June 19, 2024


We Do Health Right

Nurturing Healthy Eaters

Nurturing Healthy Eaters

As a dietitian, the most common question I get from families with young children, is how to deal with picky eaters. As a mom, I deal with a picky eater every day. But I like to reframe it as a “learner eater.”

Twitter post: my kids ate plain noodles for dinner tonight. They survive skipping the meat and the veggies. Actually they often thrive, when we quit pressure.
By not bribing or pressuring children to eat, we help reduce stress at meals
and help support them to learn to eat a variety of foods at their own pace.

Like many babies when we first started solids and he got into eating, my son started out tasting and eating nearly anything we put in front of him. He ate smoked mussels, bruschetta, he loved broccoli. As he started getting more of a mind of his own (welcome to toddlerhood!) he got picky.

I like to consider picky or learning eating to be a normal life stage. As babies transition from fast growing, 100% reliant on their caregivers, to slower physical growth and greater exploration of the world around them, they become more cautious of new foods or unfamiliar foods and often eat less than we’d expect.

I remember being shocked that garden fresh tomatoes, that were a hit the previous season, were snubbed the next time they were available. In the time they’d been out of season, they became unfamiliar foods again.

So, what do we do as parents and caregivers to get through this sometimes trying time?

My first advice is always to plan regular, reliable meals and snacks. Whenever you can, sit down together. Offer a combination of familiar and unfamiliar foods together at one sitting. Let them decide that to try from what’s offered. Don’t be surprised if some days they only eat the bread. Or the fruit. Or the cheese.

I distinctly remember the first time my son, who’d been snubbing meat for a while, decided he did want the meatballs, but asked if he could have them without the sauce. So I rinsed the tomato sauce off the meatballs, a few at a time, and he ate 12! This is the kid who’s usually eat tonnes of buttered noodles, but this day he filled up on meatballs instead.

So what, do I do when they add new foods back? Honestly, I wanted to celebrate, but I didn’t. The research shows, when we get too excited about what they eat or don’t eat, it puts pressure on them. My goal is to help my kids learn to eat, in a matter of fact way, to support them to develop a healthy relationship with food and eating.

That means, we need to set aside our agenda of “getting kids to eat” and especially of “getting kids to eat healthy.” I want them to grow up to be able to feed themselves and to enjoy a variety of foods but right now that’s a long term vision, not a short term reality.

Our kids learn best from exposure, experience, and example. They don’t understand nutrients and nutrition, and they don’t need to.

  • By planning meals and snacks, that include foods we’d like them to learn to eat AND foods we know they normally will eat, we can give them plenty of opportunities to learn to eat a variety of foods.
  • Make it fun. When you’ve got time, invite the kids to join you in the kitchen, the garden, the grocery store, the farm, or the orchard. Read books, make crafts, and engage their five senses (sight, smell, sound, feel, and if they are up for it, taste).
  • By eating a variety of foods ourselves, as the important adults in our children’s lives, we can teach them that these foods are safe to try, when they are ready (I didn’t learn to eat mushrooms until adulthood – it might take many years for some foods).
  • Expect that sometimes when kids try a new food, they touch or even lick, but not eat it, they may chew but not swallow. Teach them how to try new foods and politely spit it out or leave it unfinished, to confidently say no, thank you, and discourage them from being rude. Different people like different foods and that’s okay, but don’t “yuk my yum.”
  • Kids will test boundaries, they will refuse to sit at the table, refuse to eat. When we set appropriate expectations and limits and give them some power of choice, we can reduce meal time struggles. But it takes consistency, practice, and patience. 

We’ve gone through phases where my kids pretty much refuse to eat supper. It’s hard to watch them not eat, but I know that they ate breakfast at home (they are usually good breakfast eaters), lunch and snacks at daycare (they eat foods with their friends and teachers at daycare they’d never eat at home with us), and they are tired, and just done, at the end of the day. They were okay skipping one meal. And with time, they started wanting to eat supper regularly again. 

When we give children some space to learn, in an age-appropriate way, they will gradually learn to eat the foods that we make available. They may even learn to eat different foods too (I know my parents never served tofu or curries). When we relax around food, they can too.

Tune in later for some deconstructed meal ideas, kid-friendly recipes, and family favourites.

Amy, RD

Registered Dietitian