Updated: Nov 18
Written by Meredith Krayenhoff, Registered Dietitian. Published October 2, 2023. Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian.
Navigating mealtime battles with a picky eater can be challenging for parents. How do we ensure our kids enjoy their meals while also promoting healthy choices? How do we make mealtimes pleasant, offer foods our kids enjoy, while still maintaining our own rules and boundaries when it comes to health and nutrition? Read on for a dietitian’s tips to address all of the above!
The Parent’s Role: Deciding the Menu
When it comes to mealtime, you as the parent or caregiver always get to choose what’s on the menu. This means that if you decide on quinoa salad, the kids get quinoa salad as well. If you want takeout, everyone gets takeout.
Parents can also decide to offer desserts and sweets on occasions, alongside nutritious meal options. In the end, striking a balance between the two is your decision, as the parent.
Giving Children Choices Within Boundaries
If you want to give your child the option of what is for dinner, make sure it is still in the context of choices that feel satisfactory to you. Maybe they choose the vegetable, between several options available in the fridge. Maybe they choose the restaurant, but it’s already a day you had planned to go out as a treat.
We don’t expect children to make decisions based on health at this age, so we don’t want to put that expectation on them.
Instead, establish rules and explain them using statements such as “tonight we’re having cauliflower. You are welcome to have as much as you’d like.” Or, “we often have one of potatoes, rice or pasta with dinner, but not all three.” Stay neutral in your explanations: do your best not to make it about rewards, the child “earning” the right to choose dinner, or in any other way indicating “good” food and “bad” foods.
Keeping the Mealtime Atmosphere Neutral
While parents decide the dinner menu, we never want to be pressuring or forcing a child to actually eat these foods.Children should have the autonomy to choose if they eat and how much. Some children will only pick at some foods, while they eat large amounts of other foods. The key here is to remain neutral, regardless of their opinions of the meal, what they eat or even how much they eat.
Refrain from showing strong emotions around their food choices, including too much excitement if they try something new (although very exciting!) Anything extreme or unnatural can seem suspicious to kids. Instead, engage them with love and attention that isn't related to food so that mealtimes can remain as pleasant and stress-free as possible so nobody, including yourself, dreads coming to the table.
In time, with you as a positive role model, your children will start to expand their tastes. Expect this to take weeks, months, and sometimes even years for some foods… —it won't happen overnight.
Addressing Concerns: What if They Don't Eat?
Clients often ask, “but what if my child doesn't eat anything?" There are a few strategies to consider. Firstly, know that they won’t starve or be harmed from missing one meal, and it doesn't reflect poorly on your parenting if they don't enjoy a particular meal. They were offered food, they had the opportunity to eat as they wanted, and they chose not to; beyond that, to eat or not to eat is ultimately their decision.
Offering a Snack a Few Hours Later
You can offer them a healthy evening snack a couple of hours later. This brief waiting period allows them to experience mild hunger, perhaps prompting them to be more receptive to dinner next time. Plus, it ensures they won't go to bed too hungry or face a long wait until breakfast. Remember that this snack will also be of your choosing.
If you're concerned that skipping dinner and having an evening snack means they may eat too many sweets, establish a routine where the evening snack is usually something nutritious like fruit with yogurt or banana and peanut butter.
Offering a Neutral Food with Meals
A second strategy is to offer a neutral, well-liked item as a part of mealtime, that you know will be eaten. This could be a bread basket, carrots or even ketchup (that your child adds to everything, and helps them enjoy novel foods!). This way, even if your child doesn’t like the main course, they have something to fill their stomach.
As long as the atmosphere remains neutral, and no attention is given to their choices, they will eventually get sick of eating only bread or ketchup, and will decide on their own that it might be worth trying some other foods. Parents who notice their children continue to only eat the one food are typically unintentionally reinforcing this behaviour by drawing attention to it. Kids like attention, so even negative attention can be perceived as “worth it” to them!
The Importance of Consistency and a Long-term Approach
Consistency in approach and unity among parents or caregivers are crucial. Mealtime battles aren't resolved overnight. Consistency, patience, and unified caregiving strategies are essential.
Achieving positive changes in a child's eating habits often requires a well-coordinated effort from parents. Unity among parents isn’t just about presenting a united front during mealtimes. It involves collaborative planning, consistent messaging about food and nutrition, and sharing mutual goals regarding the child's dietary habits and mealtime behaviours.
Children adapt and learn through repetition and familiar structures. When parents maintain a consistent approach, children gradually understand the expectations placed upon them, even if it relates to trying a new food or adhering to mealtime rules. Patience is essential, as children navigate through their comfort zones, experiment with new tastes, and sometimes, assert their autonomy by refusing certain foods. Understand that your child's initial resistance is a normal part of their development, and sustaining a patient, non-reactive demeanour during their defiant phases is vital.
Developing healthy eating habits is a long-term project. The focus should not be on whether the child eats a specific meal, but also on cultivating a positive, stress-free mealtime environment that promotes a healthy relationship with food in the long run. The journey might be prolonged and occasionally challenging, but the eventual reward of nurturing a healthy, happy eater is immensely gratifying.
Looking for quick and effective ways to pack more vegetables into your kids' meals? Our article on How to Eat More Vegetables offers a wealth of easy, parent-friendly strategies.
Key takeaways: Navigating Mealtime Battles: A Dietitian's Guide for Parents
Eating times with kids can sometimes be tough, especially when they're picky about their food. Through a united approach of providing balanced meal options, respecting a child's autonomy over their eating choices, and maintaining a neutral, emotion-free environment during mealtimes, we can forge a path towards establishing healthier eating habits and a positive mealtime environment.
As parents foster an encouraging, stress-free space for children to explore new foods and cultivate their dietary palette, they subtly guide them towards nutritious choices and create a wholesome, pleasant dining experience for the entire family. Transforming mealtime battles into opportunities for dietary exploration, bonding, and gradual adoption of diverse, nutritious eating habits.
Picky Eating Dietitian: Navigate the Mealtime Maze with Expertise!
Our picky eating dieticians are specialized to help you work through mealtime hurdles. We gently help your child explore new tastes at their own speed, making mealtimes happy and healthy once again.