Meals are important social times in a child’s day. They help children learn about food while connecting with family and friends. Eating in a positive atmosphere helps children develop healthy attitudes about food and themselves. Parents and caregivers play an important role in keeping mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable. Let’s explore some ways to deal with picky eaters.

Picky eating is often the norm for toddlers. After the rapid growth of infancy, when babies usually triple in weight, a toddler’s growth rate and appetite tend to slow down. Toddlers are also beginning to develop food preferences, a fickle process. A toddler’s favorite food one day may hit the floor the next, or a snubbed food might suddenly become the one he or she can’t get enough of. For weeks, they may eat one or two preferred foods and nothing else.

Try not to get frustrated by this typical toddler behavior. Just make healthy food choices available and know that, with time, your child’s appetite and eating behaviors will level out. In the meantime, here are some tips that can help you get through the picky eater stage.

How much food should my child eat?

If your child is healthy and growing well, you don’t need to worry. Most children’s appetites are right for their age and growth rate. At around 2 years old, most children start eating less. This is because growth starts to slow down.

As a parent or caregiver, your job is to provide your child with healthy choices at meal and snack times. It’s then up to your child to decide what, how much, and sometimes whether they will eat. Listening to their bodies—eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full—will help children develop healthy eating habits for life.

Every child needs a balanced diet with foods from all 3 food groups—vegetables and fruit, whole grain products, and protein foods. There are many Food Guide books that give information about the types of foods recommended for your child.  It’s unlikely that your child will eat something from every food group at each meal, but try to get all the servings your child needs over several meals and snacks throughout the day.

What if my child is a picky eater?

Young children often go through stages where they refuse to eat certain foods, only want to eat a small number of specific foods, or are easily distracted at mealtimes. Toddlers are learning to become their own people. One way that they show their independence is by self-feeding and choosing their own foods.

Just like you, your child will have days when he feels like eating certain foods and days when he doesn’t. They might not even be interested in eating at every meal or snack time. Don’t worry too much about what your child eats on any given day, but make sure that they eat a variety of healthy foods over several days.

It is common for young children to react negatively to certain foods. Some children are slow to accept new tastes and textures. Keep offering them to your child, and they will probably start to accept and enjoy them with time. Creating mealtime pressure or forcing your child to eat can actually cause them to resist eating.

Here are some tips to help:

Tip # 1: Treat food like sustenance rather than a reward

Establish a healthy relationship with food by treating it like fuel rather than making it a reward.

Tip # 2: Set realistic expectations

Some meals will be smoother than others, and you won’t always be able to predict which one will go well and which one will go poorly. Reminding yourself of this before each meal will allow you to respond rather than react to any fussy eating that your child displays.

Tip # 3: Stock your home with healthy foods

Your children (and you) are more likely to eat healthy food when it’s readily available. Consider keeping unhealthy foods out of the house (or at least out of your children’s sight and reach).

Tip # 4: Involve your child in grocery shopping and meal preparation

Children are more likely to be interested in a meal when they play a role in preparing it. Taking them to the store, having them weigh the produce, and getting them to stir and plate their meal will pique their interest.

Tip # 5: Make food fun by plating it in a creative and colourful way

Adding a bit of color (like a blueberry and banana smiley face to their oatmeal or beetroot to their pancake batter) is a great way to make food look more attractive while also adding important nutrients.

Tip # 6: Establish a mealtime routine

Try to eat together as often as you can. Children learn more from what they see than what they hear, so watching you and other family members eat a variety of foods could help reduce their pickiness.

Tip # 7: Offer your child some choice

Children like to assert their autonomy and independence. You can capitalize on this by offering them some choice with their food. Make sure that the choices are limited, as too many options can be overwhelming. Only offer them food that you are willing to give them.

Tip # 8: Enforce a ‘one bite rule.

Focus on getting your children to try things rather than finish them. The palate changes rapidly over the course of childhood, and it takes up to 30 exposures to a new food before we decide if we like it or dislike it. Encouraging your child to have one bite and then respecting their disdain (if they report it) is a good way to expose them to different tastes while allowing them to feel in control and respected. Be sure to praise them when they try something, whether they like it or not. The key is to encourage the attempt rather than the result.

Tip # 9: Set a time limit for meals if they have a tendency to drag

No one likes to spend two hours at the lunch table negotiating, threatening, or bribing their child to eat. Put an end to that by setting a reasonable time limit of, say, 30 minutes. After the time is up, clear the plates. Try to remain cool and collected while you do so.

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