I have had quite a few parents ask what to do about picky eaters. Mealtimes can turn into seemingly-endless sessions of coaxing and cajoling each bite into a child's mouth, trying this and that, and ending up with pasta and bagels being 80% of your child's diet. Parents of children who are tiny or under their ideal weight are especially susceptible, but even the parents of big, strapping children can fall into these patterns.
The crux of converting a child away from being a picky eater is to change your viewpoint: your goal is not to get calories into your child's body by whatever means necessary; your goal is to help your child develop a healthy relationship to food. With this goal in mind, your responsibilities, and your attitude, can change. Your responsibility, as the parent, is to provide your child with healthy food. Their responsibility, as the child, is to eat the food. You cannot do this for them, nor can you force them to do it. You can simply do your job effectively, and know that they are capable of doing theirs. Being anxious about a child eating (or not eating) does nothing except to make the child feel anxiety around food. So what CAN you do? There are several concrete actions that can set the stage for healthy eating.
Let Children Help
One of the best ways to help children develop a healthy relationship to food is to involve them in the food preparations. Children are far less likely to be critical of food that they have helped create. I have been amazed time and again at what so-called “picky” eaters will eat out of the garden if they can help pick it. And in the kitchen, cooking is always an interactive experience at my house: children can help chop veggies or fruit (even a two-year-old can chop mushrooms or hack at zucchini slices with a table-knife), they can put veggies I've chopped into the bowl before they go onto the stove, or they can pour or stir things that we've measured. Also, children get to taste every ingredient I use, including the strange ones. They taste the oil, the salt, the lemon-juice, every raw vegetable including very tiny slices of onion, even sometimes a grain or two of uncooked rice. I talk about what each thing tastes like (sweet, sour, spicy, bland), I laugh at their funny faces when they taste something unexpected, and I'll even talk about how the taste or texture changes when it cooks. Food is something to be explored and savored.
Don't Change the Menu
The other important thing to do to convert your picky eater is to stand firm and be confident in the healthy food choices you've made for that meal. Don't “give in” and let them have slices of bagel -or whatever it is that they like- if they choose not to eat the food you've prepared for that meal. Bagels are so yummy, why would they possibly branch out to broccoli or peas if they know that they just need to wait a bit for the bagel? But if they know that whatever you prepare is all that's forthcoming, they're much more likely to eat. If they choose not to eat much, you can prepare them another meal or a snack in an hour or two. It's OK for them to learn that if they don't eat what you prepare for them, they will be hungry for a bit.
On this subject, don't stop offering a healthy food to a child just because they don't like it. Research has shown that children's tastes for foods change with repeated exposure. I have certainly experienced this working in daycare and early childhood settings. I try to use seasonal vegetables as much as possible, and the first few times a new veggie will often be rejected by some of the children. However, usually by the fifth time a new veggie is served, everyone is eating it (of course, the fact that they know nothing else will be forthcoming if they hold out probably helps). With this in mind, I changed the mealtime vocabulary so that when a child says, “I don't like this,” I gently correct, “You're still learning to like this.”
Tell Stories About Food
I sometimes tell stories about foods I didn't like when I was a youngster, that I have since developed a taste for. But I do this with a light touch, more as a funny or distracting story than as a heavy morality tale. Kids love to hear stories about mom or dad when they were little. An even more successful type of food story I'll tell is when a child tells me, “I don't like carrots,” I'll say, “Really? Do you know the story of carrots?” Then I'll tell them:
“Carrots come from the tiniest of tiny little seeds. The seeds are so small that you can hardly pick one up by itself. So you have to be very careful when you plant them, not to spill too many in one spot! Before you plant them, you prepare the soil, and put the tiny little seeds in the ground, and each day you water them. The sun shines down, and the rain falls, and finally one day, a tiny little sprout peeks its head out of the soil. It's so delicate, if you step on it, or if the soil dries out, it will surely die. But you're careful, and you water it every day, and it starts to grow bigger and bigger. It becomes leafy and green with the most beautiful, lacy leaves. But where is the carrot, you ask? There's nothing orange here, only green leaves! Let me tell you: it is growing underneath the ground, where we can't see it! Bit by bit it grows down, down, getting thicker and longer each day. Until one day we see the top of it poking out of the soil, and we know it's ripe. We get our trowel to loosen the soil, then thwop! Out it comes! Covered with dirt, we put our carrots into a basket and bring them into the kitchen, where we chop off the tops, then we scrub-scrub-scrub all the dirt off them, then chop them up, and cook them, and now here they are, in our bowls!”
This story can be told for any fruit, vegetable, or grain, quite easily, as well as milk and juice. For things I don't personally grow in the garden, like rice, I'll tell about where they grow it, and how the farmer sends it to the store for moms and dads to buy. The story itself is so fascinating, and many children forget that they “don't like” carrots and happily eat them up as they hear the story. Even if they don't, I don't make a big deal out of it. Some day they will eat them; maybe even tomorrow.
For my hardest, hardcore hold-outs, I'll sometimes dangle a special type of reward in front of them. I'll say, “Some day, you will eat your whole bowl with everything in it, and I'll be so surprised, I'll fall right out of my chair!” Then, the first time it happens, I ham it up, falling out of my chair with shock and pride. I have done this successfully for several different children, but I'll only do it for children who are really tough hold-outs (where I really WILL be surprised if they eat it all), and I'll only do it once per child. I don't need mealtimes to turn into circus acts!
And, finally, there is the comment that my mother used on us when we were young, which worked quite well. When one of us kids would say, “I don't like this,” she'd calmly reply, “That's OK. You don't have to like everything you eat.” And you know what? Remembering that helped me innumerable times as I traveled around the world in my teens and twenties, and exposed me to many things I otherwise would never have tried.