A Dietitian’s Guide to Banning Picky Eating

Image via iStock

Image via iStock

Mark Davies is fed up.

His six-year-old son, Corbain, has a frustratingly limited food palate. “Most of the time he won’t eat what we’re eating. He’ll want Kraft Dinner or porridge. He mostly eats carbs. He’s not big on protein. It’s hard to get him to eat anything but hot dogs or chicken nuggets,” says the dad from Smithers, B.C. “I’d rather he eat healthy food; the food that we have in the house. But he thinks this is a restaurant. It’s always a negotiation, even if it’s something he likes.”

This meal-time dynamic is playing out in households across the country, where a generation of busy parents not inclined to spend the evening making children finish everything on their plates find themselves playing short-order cook and hiding spinach in the muffins.

But a group of dietitians and food writers is calling attention to compelling evidence that suggests we’re going about this all wrong. One of them is Karen le Billon, Vancouver author of French Kids Eat Everything (Collins) and the forthcoming Getting to Yum (Collins). Her first book chronicled the experiences she had after moving her family—including two fairly fussy eaters—to France for a year. The emphasis that country puts on teaching children to eat like grown-ups in a methodical, joyful manner, completely devoid of dinner-table drama, was startling both to le Billon and those of us who devoured her book.

In France, food education—a phrase most Canadians would probably associate more with memorizing the food pyramid than eating an endive salad—is a notion taken with the same seriousness as learning to read and write. There, school lunches are catered affairs involving flavourful entrees, delicious vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a cheese plate and nary a chicken nugget in sight. The menus are distributed to parents, so they can ensure meals and ingredients aren’t repeated at home.

How to Keep Your Resolve Against a Picky Eater

Equally important to a well-funded school lunch program, and what North American parents are missing, is good guidance on how to expose children to a wide variety of foods at a very young age, and the confidence to meet a turned-up nose with calm demeanor. Without this, many of us tend to give up too soon and label our kids picky eaters.

“If you tell a child, ‘You’re a picky eater,’ they’ll internalize that and they’ll become picky,” le Billon explains. “If you say, ‘Actually, you need to taste it a bunch of times while you’re learning to like it,’ that sends a more positive message.” Try positive labelling instead, she suggests, and refer to your child as a “learning eater,” like you might a “learning reader.”

But solving the problem takes more than just a change in language. What we need to do is put an end to short-order cooking, special kids’ meals (bye, bye dinosaur nuggets and back-up grilled-cheese sandwiches) and begging our kids to “take just one more bite.”

“We’ve been doing a lot of catering to our children in terms of what they like and don’t like,” says Kathy Buckworth, mother of four and author of Shut Up and Eat (Key Porter). “I don’t care if my kids like dinner or not. That’s what I have made. It’s mostly nutritious, it’s on budget and it’s on time.”

That’s basically where her job at the dinner table is done, according to registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter, an authority on family dynamics around feeding who is based in Sun Prairie, Wis.

End Mealtime Negotiations

Satter’s findings about what really helps kids develop healthy attitudes toward food led her to come up with a theory called “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” The basis of this theory is that it’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what to serve for meals, plus when and where to serve them, and the child’s job to choose whether and how much to eat from among the foods offered.

Kristen Yarker, a Victoria-based registered dietitian who works with families whose kids have picky palates, uses Satter’s theory as a basis for her private consultations as well as the workshops she runs in Victoria and the Lower Mainland. Yarker explains that the Satter method means parents don’t engage in dialogue with children about what they’re eating—no “make sure you eat your vegetables,” no “just try one bite” and no “eat some sweet potatoes before you have more turkey.”

“When the conversation is about how everybody’s day was or planning tomorrow’s activities, kids really do tend to do better,” says Yarker. “The more we try to interfere, the more kids will resist.” This can be particularly acute with toddlers and preschoolers, whose developmental stage demands that they experiment frequently with pushing boundaries and expressing their individuality. “If you decide to enter into that with them, saying ‘eat two more bites,’ they will rise to the occasion and enjoy the battle because no one likes a negotiation better than a toddler or preschooler. You need to take the high road and refuse to engage.”

But surely it’s not too much to ask our kids to take one bite of everything before they have a second helping of their favourite part of a meal?

Actually, studies show that doesn’t work, says Yarker. Instead, kids become “driven by that prize—the turkey—and the root vegetables become some chore that you need to get through to get to the prize.” If you’re following this method, you have to be okay with your child eating nothing but turkey at that meal, secure in the understanding that come snack time, you can decide that, say, only vegetables are on offer, and that overall your kid will get what he needs throughout the day.

“What’s so common is that parents feel they need to make a tough choice of either giving in completely and avoiding the battle and letting their kids eat the same five foods, or battling with them in a huge negotiation, with tantrums and tears, in order to get those two bites in,” says Yarker. “The really good news is that there are decades-old strategies based on scientific evidence that show you don’t need to make that choice.”

