7 easy family rules to follow to reduce picky eating. These rules will help you change how you talk about food and eating with your children and might help them become better eaters.
There are lots of good resources, but I wanted to share a few rules we follow at home to help our son with his picky eating. This is worth reading, especially if you've ever said "you have to eat your vegetables" to your child.
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The Five "Never" Rules of Picky Eating
1. Never talk about your child's picky eating in front of them
This is a big one that I sometimes struggle with. Anytime I get into a conversation about my son with my husband, friends, mom groups, or even our pediatrician, the subject of his eating comes up. I need to remind myself NOT to talk negatively about his eating in front of him, whether it's in person or on the phone.
He is only two, but he understands a lot, and has been picking up on our signals about his eating for a long time.
So save those super honest conversations for when your child is not around.
Or better yet, find a different way to talk about your child's eating.
Instead of saying "he doesn't eat broccoli, he is the worst eater, he is so picky, he doesn't eat anything nutritious" try the following: "he eats pasta without a problem and we are working on adding sauce to his pasta, so far broccoli hasn't been a success but we keep trying and he loved cauliflower last week."
Not only will the positive language make you feel better and (possibly) make you realize how much progress your child has had, but you will also make sure that your child only hears positive things about their eating, and will not feel bad about themselves or will not be tempted to use eating for the next power struggle.
2. Never say "you have to eat your vegetables"
Don't single out ANY SINGLE FOOD that your child HAS to eat. Don't make vegetables a "thing" that your child can get stubborn about. Don't make them feel like vegetables (or any other food, for that matter) is something different, something that no one likes but we all have to eat.
This is a simple rule that can be hard to follow and has HUGE consequences on your child's eating as they grow up.
Instead, serve vegetables alongside every meal (even breakfast!) and be casual and nonchalant about it. It's just there, just like the carb and the protein.
If your kids are not eating vegetables, continue offering the vegetables casually, without making a big deal out of them. Think of fun new ways to serve vegetables (also see #4 below). And in the meantime, you can find some kid-friendly hidden vegetable recipes to try to increase the nutritional value of the foods your kiddos eat.
This is also a good strategy to follow with dessert. If you serve one small treat with most meals, children will see dessert as something that is just like other food. It's not a reward for finishing your meal. It's not a reward for being "good." It's just there. You eat a small piece (or a small bowl, if we're doing ice cream or pudding or jello) just like you would eat a few bites of other foods.
3. Never talk negatively about any food
This is related to the vegetable rule above, but slightly different. If *YOU* yourself don't like a certain food, hold your honest opinion until your kids are not around. This is especially important if you have babies and toddlers who are still learning how to talk about foods.
Instead of food tasting "good" or "bad," try words like "juicy, crispy, crunchy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet, mushy, soft, green, yellow, red, cheesy, gooey" to describe the foods you're eating. This will help prevent kids from forming an opinion about one food and reinforcing it over and over by saying it's bad or they don't like it.
4. Never serve the same food twice in a row
This might seem impossible, especially if your child only eats a handful of things and you are a busy working parent, but there are ways to make this easy! The trick is to get creative with how you serve the food, and what you serve it with.
You don't have to prepare a different meal three times a day. Just make sure you present the food differently to use mealtimes as an opportunity to expose your kid to new foods. This will also help to make sure your kid doesn't get stuck on one food that they will always request.
Here are a few examples of how to do this. Let's take a more extreme example and say your child only eats French fries, strawberries, and yogurt.
- Serve different French fries every time: crinkle cut, air-fried, cut into shorter pieces. You kid ONLY eats ONE brand of French fries, you say? No problem. Serve them with ketchup or another dip, and serve the other kind of French fry right next to it, or serve it next to cut up French fries from the same brand. It's a safe way to introduce new foods without intimidating your child. (Psst, I also have a detailed article on how to use French Fries as a "gateway" food for picky eaters... because I've had to do this for my son!)
- Serve whole strawberries, sliced strawberries, diced strawberries, strawberries on top of yogurt, strawberries next to yogurt, strawberries next to another fruit. Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes. These are great because they come in different sizes and can be used for fruit and for bigger things (we use them for quesadillas and pancakes all the time!). If your child needs more exciting shapes, this is a great set. As a bonus, you can bake with your kids and make fun cookie shapes, which is a good sensory and food therapy exercise, but that's a topic for another article. 😉
- Serve yogurt blended or topped with different fruit, serve yogurt with a side of granola bar.
Rinse and repeat.
