Every night at dinner does your child reject the healthy dinner you made for them? You just wish they’d eat! You’re not alone on this, so what’s the best way to feed dinner to our picky eaters?
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How to feed picky kids dinner
Ok, raise your hand if this feels all too true for you…
You’ve just made the healthiest, most well balanced meal ever! You included some of your child’s favourite things and left out the things you know they don’t like. You might just win mom of the year!
You then serve your child the meal…and it’s a total flop!
After pushing it around with their fork for a little bit your child decides they are NOT going to eat it.
You’re feeling discouraged, but not defeated yet…you point to all the yummy things in it that you know they like…you even take a big bite to show them how good it is.
They’re not going for it.
Now you don’t know what to do. You’re feeling annoyed after preparing this great meal, and also a little bit disrespected. Your mind flashes back to how your mother would have reacted if you had done this as a child. You would have heard things like,
“You’ll sit here and eat until that plate is empty, young lady.”
“I guess you’ll go to bed hungry then.”
“There are starving children in Africa you know!”
You take a deep breath.
You’ve decided to be a Gentle Parent.
So how can you proceed in a moment like this? Here are some tips on how to feed your picky eater.
First things first…
Having food preferences and sensitivities to textures is pretty normal. There are a lot of foods that completely turn children off but adults can enjoy easily.
In the end, you probably want your child to have a healthy relationship with good, to not have a lot of preferences, and to actually go to bed without feeling hungry.
That’s a lot to achieve, especially if they’re currently in the typically picky eating age.
For a healthy relationship with food, you need to resist the punitive phrases that might have come from your own mother’s mouth when you were a child.
No doubt she was trying her best, but we’re going for another angle here. Being forced to eat something you don’t like, or having to go hungry all night, or being shamed for your preferences will not develop a healthy relationship with good. Avoid these tactics, as easy as they may seem.
Recognize when and how to get your child to try new things.
Try to get them to taste new things without forcing it. This might mean you already know they’re probably not going to like the idea of eating chili, so maybe you could serve them a small bowl with literally half a spoonful. That’s a lot less scary than a big bowl of something they don’t like they’ll like. Encourage them to try it, but never force. And know the difference between when they’re just nervous to try a new food, and when there is a food the genuinely know they don’t like.
Remember, it’s ok to accommodate both yourself and your child.
You don’t have to cook a different dinner for everyone in the house, that would not be accommodating yourself. But only giving your child the option to eat the thing they just can’t, won’t be accommodating their needs either. Find a balance that works for everyone involved.
And remember, no matter what anyone says, accommodating your child doesn’t mean you’re spoiling them or letting them boss you around. People might tell you that, but it’s simply not the case. Remind yourself that you are helping them develop a healthy relationship with food, even if it means they only have a small variety of healthy foods they’re willing to eat at this time.
Teach them how to express their preferences kindly
It might be extremely triggering for you if your child says, “This is gross!” the second they see the food you cooked. It’s ok to have preferences, a lot of adults have preferences. For example, I very much dislike cooked spinach, but I have polite ways to navigate situations where cooked spinach is involved. No one is forcing me to eat it, and I’m allowed to have my preference about it, but I am also given the choice to be kind or rude with how I handle the situation. I choose to be kind.
You can teach your children simple phrases to use to express their preferences. They can say things like, “I see beans. I don’t like beans.” You can also teach them how to separate things in their food. Many times I’ve eaten a meal where there is a pile of scrapped off spinach in the corner of my plate. Adults do this all the time. Your child might not like this at first though, but they’re still learning, and as an adult they’ll probably do fine in social situations when they’re served something they don’t like if you give them the skills now to handle it.
So how do you actually FEED the picky eater?
You don’t want them to be hungry right? So here are some ways you can make sure they still eat.
#1. Include your child in the menu and meal prep
If they’re old enough you can teach them the basics of nutrition and the food groups. You can get them to help you plan a meal and to cook it. You can find a recipe together and check the different ingredients and ask them if they like all the things included. Maybe they don’t like onions right now, so you can say, “Why don’t we cook the onions separately and we won’t put any in yours?”
#2. Always put the same healthy sides on the table that you know they like
Some families do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but you could also do cheese slices, pickles, and raw veggies and dip. Anything you know they like and that meets how healthy you want them to eat will work. Keeping it to the same things all the time can be helpful because it will be predictable for your child and they’ll be less likely to ask for something else if they know these are the options you’re giving them.
#3.Cook a large bath of something they like and keep it in the freezer in single portions
If there is a certain dish they love and you don’t want to end up cooking them something different when they don’t like the main meal you can break out a frozen pre-made meal and heat it up for them.
#4.Offer different sauces
Ketchup, barbecue sauce, sweet chili…these sauces are your friends! Although it might feel a little insulting that your child only eats your food if it’s lathered in ketchup it might be a good way for them to get exposed to more textures and to feel like they have control over the taste of their foods. A lot of these sauces you can actually make at home or find them in the store with very little sugar so you don’t feel bad about how much sauce they eat.
#5. Always have a healthy evening snack
Don’t worry if your child doesn’t eat a lot at dinner, you can always offer a healthy snack right before bedtime so you can be sure that they’re not going to bed hungry. It’s good if you make the snack the same thing that was offered as a side on the dinner table (ex. veggies & dip) so your child isn’t just passing on dinner to get the better thing before bedtime. Be sure that it’s something that they like but also healthy.
*Stay gentle, even in their pickiness
Picky eating is just a part of life for so many children and parents. You can remain gentle and patient though as your child goes through this season of figuring out food. They will love some things, hate other things, and eventually as they get older the list of things they dislike will get smaller and smaller. Don’t make them feel bad for it, but allow it to happen with gentleness and grace. Encourage them to try new things, while also accommodating them where you can.
Dinner time doesn’t have to be a power struggle when you use these tools.
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The Moving Mama
Lizzy Mash is an experienced early childhood educator now living in Africa as a missionary working with children and families.
She teaches Christian moms how to take a more respectful and Christ-like approach to motherhood by using Gentle Parenting strategies.
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