We recently wrote about, ‘what is good nutrition in the early childhood years?’ But, what about children who seem to never eat what’s right for them? How do you help a picky eater in the early childhood years? Below we’ll give some ideas and clues on this common issue.
1) Involve children in meal preparation as a fun activity, and explain food to them in the process
This is a really simple idea, but it can often be overlooked, since meal times can be rushed in our busy lives.
Firstly, home-cooked meals, using healthy ingredients, are almost always going to be best for your family. Think of cooking your own pasta sauce, casseroles, muffins and make-ahead dinners as ‘investing in yourself.’ And your picky eaters!
Kids often like imitating adults. They also like to feel responsible, or in charge. If you are careful about not forcing cooking as a chore on your children, involving them in meal prep can be quite fun for them. It can be an activity where they spend time with you too.
At first, of course, they can offer small contributions. Perhaps they can smell the seasonings and herbs before dropping them in a pot of soup (this might really help when a picky eater sees pieces of dried parsley in their macaroni, and freaks out about the green bits!). Or they can break apart lettuce and hear the ‘crunch’ noise. They can help to knead dough, and make fun-shaped bread pieces. They can look up recipes with you and decide what kind of omelette they want to make with you.
When food is a fun activity, it can help picky eaters enjoy the produce of their labour (pun intended!). The idea is to create positive associations with food, and to teach children that this is the ‘right’ way to eat.
As your picky eater meal preps with you, teach them about ingredients they are using or watching you prepare. You can say things like, “these peanut butter balls can give you energy, so you can play soccer well today!” Or, “when food is orange, that helps you see in the dark, like a cat, or a super hero!” This can also encourage them to see the reasons behind eating healthy, which in fact, will benefit their interests – even as children!
2) Give picky eaters a choice (sometimes they just want control)
There are a few key points to this piece of advice. First of all, we, as adults, need to realize that children are just little adults. They want control just as much as we do. Of course, we can’t give toddlers and preschoolers everything they want (wouldn’t that be disastrous!). But we can give them a tiny bit of control, based on options that are reasonable for them to have. For example, when it comes to food, they can be given a choice between, say, crackers and cheese, or crackers and peanut butter. They can pick between apple or orange as a snack. And so on.
Sometimes, picky eaters just need more options. Maybe they genuinely hate cauliflower. They can pick a potato instead. Or for some weird reason, they don’t like strawberries, even though you love them. It’s ok. They can can take out the strawberries.
When is the line drawn? Well, if a kid refuses to eat any produce, ever, then that can be a problem. They can’t have the option of eating fries and sausages only. We can draw the line there.
As parents and caregivers, we don’t need to force food restrictions, options or portions on children. Instead, we should be giving picky eaters a choice about their food, that comes in healthy varieties. Sometimes, a sweet treat is ok, but it can also come with parametres. Don’t say no to everything – it can create psychological power struggle between a child and an adult.
3) Play food games with picky eaters for early childhood learning
Food can make for great manipulatives and props when learning. They can teach young children about colours, shapes, counting, letter phonics and more.
When you turn food into fun games, it can encourage children to have positive associations with food. They may want to eat it.
For example, you can put peanuts in a jar and have your kids guess how many there are in there. The winner gets to eat them. Or season them and roast them however they want, and then eat them.
The following resource has plenty of food game ideas for your perusal and inspiration:
Also, don’t forget about food science experiments! Those can be great fun too. Here is an article on our blog about that:
4) Buy special plates and cutlery to make eating easier for picky eaters
Some picky eaters are hyper sensitive about foods on their plate being mixed together. This can be easily avoided by buying plates with separators, or serving food in separate, smaller dishes. Yes, it can be tricky at restaurants, but not impossible. Simply ask for extra dishes, and you can even do the dividing up for your child after the food arrives.
Other times, the colourful plates and cutlery you can buy can make kids feel like they’re having fun, or have something to look forward to at meal times. Who knows why a plate or water bottle with cartoon characters printed on it is so important in their minds. But if it works, and it’s not harmful, then why not? Be sure to let them have a say in which plates you buy, though!
And then, there are the kids who want the same fork as mom and dad. That’s ok too! All the better! Remember, having a choice about these things is part of personality development. They may just want to have a say about something in their day, and about their own lives. And this is a small give away, compared to the bigger battles parents may face! (Let’s not even get into bedtime routines!)
5) Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of food for picky eaters in the early childhood years
This may not work for grown-ups, but it sure can be a neat trick for little ones! Though, grown-ups can feel free to have fun with it too.
Find your child’s favourite cookie cutter shape, and have fun cutting out sandwiches, sweet potato slices, eggs, and so on. They can eat a ‘bear,’ or a ‘heart,’ or a ‘gingerbread man’! Maybe an ‘airplane’ can fly into their mouth too.
6) Use icing tubes to ‘draw’ on food as an edible activity
If you having icing tubes, or even just square zipper bags with a corner cut off the edge, you can try letting your picky eaters ‘draw’ on their bread or pancakes with peanut butter, mayonnaise, or whatever suits their fancy. The deal must be, of course, that they have to eat whatever they draw on!
7) Start a gardening project – even the non-picky eaters will have fun and learn something too!
Gardening with kids can teach them a lot about good food choices. It also brings up simple lessons about biology, and where our food comes from.
For picky eaters, it can go the extra mile; it can encourage them to reap the rewards of their hard work and long waiting. From the time they germinate a seed, see it sprout, then grow to bear fruit or leaves, they’ll experience the miracle of plant life. Eating what you’ve grown can be very satisfying. And for kids – fun! They can pick out recipes to cook with their garden produce, as they water and check on it daily. It can be a nice little responsibility chore too!
Start with veggies that are quick to ripen, like radishes (though these may be a bit spicy for preschoolers, the leaves are edible too, and can be used in pasta sauce or eggs). Sprouting microgreens, such as with pea shoots, can be completed within a week or too. Herbs and cut-and-come-again plants can ‘give’ again and again. Strawberries are also prolific once they get established, and are fun to pick for breakfast every morning.
Alongside the quick edibles, plant some veggies that require more days to maturity. A fun one would be a pumpkin, for the fall. Start in early spring, and the kids will be able to have their own little pumpkin patch by October! But, don’t just carve these out like toys! Try pumpkin food recipes!
Helping a preschool child who is a picky eater can be a fun challenge for parents
As we’ve seen with the ideas above, helping a young picky eater can actually involve some fun projects. It can make food interesting for parents and adults too.
As adults, we’re often on a timeline, and food is more of a necessity, than a life enjoyment. But with kids – especially picky eaters – we can turn that around. So, picky eating can have its positive side too! It can teach us to understand our food, have fun with it, and truly enjoy its benefits.
Of course, some picky eaters are more serious cases than what we’ve been able to address in this post. If you think your child’s complete unwillingness to eat a variety of healthy foods is becoming a health issue, we’d encourage you to speak with your family doctor.