My challenge to you is to sit down with a piece of paper, make a list of foods that your child eats (use this Picky Eater Foods Worksheet to guide you!), and then brainstorm 5 different ways to serve each food. That should keep you going for a few weeks without having to repeat your meals and without having to prep a ton of new food each day.
5. Never make your child feel bad about their eating
Adding on to picky eating rule #2, never make your child feel bad about their eating. In addition to not talking about their picky eating habits in front of them, make sure you not say anything harmful to them, such as: "ugh why won't you just eat this?" or "why can't you be like normal kids and eat pizza?" (although I've sure thought this many times!) or "you better start eating normal things like pizza, because when you start going to birthday parties, you are gonna be the only kid eating baby food" (yes, I also worry about this with my son!)
The thing about "picky" eaters, is it's really not their fault most of the time. Picky eating is often a result of a sensory issue, a gastroenterology problem (such as reflux or GERD), or a result of not feeling safe enough to try new foods for reasons such as a previously bad experience, being pressured, gagging from new foods, or feeling overwhelmed by other things in their life.
Even in the rare cases that a child is choosing to act up and be picky, it is often because of something else going on in their life that they don't feel they have control over. And sure, we adults think that's ridiculous and know it's just a way to get more attention, but how is a toddler or a little kid expected to understand that and process their feelings and express them in a more productive way? It's a lot to ask!
So don't ever make your child feed bad about themselves or their eating, there is no way that can ever help.
6. Never assume your child won't eat something
This picky eating rule is another one I struggle with. There have been times when I didn't offer my son something because I assumed he won't eat it.
This often happens when I am tired or stressed and don't have it in me to deal with him refusing even more food. Or when we are around other people and I don't want to have to pick up unwanted food from the floor. Or when we are in a rush and I just want my son to eat something so we can get going. Or quite frankly, just because I know he won't eat it.
There is a good chance I missed out on my son trying a new food and possibly liking it. I definitely missed out on the opportunity to expose him to a new food by just serving it alongside his "preferred" foods. And that is the opposite of what our Mealtime Works has taught us.
I am trying my best to offer my son everything and anything to increase the odds that he will try new foods. No, I am not perfect, and sometimes I still don't offer my son something new for the above reasons, but I really do my best to not assume. And on days I choose not to give him something new for the reasons above, I always make a mental note to try that food later on in the week when I have more time or patience, or when my son seems more open to trying something new.
The only exception to this (and use your judgement here) is if you feel like your child is already in a new overwhelming environment and you don't want to overwhelm them even more, it's OK to skip a new food. I've done this during big family parties when my son was refusing to eat anything because there were so many people and so much new food (he was only 15 months, so he was easily overwhelmed). He was already close to a complete meltdown and was throwing food on the floor because it was all too much. Well-meaning people would offer him this and that to try and I would say no. I had to protect my son from getting even more overwhelmed. My only mistake was in how I said no. I forgot all about rule #2 above and said "no he won't eat that." I should have said something like "thanks, we'll put that over here on my plate for now" or "he has enough foods on his plate already, let's save that for another day."
7. Never feel like you're alone
This. I felt so helpless when I would turn to my friends or pediatricians for advice (five pediatricians, to be exact!), and would get responses that I KNEW would not help us ("feed him ice cream and cake".... what? he HATES cold things and cake textures), or advice that just seemed too overwhelming. Our son was a severely picky eater, he would sometimes gag and throw up at the sight of me eating. It was super stressful thinking about what to feed my son and worrying about his lack of weight gain.
But remember, many other parents are going through the same thing, it's just that they're not posting on Facebook about it proudly when their child had a meltdown during dinner yet again.
You CAN get help no matter what level of picky eating you are at or how old your child is:
- Join a Facebook group to get help from other parents going through the same struggles
- Take an online class from an occupational therapist to learn about how to create a good eating environment, what kinds of foods to introduce to your kid, and how to introduce those foods (Mealtime Works is the online class we took that has been a tremendous help, there is a $50 discount if you use this link). See if your insurance covers in-person feeding therapy (we did this, read about our experience here: feeding therapy).
Take a breather, and know there are resources out there that can help you and help your child eat. Yes, it will take some work on your part. Yes, it's a slow journey. But you can get help and turn picky eating around.
Other picky eating resources:
- How to Get a Toddler to Gain Weight
- How to Get Picky Toddlers to Eat Meat
- Division of Responsibilities for Feeding Toddlers
- 11 Reasons to Cook With Your Toddlers
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with any of these "rules?" I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments. And please share this on Facebook or save it on Pinterest if you think it could be helpful for other parents going through the same thing.