End Mealtime Struggles with Your Picky Eater

Are you the parent of a picky eater? If so, you know how stressful mealtimes can be. I counsel many parents that are up to their eyeballs at getting their children to eat balanced and have ample variety. Having young children of my own, I have had to deal with the challenges and opportunities of modeling good eating behaviors.

There are several things that we need to remember about children when it comes to eating. The first thing is that research shows that children need to be exposed to some foods 15-20 or even more times before they find them acceptable. Where parents go wrong often times is that they see their child rejects certain foods while preferring others. They take that information and create future meals with the preferred foods only. Why? I believe much of the reason is our innate drive to nourish our children and wanting them to eat. The problem is that we will do this over and over again until one day you find that your child only likes 7-10 foods. Hence, he/she is now the “picky eater.” Instead, what we should do is to make a family meal that includes a variety of food – including some of your child’s favorite foods – and serve all those foods on each plate. Even though you know your child might reject some food items, that is OK.

The other thing we need to remember is that children are extremely good at eating when they are hungry and not eating when they are not. In general, they do not eat according to any clock or time schedule. You’ll notice that a normal child’s eating pattern usually involves waves of high hunger – i.e., eating a lot at meals – to waves of low hunger where they don’t eat much at all. These waves can last several days. This is very normal. Again, with our desire to nourish our children in the back of our minds, we get concerned because they are not eating as much as we think they should eat. So, we might do things such as make separate meals for them that includes all their favorite foods or we might force them to eat. Some even force them to eat the “good for you” foods such as vegetables. All these actions come from a very good place, but they are not recommended.

We need to get back to the basics. Include a variety of foods in your home with emphasis on lean meats, whole grains, fresh produce, healthy fats and low-fat dairy. Eat as many family meals as possible with the absence of distractions and controversial conversation. Fix one meal for all and get back to allowing your children 2 choices of drinks – milk or water. I love Ellyn Satter’s very easy-to-understand Responsibilities in Feeding:

  • Parents are responsible for what, when and where of the feeding
  • Children are responsible for how much or whether to eat

I was taught this information in dietetic school and once I had children, I fully appreciated the challenge of living this out. However, my oldest, Hannah, is living proof that this works. She is now at a point where she loves all different kinds of foods and will try almost anything. My youngest, Evan, is still learning to “trust” different foods. But I continue to serve him everything, and I am much more confident in the process with him. He is slowly adding foods as he watches me, my husband and his sister enjoy the variety on our plates. It works!

By the way, Ellyn Satter is a dietitian and social worker that is an expert in child feeding. She’s got a ton of free information on her website and has written many books on the subject. Check her out!

One last note about children and eating…..I re-discovered a book on my office bookshelf entitled, “The Healthy Luncbox: How to Plan, Prepare & Pack Stress-Free Meals Kids Will Love.” It’s a great book for parents looking to revamp their kid’s school lunches! I got some ideas for Hannah’s lunch and am excited to fix them.

About the Author

Angela Lemond, RD, CSP, LD is a mother of two precious children. She also is a devoted wife, entrepreneur and a woman striving to live the healthy life. As a Registered and Licensed Dietitian that is Board Certified as a Specialist in Pediatrics, she knows that knowledge is one thing....living it out is another! Angela shares her tips for mothers and families on www.lemondnutrition.com/blog. Follow her as she learns the tricks of the trade combining knowledge with living it out.


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