For instance, Satter’s research shows that children may have to be exposed to a food an astonishing 15 to 20 times (or more!)—whether they’re eating the food themselves or simply observing others around them doing so—before they’ll learn to accept and enjoy it. When kids are allowed to gradually accumulate good attitudes and behaviours around eating without the cajoling and negotiating that’s become such a big part of mealtime for many of us, they’ll retain the positive attitude toward food that they were born with and learn to eat the same foods as their parents.

Be Prepared for Ups and Downs

It’s not always a straight road to better eating. Even average eaters may gobble up a dish one day and abruptly reject it the next.

Erica Berman has experienced that unpredictability with her daughter, Avery, age four-and-a-half. “For months, the only thing she wanted to eat for lunch and dinner was pasta with Parmesan cheese, cream cheese and milk. She’d ask for it twice a day—even snacks,” says the Toronto mom of two. “Then one day I put it down in front of her and she swatted it away with her hand and declared it ‘disgusting.’”

That kind of food flip-flop is familiar territory for Jenn Wallage, a mother of two from Waterloo, Ont., who struggles to get protein into the diets of her children, ages six and eight. “Pork chops will be great one week and then two or three weeks later, nope, they don’t want to touch them. One week they’ll love bacon and another they won’t. It depends which way the wind is blowing.”

So how are we to have the patience for these seemingly arbitrary food decisions, not to mention the up to 20 attempts to get our children to try roasted cauliflower?

The key is to make it more fun than frustrating, says le Billon. After French Kids Eat Everything generated so much response, she wanted to continue the conversation and help parents with practical solutions. Her new book expands on the notion of taste training, which is the foundation of successful food cultures not just in France but in other parts of the world, such as Japan, where school lunch is treated with reverence and childhood obesity is very low. Getting to Yum emphasizes using taste-training tools like the Sour Food Game, which capitalizes on the delight kids take in getting their taste buds excited by sour stuff to introduce a variety of new foods.

Le Billon stresses that picky eating isn’t a personality trait. “It’s not permanent and taste training really helps kids expand their palates and become happy, eager eaters for life. It’s a skill just like learning to read, and it can be taught in a fun way at an early age.”

While researching her book, le Billon worked with test families, many who felt they were facing insurmountable problems, she says. “But they discovered that there was a really easy way to break through. Kids feel proud about learning to like new things.”


Related: Does your kid have an issue with the texture of her food? Does she hate her veggies, or is she turned off by colourful foods? Celebrity chefs to the rescue! Get their advice for pickiness, plus 4 yummy recipes.


Whatever You Do, Don’t Hide the Vegetables

And yes, those new things can include vegetables.

Whether out of desperation or the assumption children won’t learn to love new vegetables (particularly the green ones), many parents go to elaborate lengths to sneak vegetables into their children’s diets, puréeing them into macaroni and cheese, baking them into brownies or whatever else it takes to disguise them. But le Billon says that’s counterproductive.

“When you do that, kids learn that good- for-you-foods taste bad and the only way you’d eat them is if you’re tricked into eating them.” Just as important, she says, you’re missing a window of opportunity to teach your child to like these things. “That window opens quite young—the French say at six months, as soon as you introduce solids,” she explains. “Just like a child goes for the new toy in the room, they’ll do the same thing with food at that age. That doesn’t mean they’ll like everything, but at least they’ll be tasting, and that sensorial experience is really important.”

New fruits and veg will do a better job of selling themselves if you offer them as fresh as possible, suggests registered dietitan Daina Kalnins, director of clinical dietetics at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. It may be difficult with a packed schedule, but Kalnins recommends parents “pick up foods often, especially fruits and vegetables,” she says. Fresh foods taste better, improving the odds your kids will eat them.

And get them when they’re hungry. “Cut up those fruits and vegetables and put them on a plate when the kids are doing their homework,” she says.

Want Your Kids to Eat Dinner Tonight? Try This One Change

Another thing that seems to have eluded our generation of parents is the knowledge that it’s normal and healthy to give kids a chance to build up an appetite.We fear the hunger-induced meltdown to such an extent that we stuff our purses and pockets with crackers and granola bars every time we leave the house. We orchestrate elaborate snack rotations for sports activities, lest our children exert themselves for 50 minutes without a treat.

In France, there is no such phenomenon of travelling Goldfish and orange slices. Instead, there is one modest late-afternoon snack called goûter, says le Billon. While researching Getting to Yum, “the test families I worked with cut out snacking as a first step,” she says. “They were amazed at the degree to which the kids had a more healthy appetite at the table.”

When you need to refuse your cranky child a yogurt tube half an hour before dinner, or maintain your resolve through crocodile tears and wails of “I know I won’t like it,” consider the big picture, says Kathy Buckworth.

