How to Feed a Picky Eater While Staying at Home

I have been a picky eater most of my life so in writing this, I want to offer you both your perspective and your child’s, while helping you ensure that your child receives proper nutrition.

Feeding your picky eater is challenging in the best of times, but during quarantine, when the level of stress is higher for the entire family, and your child is not getting as much exercise as they normally do, it can seem like an impossible task! Fortunately, I have had plenty of practice with my own children and can share my best tips with you, to help ease the process.

These cannot all be implemented overnight, but with consistency and a little persistence, you will see that soon your child will begin to eat much better.

Keep your routine as consistent as possible
This advice works like magic not only for eating, but also for sleeping, bath time, and pretty much anything else. This is because after a while of your child following the same steps day after day, doing it (in this case, eating dinner) becomes a habit. When that happens, your child doesn’t think about it, they just do it. And since they’re not thinking about having to eat, they’re not thinking about not wanting to eat either. They know, for example, that after playing, we wash our hands and sit down for dinner, then bath time, then story time, then it’s time to sleep. It works after about a week of being consistent, but it will not become a habit until 30 to 90 days (depending on how consistent your routine is).

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely left many families struggling to adjust to new routines, and figuring it out day by day. Having said that, it can also be an opportunity to figure out a good routine for the entire family and implement it daily. Being home all the time means there are less variables as well (no traffic jams, travel schedules, late nights at work, everyone is together in one place). One of the things you can work on is ensuring that your child has breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks at the same time every day. Choose a routine that you can still implement once everyone returns to school and work, so you don’t have to start over again once the quarantine is over.

Offer healthy snacks in just the right amount
Your child gets hungry between meals, and often need a snack. Just make your snacks healthy (think fruit slices, veggies and dip, oatmeal or nuts with a glass of milk or nut milk rather than cookies or other empty calories) and space them equally between your child’s meals. If at lunchtime your child does not finish their food, offer them the rest of their meal instead of a snack when it’s snack time. Keep beverages to water in general between meals and snacks, so your child’s appetite is not ruined. If your child is used to getting their own snacks when they feel hungry, just be aware of the amount of food they are consuming between meals. Having a big bowl of cereal or a whole banana just before dinner will most likely result in your child having no appetite when you are all ready to eat. If this is the case with your child, simply leave smaller portions, or encourage them to have the rest of their meal instead of a snack when they do feel hungry again.

Also, look at the sugar and nutritional content of the snacks your child has access to. Many granola bars and cereals have high amounts of sugar, which is not only unhealthy but is also the number one reason why your child is not as enthusiastic about your homemade chicken come dinnertime. This, of course, is a general rule, and does not have to be followed so strictly that you can’t enjoy an ice cream together in the backyard every now and then.

Switch to water
When my brother was little, it was painful to watch him eat – he simply couldn’t. No matter what my parents tried (and back then, the most popular techniques for getting a child to eat were yelling, punishing, threatening, and force-feeding) he would only eat a few bites. What my parents had not noticed was how many glasses of milk my little brother would help himself to throughout the day. Milk kept him full all day, and when it was time to eat dinner, he simply wasn’t hungry anymore.

If instead of milk, your child is drinking fruit juice, smoothies or pop, they are consuming a very unhealthy amount of sugar. Put sugary drinks in the same category as desserts instead of viewing them as healthy drinks.

Try switching to tap water, sparkling water, or have your child help you prepare “special water” (prepare a jug of water with berries or citrus slices in it, to add a hint of flavour). Despite a few protests at the beginning, children will eventually get used to the switch, and will even delight in coming up with their very own recipes for “special water”. Some to try are:

  • Water with slices of orange
  • Water with slices of grapefruit
  • Water with slices of cucumber
  • Water with slices of lemon and a few drops of stevia (a potent natural sweetener)
  • Water with raspberries and/or blackberries
  • Water with strawberries
  • Water with slices of watermelon
  • Water with a few mint leaves and a few slices of lime

Make the switch very special, explain that you had no idea how much sugar a juice box / pop had, and how glad you are that you all know now so you don’t ruin your health. It’s really a positive switch. You can make it extra special by buying a new water container that I know for a fact your young child will be fascinated by (one of these which even offers two options for your child to choose from) and leaving it within their reach, inside or outside. You can add ice to keep it cool all day.

Don’t force your child to eat
Children generally know when to stop eating (how much is enough) better than adults do. Adults tend to finish what is on their plate, whereas children tend to stop eating when they are satisfied. Body awareness is the ability to listen to cues from our bodies and is an important life skill that we often lose as adults. As a result, we eat too much and become unhealthy or overweight.

I recommend you set the simple rule I did at my home, which never fails to work. When your child feels satisfied, help them save their portion for later. Make it clear, however, that when they feel hungry again, it is important that they eat the rest of their meal instead of a snack, a fruit, or anything else. This is not a punishment, but if it feels that way to your child, you can very simply explain that the meals you prepare have all the nutrients their bodies need (protein, carbohydrates and greens). If they just eat a cereal bar, it will lack those nutrients (or at least some of them) which they absolutely need. This was something my children understood well from a very early age. Just explain it, make no exceptions, and repeat, repeat, repeat the same explanation.

By applying this strategy, your child will end up eating their meal when they are hungry, instead of having it all in one go. Also, if your child was inadvertently saving themselves for a sugary snack which they preferred, having to have the meal instead of the snack will take care of that, and ensure that your child is getting the proper nutrition they need. Eventually, they will get used to eating at mealtimes, since the sugary “rewards” are no longer available.

