young girl stares at plate of broccoli

Family Health

How This Dietitian Mom Gets Her Picky Kids to Eat

Nov 21, 2017

How many times have your kids said, “I’m not hungry,” or “I don’t like that, it’s yucky,” when you serve up a meal? I know I hear it often in my house, so I'm guessing that many of you do too.

Common (and well-intentioned) replies to food rejection might be: “But you’ve never tried it before. How do you know that you don’t like it? Just try it.” Or, “You need to have at least one bite."

Seems harmless, right? Unfortunately, this type of reply translates as pressure, which turn kids—especially picky eaters—off even more, and creates mealtime power struggles. 

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It’s important to know that food rejection is normal, and typically peaks around ages two and six (although it can happen at any time in childhood). The key is to stay calm and neutral, knowing that your children will accept a variety of foods in their own time, especially with repeated and unpressured exposure.

Here are my go-to mealtime tips (that I use at home), to not only diffuse mealtime battles, but encourage my kids to be adventurous eaters.

Take the pressure off, before mealtime even starts

It's important to make the dinner table a positive and pressure-free place. This will help your children develop a long-term healthy relationship with food. If your children refuse to come to the table, set the tone by saying, "You don't have to eat, but you do need to come to the table." By making meals more about family time, and less about the food, your child will be much more open to eating and trying new foods.

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Don’t freak out

It’s so easy to react negatively when your child rejects food. After all, you’ve just spent time, energy, and money preparing a healthy meal for your family. I speak from experience; it’s super frustrating. But getting upset or showing disapproval will only heighten the tension at the table, and create more anxiety around eating.

Try your best to connect with your children, asking them about something unrelated to food. As soon as your children feel pressure to eat (whether that’s in the form of “eat your peas” or if you’re simply hovering), they’ll back off and resist eating it even more. It’s still okay to set boundaries such as, “We have about 10 minutes left to eat our dinner, and then the kitchen will be closed for a few hours,” or “It’s okay to not eat that food, but it’s not okay to be rude.” 

Make sure that there’s something for everyone 

Without short-order cooking (which is not a good idea), make sure to include at least one food at meals that you know that your children enjoy, so they have something to eat. I include at least four to five different foods, usually including one or two protein-rich foods (meat and milk, for example), two different vegetables (or a vegetable and a fruit), and a whole grain or starch.

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Serve a meal family-style

Let your children serve themselves by laying out a spread of ingredients or dishes, so they can take as little or as much of each food that they would like. An example would be a taco night or “make your own pizza” night. The goal is to let them feel like they have control and to take the pressure off.

Model healthy eating

Kids assume that what Mom and Dad do (and eat) is normal and healthy. They are watching you and will mimic actions that you take, such as eating healthy foods.

These tried and true strategies have helped me create happier mealtimes. And if you can be consistent in using them, you might find you've raised healthier and more adventurous eaters in the long-run.

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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