Mealtime Strategies for Picky Eaters

Picky eating habits could be your kids way of exerting their independence. Here are a few pointers for parents dealing with kids who are still fussy with their food!

Illustration by Katie Turner

Emma Waverman’s son Noah had never been all that fussy about what he ate, so it came as a surprise when, at the age of six, he became a dedicated bread, pasta and cheese eater. “It’s always frustrating when you have a kid who is picky. I mean, who wants to make macaroni and cheese every day?” says the Toronto mom of three. Her frustrations went beyond concerns about repetition and a boring menu: “The hardest part isn’t what you put on the table; it’s your worries about your kid. You think, are they getting the right nutrients to have enough energy at school? Are they growing properly? Are they always going to be like this? Are they going to be 35 years old and only eating bread and cheese?” says Waverman, a popular blogger and co-author of Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them (Random House).

While many kids have shaken their picky eating habits by the time they reach school age, some continue to cling to the familiar. Other children start developing these habits for the first time as they embrace a growing independence, sometimes exerting their will over their culinary choices to make a statement. Waverman notes that Noah was probably exercising some of his newfound freedom to set himself apart from his younger sibling, who is a good eater, and his older sibling, who is a carnivore. No matter what the cause, Waverman and others note that it’s important to kick the pickiness—and to stay calm in the process.

Fear Not Starvation

While it’s understandable for parents to worry that their picky eater isn’t getting sufficient sustenance, when a child is still gaining weight and has good energy levels, there’s no need to fret—kids can stay healthy for a long time on a few different foods. David Farnell, founder (with his wife Lulu) of Real Foods for Real Kids, a healthy lunch program in a number of Ontario schools and child care centres, points out that hunger can be your ally in the fight to broaden your child’s palate. A dad of two young kids, Farnell encourages parents to talk to their children about the difference between what he calls “mouth hunger” (simply a desire to eat) and “tummy hunger” (a true need for food). “If they say they’re hungry and you offer them brown rice or quinoa and they say no, then they’ve just told you that they’re not really hungry—that their mouth is hungry. They might be bored and just want to snack on something,” he says. “If that is the case, they can can wait. Or offer them carrots and celery. That’s not tough love. That’s just reasonable parenting.”

Taking Advantage of Autonomy

Farnell says that parents can make use of that new sense of independence that kids are feeling. “Kids are starting to find their own voice between ages six and eight. So at this point, we need to use techniques of empowerment.” He explains that parents should involve their children—and especially selective eaters— in shopping, setting the table and cooking. “When our son Max was eight, we taught him how to make a salad and crack eggs to make an omelette. You can be sure that any food that a kid helps cook, or even pick out at the grocery store, they’re going to eat it.”

Build on Their Strengths

Waverman notes that the worst thing parents can do is let their concerns and frustrations come out at the dinner table—a stressful meal experience doesn’t help anything, and actually works against your goal. At the same time, she advises parents to resist bending to the will of a picky eater. “We extrapolate so much as parents—we think that just because the kid doesn’t eat kale, he’s going to be a dropout,” she says. “You need to take your own emotions out of it, put the food on the table and not worry.”

Waverman adds that by age six, kids will have developed some favourite dishes; it’s helpful to use these foods as a foundation for a larger menu. Because Noah’s likes pasta, Waverman uses that as a basis to introduce similarly textured foods such as quinoa, barley and couscous. “It’s a process of building toward a more varied palate while staying within his safe zone,” she says. Waverman admits it can be a long haul and parents should be patient, as she is being with Noah. “The payoff,” she says, “will be a kid who eats a lot of things.”

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