My hope is that this page will provide you with the tools to start laying a good foundation in your kid's eating skills. I believe this list contains the most important steps to getting your kid/toddler/baby (picky eater or not) to eat well. These are the strategies I often give parents when I walk into their home for the first time and when families are able to make these changes I see the most improvement. As a mom, they have helped set the stage for both my sons feeding skills, and I notice very quickly that when I deviate from these rules their eating suffers. In those instances, I get back to these basics, and it works! If the following steps seem overwhelming, then think about implementing them in small manageable steps. I have many more tips and strategies in just about every post I write, even the recipes (check out a list at the end of this page).
1. Eat with your kids
This may seem like an obvious tip, but in today's hectic pace of life it's so easy to multitask or take a break when our kids are eating. We are juggling so much and getting your kid into a chair with food in front of them can be a monumental feat in and of itself. I know it may be the only time you have to unload the dishwasher or check your email, but eating with your child is a valuable and a worthwhile learning opportunity. If your child's eating is poor, this is an opportunity you don't want to miss very often, not to say that it also isn't important for the kids that are eating well.
Meals are a social experience and we learn from what we see, you know, monkey see, monkey do. If you expect your kid to eat something new, how willing will they be if you aren't trying it too? Kids, especially babies and toddlers, may actually watch how you bite and chew a new food, using you as a model for how they should proceed. It also sets a standard of eating, meaning your kid will grow up knowing that vegetables (or whatever else you are eating) are healthful and part of a normal diet. I am not saying that all kids will see Mommy eating spinach and thus eat spinach, but it is the first step in setting a good foundation for a diet with more variety. Another advantage to eating with your child is that you can quickly give them encouragement to try the spinach before it ends up on the floor or they have filled up on milk and noodles (which might happen if you are distracted by unloading the dishwasher.)
If it seems overwhelming to carve out time to eat with your child, start small, aim for eating dinner together three times a week, or nightly, eventually making your way up to eating together for most meals. Of course, there are times when logistically it doesn't work out, don't beat yourself up about it if it doesn't happen occasionally.
2. Eat at a table
Okay, be honest with yourself, how often does your child actually sit down at a table to eat their meals (no judgement here from me)? Our culture has become so hurried that it's very commonplace to set out a plate and let our kids eat while they play (aka grazing) or pass through a fast food window and eat in the car. However, in these types of scenarios kids are distracted and the message that's being sent is "eating isn't that important." There are situations where this is inevitable, such as traveling and parties, outside of that I would strongly discourage it, at least on a regular basis. If you need to start small (baby step) use a pop up card table or a coffee table at first (also see my post on "Turn off the TV"). A small kid's table is fine too, just make sure you are going to sit at it with them.
3. Space meals and snacks 2.5 -3 hours apart
I can't stress how important this is, and it is probably the biggest mistake everyone makes! Don't worry, it's not your fault, nobody tells you that kids are suppose to eat every 3 hours with NOTHING in between but water. Kids like to graze and snack throughout the day, which on the surface seems fine because at least they are eating. In reality, they are eating just enough to suppress their appetite and then don't get hungry enough to eat a meal. Juice, milk, or cheerios are enough to fill their little bellies up, so save the other drinks to have with their meals. I have seen the greatest improvements in kids eating when families strictly adhere to this. The 2.5-3 hour mark is the ideal window of time for their metabolism and hunger cycle. I know that for some families this can be a big change, but I think it is well worth it. Besides, this is the best cycle for adults to be on too, it increases our metabolism, helping us to maintain a healthy weight. If you don't believe me, try an experiment, follow this for a couple days and see if you notice a difference. In most cases, they will be hungrier when they get to the table. Here is an example of Sam's routine:
Breakfast- 8:30 AM
Lunch- 11:30 AM
Nap- 12:30 PM
Snack- 4:00 PM
Dinner- 6:30 PM
Bedtime- 7:30 PM
You don't have to follow this exactly, base it around when your child sleeps. Generally, have them eat about 1/2 hour after waking up. Sam takes a three hour nap most of the time so that afternoon snack may be a little longer of a stretch. If your child sleeps later in the day, it may make sense to have a morning snack. Maybe they take a short nap or don't take one at all, then a morning and afternoon snack might make more sense. Of course, a bedtime snack could work as well.
4. Don't force feed
I am going to keep this short. Please don't hold your child's mouth open and shove a fork into it. I know you just want them to try it because if they do they will love it, but it creates so much negativity around meals that your child will start to avoid them altogether. Forcing them to eat also makes them distrustful at meals. They feel like they have to be on guard and are thus defensive, which means they will eat less. Most simply though, it isn't very nice. How would you feel if someone was doing that to you? If you have already done this, it's okay, just don't do it again, and let your kid know you won't do it again. Stand behind your word and you will start to build some trust and make some progress.
