Is there anything more adorable than the panic-stricken face of a baby who just tried a new food for the first time? Starting solids is a wild ride, but for all the ups and downs and kitchen floors splatter-painted with food, parents are treated to their own bout of panic when their happy-eating baby transforms into a picky toddler. (And so many of them do!) A Real Housewives reunion has nothing on the drama of trying to get your picky preschooler to even eat foods that have touched one another.
“It’s completely normal for kids to exhibit picky eating behaviors, especially when they start preschool and begin to observe others,” says Dahlia Rimmon, a registered dietitian. Unless there’s an underlying health concern, it usually resolves over time. Still, there are things we can do to help—and other things that can make picky eating worse. Here are seven common mistakes parents of picky eaters sometimes make.
1. Pressuring kids to eat and being way too serious about it.
As toddlers struggle to develop a sense of autonomy, they naturally become more selective in their choice of foods. If they’re pressured, their need for independence may lead them to resist eating altogether. “Kids are very intuitive and when meals become stressful and tense, they can sense it,” says Rimmon. “They’ll be less likely to try a new food when the atmosphere is strained.” Offer choices when you can and let them be in charge of what they eat from their plate and how much of it they consume.
To make mealtime more fun and inviting, think more like a kid and turn eating into a game. For example, start a tradition where at the start of each meal you pick a new food to try and every family member eats a small piece and rates it. Or create a quest for your kids to try a bite of everything on their plates and find the food that’s the crunchiest, the softest, or the sweetest. And while you’re at it, let them play with their food! There’s no harm in dipping random things in ketchup or blowing bubbles in their drink as long as they’re eating—and they aren’t being rude or making a huge mess.
2. Pleading, threatening, or bribing.
Science has shown that when parents resort to threats, scolding, punishment, pleading, bribing, or coercing their kids end up eating less food, not more. Telling your toddler they can have some ice cream if they eat their broccoli might work in the short term, but Rimmon warns that it can eventually backfire. “I’m not a fan of using food as rewards or bribes because it elevates food to an overly desirable status…which can lead to an unhealthy fixation on food rewards, typically dessert-type or sweet foods.” And never force your kids to finish everything on their plate—the portions may be too large for little tummies, and they’ll sometimes circle back to eat more a little later.
3. Labelling your kid as “picky.”
The more you talk about your kid being a picky eater, the pickier they might become, as labels can reinforce the behavior. “We don’t want any self-fulfilling prophecies over here!” says Rimmon.
4. Becoming a short-order cook.
Whipping up something new for your picky kid who’s just refused to eat dinner is a surefire way to prolong pickiness because it teaches kids that there’s always something different available. Instead, try including safe foods with foods you aren’t sure about to ensure your kid will always have something to eat, suggests Rimmon. “For example, if you’re serving lasagna and salad for dinner, and you’re unsure whether your child will eat this meal, you can include something like peanut butter toast, which you know your child will consistently enjoy.”
5. Giving up on new foods too soon.
It can take dozens of exposures to a new food before your kid decides they like it. “Although it may be frustrating (and sometimes wasteful!), these repeated exposures can bring your child one step closer to food acceptance,” says Rimmon. Try varying how you introduce a new food. For example, you can offer apples in slices, shredded, cubed on a skewer with cheese, thinly sliced to make nut butter sandwiches, or even baked with cinnamon. If, after all of these exposures, your child continues to reject the food, it’s reasonable to conclude they just don’t like it. (That said, it could be worth revisiting in the future.)
6. Too many snacks and drinks.
Offering a new food to a kid whose tummy is full of milk, juice or a snack isn’t likely to be successful. A hungry child will be more open to new tastes and textures, so try to only serve snacks mid-way between meals—and be prepared to stand your ground through about 100 more snack requests until that next meal comes.
7. Not eating the food yourself.
Kids like to copy others, so take this opportunity to be a role model for how they develop food preferences and eating habits. We know it can be hard to pull off all the time, but when you serve your little a meal, try to serve yourself one, too. Eating together and enjoying time as a family can take the attention off the task at hand and help your kids eat better (and sometimes more adventurously). Bon appetit!