“One child who visited my house asked me to wash the sauce off her meatballs,” Buckworth recalls. “Do you want that to be your child that’s displaying bad manners when they go to other people’s houses? We might think we’re doing them a favour, but when we try to make sure they love every bite, we’re actually doing them a disservice. It has more implications than just getting them through family meals.”

Yarker concurs. While she doesn’t see a problem in modifying the family meal slightly to accommodate young eaters— removing some of the stir-fry before adding extra spices, or deconstructing a salad a little—it’s a mistake to cook extra dishes to accommodate a fussy eater. “You’re not creating an opportunity to try something new and you’re sending the message that ‘I don’t need to try something new because I can always get my same safe foods,’” she says.

Ultimately our job is to give our kids the gift of knowing how to enjoy both good, quality food and the convivial experience of the dinner table by gently nudging them beyond the familiar territory of chicken strips and plain noodles. Even if your child has never liked your homemade soups, put a little in front of him each time you make some, says Yarker. “There’s something very powerful about sharing food for us as human beings. In every culture around the world, people gather and share foods. By sitting down together and having the same foods put in front of everybody, you’re telling your child, you’re a part of this family and I love you, so I’m offering you this soup.”

Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding

Parents’ responsibilities:

  • Choose and prepare foods
  • Provide regular meals and snacks
  • Make mealtimes pleasant
  • Model appropriate mealtime behaviour
  • Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes
  • Don’t give children food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times

Childrens’ responsibilities:

  • Decide whether to eat the foods offered by parents
  • Eat the amount needed
  • Learn to eat the food their parents eat
  • Learn to behave well at mealtime

Source: Ellyn Satter Institute



5 responses to “A Dietitian’s Guide to Banning Picky Eating”

  1. Mommywithfoodguilt says:

    Please explain to me how to manage when my son doesn’t ‘choose’ any of the meal and is starving come 7 pm – do you warm up the meal that wasn’t appealing to him 2 hours ago or give in to the bowl of Cheerios that is his standard go to or let him go hungry, go to bed hungry and hope he’ll then choose the ‘good’ options you are offering for breakfast because he is ravenous?
    Your suggestions are great but at nine I am unfortunately at my wits end( and I know it is my fault) and so far down the picky eater road, tried many of the suggestions laid out here, spent over $2000 on an occupational food therapist and now he’ll eat 4 bites of watermelon with his pasta and parm… Wahoo ( insert sarcasm)

  2. momwithpickyboys says:

    Yes, exactly. My boys (aged 2, 4, and 6) very often (probably 5 nights out of 7) refuse to eat what I make for dinner. Even if they’ve had it before and loved it. Our rule is that we will not force them to eat the meal, but they must sit quietly at the table. If they do not eat, they do not get anything later. If they are hungry 2 hours later, we can warm up their dinner or they can go hungry. Giving in with a bowl of cheerios 2 hours after dinner is not teaching your son that he has to try his dinner. There are nights when my 4-year-old complains that he’s “So hungry!!!” an hour after dinner and we insist that if he wants something, he eats his dinner. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. It’s a work in progress. Our 6-year-old is now starting to eat more variety, not as much as we would like, but more than he used to.

    We did, at one point, speak with our doctor about their eating and she said that they are growing and healthy. They aren’t underweight or lacking energy or anything, so they are fine. If they started losing weight or having no energy or something then we would have to do something, but we don’t have that problem.

    It’s difficult as a mother to stick to your guns and say “No, you can’t have a sandwich/bowl of cereal/etc. You have to eat your dinner.” But it is necessary. And just remember, eventually that son of yours is going to hit puberty and you won’t be able to keep enough food in the house to keep him satisfied. As long as he is at a healthy weight and is growing properly, he should outgrow the picky stage eventually (at least, that’s what everyone tells me :P ).

  3. Nicole Wc says:

    I think this article can be misleading for some parents. Yes there are picky eaters, then there are children that do have real problems with food such as food aversion & sensory issues. I was told by a dietician at children’s hospital that no kid will starve themselves to death & will eventually eat the food that I put out. Turns out that my son really does have a medical problem & will starve himself to death.
    It isnt an easy road but you need to be patient. Let them play with & explore the food. Everyday will get better and it does take a long time.

  4. Marie says:

    When my son was very young I made the decision to not fight with him at any meal in attempting to get him to eat. If he did not like something or just didn’t eat his meal for whatever reason, I would still give him his bed time snack which was usually a bowl of cereal. My son would definitely eat a good breakfast the next morning :) and we were both happy. The same with lunch, he always ate a good dinner because he was hungry. Of course we did not often go out for meals except for a couple of times a month. He was a very healthy child. I certainly hope this helps someone and makes your child’s and your life easier.

  5. Such a fantastic article! Thank you so much!! Very well written, and some really great tips. I can’t wait to pass on to my clients!