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Having a kid who is a picky eater is one of the most frustrating parts about being a parent—right up there with potty training, sleepless nights and meltdowns.
Chances are, you’re already doing your best to offer plenty of healthy foods.
But try as you might, you can’t seem to put an end to the picky eating.
When you’re at your wit’s end and you’re ready to pull out your hair, it’s definitely easier to open up a box of mac and cheese and call it a day.
Yet raising healthy kids who will try, accept and even crave healthy foods isn’t something that happens overnight.
With some simple strategies however, it can be done. Let’s get started.
1. Recognize picky eating for what it is
Many parents label their kids as picky eaters, but just because the behaviors are frustrating, that doesn’t mean it will be that way forever or that they have to define your child.
Picky eating is only a small, short-term obstacle to healthy eating.
Look at the bigger picture and realize that kids who eat healthy now are more likely to be healthy eaters throughout their lives, so it’s well-worth the effort.
2. Bring kids in the kitchen
When my kids are having meltdowns and it seems that no matter what I do, doesn’t work to get them to calm down, its extremely frustrating.
But when I’m empathic, hear them out and offer a hug, things usually get better.
Sometimes kids just need their cups refilled with quality time so rather than battling it out at the dinner table, try coming together in the kitchen.
Cooking with your kids is one of the best ways to teach them about healthy eating and it might be the way to end picky eating for good.
Empower your kids with choices: let them find a new recipe, then shop and cook the meal together.
At the very least, cooking can diffuse some of the frustration at the dinner table, create a positive environment around food, and slowly encourage your kids to be more adventurous eaters.
3. Have a play date
Children are more likely to do what other children do, and that includes eating.
According to a May 2016 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, preschoolers who saw a video of their peers eating a bell pepper ate more peppers themselves a week later and said they were more likely to eat the vegetable again.
If one of your child’s friends is a healthy eater, arrange for them to have a play date. Your kid might be interested in what his friend is eating and more likely to take a bite too.
This strategy can also work well with other family members, especially grandparents, who are skilled at getting kids to try just about anything they offer.
4. Serve bites, not portions
Studies show it can take serving small portions of the same food 15 to 20 times, before kids will even take a bite.
Instead of overwhelming your child with an entire plate, or even a portion of vegetables, try serving a tiny amount, such as a broccoli floret, a bean, or a piece of a shredded carrot.
5. Let kids play with their food
Kids who play with their food are more likely to try new flavors and a wider variety of foods, a July 2015 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests.
Rather than pressuring your child to take a bite or bribe them with dessert if he eats his vegetables, encourage him to touch, smell, and even play with his food.
Talk about the shapes, colors, texture and aroma of the foods on his plate. If he takes a bite, that’s great, but the goal is to let him explore his food without feeling pressure to eat it.
6. Change the scenery
Sometimes moving your meals to a different environment can make mealtimes more interesting and less stressful.
Try packing a picnic lunch and head to the park, eat on the patio instead of the dinner table or take lunch to a friend’s house.
7. Let kids choose what they want to eat
When kids feel they have a say in what’s being served, they’ll be more likely to try it.
At dinner, serve a salad and a cooked vegetable or put out a buffet of leftovers and let your kids decide what they want on their plates.
Or take a trip to the farmers’ market and let you child choose a new vegetable to try.
8. Take stock of your kid’s diet
If kids are loading up on snacks throughout the day, they probably won’t be hungry for meals.
Snacks like crackers, chips and cookies—even those that are gluten-free, organic and have healthy ingredients like fruit and nuts—can crowd out the calories they should get from healthy foods.
Also, feeding kids processed snacks that are high in sugar and sodium train their taste buds to prefer those foods over healthy, whole foods, so it’s best to limit them as much as possible.
9. Talk to an expert
When you feel like you’ve done all you can to get your kid out of his picky eating habits, consider getting help from an expert.
A pediatric registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) will work with you to understand your child and your family and address all the factors at play. They can also help you set realistic goals and offer strategies and meal ideas to help your child try and eventually accept new foods.
To find an RDN, ask your pediatrician to make a referral or search the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ site, EatRight.org.
10. Stick with it
It might seem that your kids will be picky eaters forever, especially if you have toddlers who are inherently picky, but most kids can become healthy, adventurous eaters.
The key is to continue to offer healthy foods and teach healthy eating habits every day. This simple shift in mindset can help you muster up the energy and dedication to stay the course and raise healthy-eating kids.