Does your child only ever want to eat a few types of foods? Perhaps it’s grilled cheese, or peanut butter and toast. Do they refuse to try anything new? If mealtime is a struggle in your home, you’re not alone. Young children are notorious for their picky eating behaviors, which can cause parents a great deal of stress. Before the stress of mealtime gets the best of you, consider these strategies and tips to prevent mealtime battles.
MODEL, REWARD, REPEAT
If you want your child to try new foods, you should eat them too. Encourage your child—in a positive way—to try the foods you’re eating and remain neutral if they decide not to.
Children like to be rewarded for good behavior. Think back to potty training: what did you do to help establish this behavior? Research recommends using non-food reward items, such as stickers, to help encourage trying new foods. Introducing new foods is always best when children are hungry.
Children may need to be exposed to a new food ten or more times before they accept it, so keep trying—and be patient.
COLLABORATE WITH KIDS
To help reduce mealtime stress and prevent food battles, focus on your role as the parent/caregiver and let your child decide the rest (yes, this will be challenging). You decide what, when, and where. You decide what foods and drinks are served at each meal. Make one meal for your entire family, and don’t cater to each child. You decide when the food is served. Plan meal and snack times so your child knows when to expect food. You decide where the meal or snack is eaten (at the kitchen table, on the floor—picnic style, in front of the TV during their favorite show, for example).
Your child decides whether to eat and how much. This is the challenging part for parents and caregivers, as the child is ultimately responsible for how much they want to eat. Remember, children’s hunger varies day to day; trust that they know if they’re hungry.
Following these roles will help eliminate mealtime battles. When mealtime becomes a battle (pressure, convincing, tricking) your child knows someone has to win the battle (and in most cases they do). In addition, their hunger will vary based on their activity, growth, and energy that day. This variation is completely normal, and it’s why their hunger should be trusted.
INVOLVE KIDS IN MEAL PREP
Have your child(ren) pick out a meal they would like to eat each week. Bring them grocery shopping (have them pick out their favorite veggie) or help choose foods based on choices you provide. Find things they can do in the kitchen, such as tossing salads, mixing batter, or making dressings. Children are more interested in eating foods they’ve helped prepare.
Keep mealtimes consistent so kids know when to expect a meal. Children both love and need routine. Try to incorporate routine times to enjoy meals together with the entire family. Use these times to set the example for them to follow.
Try to keep mealtime to thirty minutes. Extending mealtime beyond thirty minutes can make it an unpleasant experience for everyone. If your child doesn’t eat in that time period, remove the food from the table and offer food again at the next meal or snack time.
Make mealtime fun; this has the benefit of being more enjoyable for everyone. Make dips for your veggies or have make-your-own meal nights, such as burrito bowls with optional toppings. Set up a weekly reward chart that your child can place stickers on whenever they try new foods. At the end of the week, reward them with a small prize, such as a trip to the park after dinner. Create kid-friendly review cards with facial expressions (smiling, laughing, frowning, etc.) they can use to rate their meal. It can be a fun activity for the entire family when testing out new recipes.
The next time mealtime has you feeling stressed, remember your role, practice patience, get creative, and trust that you’re the expert in your own family.