCs, how to tie their shoelaces and how to ride a bike. But did you know it’s also our job to teach them how to eat and enjoy a variety of foods? Teaching kids to become healthy, independent eaters is not easy, to be honest — it’s tough and often frustrating work. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that!

Try modelling healthy eating, focusing on family time and setting mealtime boundaries.

Picky eating is no joke and there are so many reasons why kids refuse to eat. Timing and teething are two big ones, but also age! Usually between 18 and 24 months of age, toddlers start to assert their new-found independence and assertiveness at the table. They also become more cognitively mature and are able to analyze and process detail like colour, texture and taste more than they were previously. So, if your once fantastic eater has suddenly developed picky eating habits, don’t be surprised. It’s completely normal and there is something you can do about it! You can ask them questions to get them eating all on their own (or at least on the path to less picky eating).

Here are five phrases you should use to help your child become more confident at the dinner table.

Have The Opposite Problem? 5 Things To Do If Your Child Eats Too Fast Or Too Much

“What was your favourite part of the day?”

Take the focus off of the food. As soon as you start encouraging your child to eat, the sooner they will start to do the opposite. Instead, keep the pressure off. Ask them about their day and hopefully they will open up — you never know what you might learn! When food isn't the focus, you’ll be amazed at what they eat on their own. Bottom line: mealtimes will be more enjoyable and everyone will feel happier.

“It’s OK if you don’t want to eat, but you still need to come to the table. Mealtime is also about family time."

Repeat after me: it’s not your job to get your kid to eat. Seriously! Invite your child to the table for family time — this will help them feel at ease at the dinner table. I often find myself expecting more from my kids than they can actually give. It’s important to remember that they’re still only little humans. Try viewing food through toddler eyes. If the food you’re offering is new, it might also be overwhelming to your child. Imagine seeing a kiwi for the first time! Don’t become a short order cook or cater to your picky eater, but do remember that food can sometimes be a little scary to kids.

Recommended Reading: How To Start A Family Meal Plan

“Would you like to serve yourself tonight?”

Family style eating — it's life changing, you guys! And it’s definitely my go-to method for feeding my family when I’m feeling overwhelmed with meals. Simply offer a variety of foods — including two protein-rich foods, two or more vegetables, a whole grain and healthy fat — and let your kids do the rest. It takes the pressure off and puts the kids in control of how much they eat!

“How does your tummy feel?” 

This is a big one for dealing with mealtime battles. This question allows your child to communicate if they’re hungry, full or even nervous! The part that parents often find frustrating — myself included — is actually listening when they say they’re hungry or full. Because, seriously, how can a two-year-old consume three adult-sized bowls of oatmeal, and how can a four-year-old be full after only five bites of supper? That’s not my call. It’s up to your kids to determine if they need more food or if they are done. But you do need to set boundaries in conjunction with this, which brings me to my next point.

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“The kitchen will be closed after supper and won’t re-open until breakfast. Are you sure you’re done?”

Setting mealtime rules and boundaries is important in ensuring that the feeding dynamics are clear and that the division of responsibility (DOR) is followed. According to the DOR, your responsibility as a parent is to provide the where, when and what as it relates to feeding. It is your child’s responsibility to decide if and how much food they consume. By dividing the feeding responsibility, you allow eating times to be pleasant and positive, while allowing your child to grow predictably. By politely telling your child that the kitchen will be closed after the eating opportunity, you regain control of mealtime and are setting them up for a successful meal and snack-time schedule. When kids are in charge of what they eat and when, picky eating often skyrockets and mealtime chaos ensues.

When dealing with picky eating, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and look for immediate solutions. Instead of thinking short term (I want my kid to eat now), which often leads to mealtime pressure, hovering and even bribing your child to eat, remember to think long term (I want my child to have a healthy relationship with food).

Try modelling healthy eating, focusing on family time and setting mealtime boundaries. This will help create a healthy long-term relationship with food. And as a bonus — if someone comments on your child’s lack of eating or asks if they're a “picky eater,” use this phrase: “They're still learning to like some foods. They’ll get there in time. For now, they'll eat the foods they're comfortable with."

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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