5. Set an example
Children take in so many of our nuances and behaviors, the good and the bad. They see your reaction when you have a bite of broccoli, or if you even put the broccoli on your own plate. If you don't like to eat certain textures or have a limited diet, your child will pick up on it. They notice and will repeat the disgusted face you made when you tried a bite of the broccoli or if you didn't take any of the broccoli. This sends a very strong message to them: you can pick and choose what you want to eat and some foods taste gross. Try to put aside any food issues you may have and at least stay neutral about the food if you can't be excited about eating it. Also, consider if you are limiting the foods you expose your child to because you don't like them. Just because you don't like mushrooms, doesn't mean your child won't like them. In fact, you are doing them a disservice by assuming they won't like it... I know the thought process doesn't even get that far usually. You may not even think to buy the mushrooms because you don't eat them. Think outside of the box a little when planning your meals, is there something else you can all try together? Just remember to be conscience of your attitude and personal response to the food.
6. Don't be a short order cook
I know it sucks when your kid doesn't eat what you put down in front of them, especially if you had them in mind when you were making it. I really struggle with this myself as a mom, even though I know better as a therapist. It is beyond frustrating when they push the plate away, start to play with the food, or try to get out of their chair. As a parent you start to add up what they have already eaten that day and maybe it was't so great. Maybe they are tantruming, cranky, and you know that if they don't eat something it is going to be a long night. In some cases, parents are worried about weight gain and if the kid doesn't eat, they aren't going to put on weight. I know it is so tempting to open the fridge and say "What do you want?" or to reach in the cupboard for the easy mac you know they will eat, but I would encourage you to take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. How do you really want to proceed? If you give in and get them a preferred food or something they requested, you are reinforcing the idea that they don't have to eat what you are serving. I can almost guarantee you that the next meal you put something in front of them, they will do the same thing to get what they would rather eat. Think about it, as adults we know it's not healthy to eat easy mac every night, or at least we should, but children don't have self control. It is our job to teach that to them... I know it is a really hard job! Ultimately, I think it is more frustrating to start cooking multiple meals when you have already put the effort into the one that is front of them, and now your cooking again instead of eating together as a family. Your kitchen is not a restaurant, don't let you kids think it is one.
7. Have a preferred food at each meal
A preferred food is something your kid likes and consistently eats well, this is the kind of food you can count on. For instance with my son, Sam, bread is one food he loves and he would eat tons of it at a meal before touching anything else, if I let him. Some kids only have a few foods they consistently like. If that is the case, then you may want to broaden what you consider preferred to also include foods they eat at least some of the time. When you give your child a meal, try to have at least one food on the plate you know they like. This frees you up to give some other foods that may be non-preferred or new because you know that at a minimum there is something they will actually ingest. This principal goes hand in hand with principal 6, and should make you feel more comfortable about not resorting to short order cooking.
Okay, let me give you a more concrete example:
- Corn, green beans, noodles, ham, cheese, and shrimp are some of Sam's preferred foods. Cauliflower, chicken salad, lettuce, hamburger, and navy beans are some of his non-preferred foods. I know I am going to make hamburgers for dinner, which may be a struggle for him to eat, if he eats any of it at all. To offset that I would make green beans (not cauliflower), put cheese on his burger, and of course he would have his bun, which will help him feel more comfortable and thus more likely to try some of the burger. Of course, I am going to spend a little time working with him to eat his non-preferred food as well. In this example, I gave him more than one preferred food, but you don't necessarily need to, one preferred food at a minimum.
Each child is different, give these steps some time, for a child (and you) to adapt to a new routine before you expect to see major changes in their eating. But, if you pay attention, I bet you will notice some small positive changes. Give yourself a pat on the back for the baby steps, they are important and they add up. Don't forget to praise your kiddo on the small changes you see too (be specific: I really like how you tasted a green bean tonight)!
This site is full of more strategies and in many of the posts I re-visit and expand on some of these same principals because I really do feel like they are the foundation to good eating habits. To see all of the posts in their entirety and organized by topic click here or check out my Article Index in the top menu.
Some Encouraging Words
I wish I had some quick trick that would solve all of your kid's "picky" eating tendencies. Feeding your kid can be the most stressful time of day if you feel your child isn't eating well. Although you can pick up some quick suggestions here, at Your Kid's Table, that will help, most of the strategies I am recommending require some real change, which is really hard for anyone. In most cases, the more selective your kid is about eating means the more changes you will need to make. Start by making small changes each day, each week, and it won't be as overwhelming. Don't expect miracles to happen overnight. Look for the small accomplishments and pat yourself (and your kid) on the back. My best advice is to stay consistent and to keep trying!!! I will help get you there!
More for Picky Eaters:
Picky Eater Tip: Expand on What They are Already Eating
Getting Your "Picky" Eater to Explore New Foods
Working Through Feeding Challenges With Your Child
Getting Your "Picky" Eater to Explore New Foods
Working Through Feeding Challenges With Your Child