Try it 17 times (this is truly a magic trick)
I learned in one of my classes at university that it takes 17 times before your body learns to not dislike a particular food. According to what I read, if you didn’t like spinach (as an example) the first time you tried it, you should still keep trying it, and after about 17 times you would begin to like it. Given enough times, you would learn to love it. This absolutely fascinated me, and I of course shared this with my children when they were very young. They were really surprised, but better yet, they wanted to put it to the test. This was amazing for me, because each time they tried something and didn’t like it, we would say ”I bet you will like it after 17 times” and I would serve it again another day of the week, and again, and each time, they would try to keep count of how many times they had tried it. The best part was that they just had to try one bite, they didn’t have to eat any more (after all, they didn’t like the taste). More often than not, they would lose count of how many times they tried the food, but would always look forward to the 17th time, to see if they would end up liking it. They often did! The result, over the years, was that they really did try everything not once but 17 times, and that they ended up with a very short list of things they truly didn’t like, even after 17 times.

You don’t have to eat what I prepare (another magic trick)
This is another one of my favourites, which I have been doing since my children were old enough to tell me they didn’t want to eat what I prepared. I know it will work for you too – it’s just human nature.

I taught my children that their bodies required a balanced meal in order to get all the nutrients they needed to be healthy and grow. I kept it incredibly simple and divided it into: vegetables, carbs and protein. I don’t eat a lot of “carbs” per se (bread, rice, potatoes) other than vegetables, but I didn’t make it that complicated for my children, as they did need more energy from carbs than I did. Whenever I served a meal, I made half their plates vegetables (salad or steamed or prepared), a quarter of their plates protein (meat or legumes) and the other quarter carbs (rice, potatoes, freshly baked baguette, pasta, etc.).

I always said to them that they didn’t have to eat what I had prepared, but they had to replace it with something equivalent. If they didn’t want the salad, they could run to the kitchen and make their own salad, or have some carrot sticks, or steamed broccoli – whatever they wanted, as long as it was vegetables. I did the same thing with the meat and carbs. They loved knowing that they never had to eat something they didn’t feel like eating. All they had to do (because I had already cooked) was to cook something different for themselves. At first, it was fun and they loved trying, but soon enough, they found it so much easier to eat what they had on their plate instead of having to prepare something else, that they ended up eating it just to save themselves the trouble of having to cook something. I always prepared extra food that I kept in the fridge as well, so if they wanted rice instead of mashed potatoes, they would just eat the rice from the day before which I had saved.

This not only gave my children great self-help skills, it also left them in charge (armed with the right information) of deciding what they wanted to eat. No arguments – just lots of options.

Have the one sweet thing per day rule
Both my sons and I have a sweet tooth. We love dessert, candy, chocolate, gum, pop, and any other sweet option we can find. From a very young age, I had to teach my children that too much sugar was damaging to their bodies, and that the maximum amount we could handle was one sweet a day. This is very simple, very easy to understand, and very easy to apply. If my son felt like having a can of pop, all I would have to say is: is that what you choose for your sweet today? And they could make the decision right on the spot and all by themselves. They could enjoy their can of pop or save their one sweet thing for dessert or some candy. They never argued with me about it, because if they tried to make exceptions, I would stay firm, but also let them know I can relate. I would say, for example, “I know, I wish I could have two things also! If I could have two things, I would choose to have a glass of pop and a slice of chocolate cake! What would you choose?” and they would stop trying to negotiate (there’s nothing I could do about it either, in their eyes, it’s just how our bodies work) and move on to deciding what they would spend their sweet allowance on.

Provide opportunities for your child to exercise each day
I know it is easier said than done when everyone has to stay indoors, but with a little creativity, we can make it work. Go for a walk or bike ride every day around your neighbourhood, have a race in your backyard, set up an obstacle course, jump on a trampoline, play catch, play frisbee – anything is good, as long as your child has an opportunity to move.

If you are not able to go outside, use your bed as a trampoline, have an obstacle course at home, play balloon badminton, have a dance party, slide down a long corridor, do a jumping jacks competition, or invite your child to join you in your (home) gym routine – as long as it’s appropriate for their developing muscles. My sons used to like joining me when I did abdominals, lunges, runs, or any of my exercises. Try it!

Reduce screen time
If you are like every other family, struggling to work from home while your child is in constant need of your attention, it is understandable that in order to manage all your responsibilities, you have been open to a little more screen time. This is fine and will not have a huge detrimental impact on your child’s development, especially if you choose more educational apps or programs for them.

The only thing to keep in mind, however, is that according to research, too much screen time has been linked with inattention, insomnia, obesity and other troubles. Inattention, of course, is the last thing you need when trying to feed your child a healthy meal.

Eating as a family is, in my opinion, one of the most important gifts you can give your children. I love cooking for my family, and to this day, we always eat dinner together not because we have to, but because we want to. That’s when we talk, catch-up, laugh, share stories, learn new things and bond. Fighting with your child because they are picky eaters can put a real dent in this treasured family tradition. I never had to argue with my children about what they should and shouldn’t eat, and I know that with these few strategies, you won’t have to either. Just slowly start implementing them and before you know it, you will no longer have difficulties at mealtimes. Let me know how it goes!

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