6 Ways to Handle Picky Eaters

When I was a kid, I was a picky eater. I don’t know if my parents realized it at the time, but whether I liked a meal or not had very little to do with the taste. It was all about the texture. I instantly knew if I liked food based on how it felt on my tongue – grainy, mushy and slimy foods did not sit well with me and would instantly trigger my gag reflex. I would often make a decision about whether I liked a food or not simply by looking at it.

Now that I’m a parent myself, I’ve been blessed with a picky eater of my own. I say blessed, half joking (any parent of a picky eater knows more often than not dealing with a picky eater is a curse). In my case though, parenting a picky eater is a bit of a blessing. Having been a picky eater myself has given me a unique insight into the mind of a child who is cautious about food and has given me the tools for how to conquer this parenting hurdle.

Most kids have a “thing” that is making them picky. For some it may be that they are afraid to eat foods that are a certain colour (for many kids this is green), others are sensitive to texture (like I was) and some don’t like different types of food mixing or touching (my daughter fits into this category).

As I grew up, my texture sensitivity slowly started to disappear and I outgrew my picky eating. I’m now a fairly adventurous eater and make a good portion of my living from developing recipes for my website and teaching family-friendly cooking classes in my community.

Two years ago I made “conquering the pickies” a priority in my home. While we haven’t officially said “bye bye” to the pickies, my daughter has become so much more adventurous with what she eats. I credit the change to my 6 Rules To Encourage a Picky-Free Home. I’m sharing these rules with you today and I hope that they will help other families create a better relationship with food in their homes.

6 Ways to Handle Picky Eaters

Rule 1: Identify what your child’s “picky thing” is.

If they are afraid of a certain colour of vegetables (or vegetables in general) start out by hiding a small amount of veggies in their food and then slowly increasing the amount. Smoothies and juicing are great ways to sneak some hidden vegetables into your child’s diet and then slowly increase the amounts.

If it’s a texture issue, explore different ways that you can use ingredients to make the texture more appealing. For example, the texture of a perfectly ripe avocado cut into cubes is very different from avocados mashed into guacamole.

If they don’t like different ingredients mixed together or touching, consider preparing their meals deconstructed. For example, if you were preparing homemade chicken soup, consider giving them a cup of broth with shredded or cubed chicken, carrots and celery separate on the side. Depending on how sensitive your child is to his or her food touching, you can also invest in plates that have dividers to keep each ingredient separated.

Rule 2: Everyone in the family should only use positive language language and constructive criticism when it comes to food.

Examples would be:

“This is yummy!”

“I love the way these pop when I chew them!”

“Look how pretty the colours on the plate are!”

Instigate the rule that no one ever uses negative words when it comes to food. Words like ‘hate’, ‘gross’ or ‘disgusting’ are not allowed. This is where the positive constructive criticism is especially effective. Children should be encouraged to think of why they don’t like something and to identify it. Instead of saying “I hate this chicken, it’s disgusting,” they could say “I found the chicken very spicy on my tongue. Next time I would like to try it with less spice.”

I tell children in my classes that if they really can’t find anything positive to say about the food that they should say, “This isn’t my favorite right now, but maybe I’ll like it next time.” You’d be surprised how often telling yourself that you might like something next time actually leads to a positive food experience the next time you try it.

Rule 3: Talk about your food.

Encourage your kids to discuss what they like about each meal. Parents can definitely lead by example on this one. Start a discussion at each meal about the flavours, textures and colours of each food. Explore the idea of where the different ingredients come from, such as, “These carrots were grown by the farmer who runs the farm stand where we do our produce shopping” or “These peaches come from the Okanagan where we went for vacation last year!”

Talk about what ingredients in the dish are everyone’s favourite, and what you could change or add in to experiment with the recipe the next time you make it.

Rule 4: Turn off electronic devices and have everyone in the family eat as many meals together as possible.

I know that this one can be tough with the busy lives we all lead. It can be tempting to do what’s easiest, to let the kids eat dinner in front of the TV when Dad is working late or to reach for your cell phone when you hear a text message come through. Remove electronic temptations and gather your entire family around the table. Everyone in your home will benefit from this practice in so many ways other than just “battling the pickies.”

Eating away from the TV and other electronic devices also encourages mindful eating, which helps us get in tune with our body and listen to our hunger cues.

Eating together, showing gratitude for the food you are eating and creating family memories together is just one more way to make food fun. And when food is fun, your child is more likely to try new things.

Rule 5: Plates don’t need to be empty at the end of a meal, but everyone needs to try at least a bite of everything served.

Sometimes the first time your child tries something they won’t like it (the same thing goes for adults too!) Do you know that we get new tastebuds about every two weeks until we reach middle age? That means that our palates (what tells us if we like the taste of something or not) are constantly changing.

So just because your child doesn’t like something the first time they try it, doesn’t mean they won’t like it the 5th, 6th or 12th time they try a bite. I can’t tell you how many times this practice has helped me with my daughter. She has surprised me on numerous occasions by suddenly asking for second helpings of broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers and cantaloupe after trying “just one bite” for several months.

Rule 6: Get kids involved with meal planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation and cooking.

Sit down as a family once a week and plan out the meals for the week. Ask each of your children to pick out one or two recipes that they would like to eat that week, then have them help you make it.

Take your kids grocery shopping with you and encourage them to pick a fruit or vegetable that they haven’t tried before to bring home to experiment with. Make a game of “eating the rainbow” and shop by colour in the produce department.

Identify age appropriate tasks in the kitchen that your child can help with and get them involved creating homemade, heart-made meals. You can read more about how to engage your picky eater in the kitchen here.

I’d like to leave you with one final point though: please remember that food is fun! We never want to turn the dining table into a battlefield, which I’ve witnessed happening so often in the homes of picky eaters. Encourage your kids to be brave, adventurous, food explorers! Lead by example and try not to let it stress you out.

Some other resources to help you:

I promise your child won’t starve and slowly but surely, you’ll start to see changes occur. Stick with it, reward positive behaviour and be excited that you’re fuelling your family with delicious and healthy food.