A few months ago, I shared a post on Family Style Meals to encourage picky eaters to explore new foods and it was a hit, to say the least! If you have a selective eater in your home, let this be a comfort in knowing you are not alone. I’ve spoken with so many parents who struggle daily to get their child to try new foods. They’re frustrated by the dinnertime battles and worry that their child isn’t getting the nutrients they need to thrive. But at the root of their frustration is not knowing what to do about it.
Picky eating is usually a multi-faceted issue and it isn’t linear. Your child may go through periods where they are more open to trying new meals and others where they are religious about a very short list of acceptable foods. One thing I will say, to help you better understand these phases, is to pay attention to what’s going on in your child’s life. Are they going through a transition? Could they be looking for areas in their life where they can exercise more control (i.e. food choices)? Ebbs and flow in a young child’s eating is totally normal for a number of reasons, and life changes are one of them. So tune into what’s going on externally to help you better understand what’s going on at the dinner table.
"Could they be looking for areas in their life where they can exercise more control (i.e. food choices)?"
Today, I want to equip you with another strategy to use with your selective eater that will not only encourage food exploration, but also take the pressure off you as the parent. Tonight, whether you are plating your child’s food, or you are serving family style, make sure you are offering at least one safe food. This is something you know your child recognizes and enjoys. Perhaps it’s a raw vegetable, a fruit, crackers, cheese, etc. It doesn’t matter if it “goes” with the meal. The point of this food is to provide your child with a sense of familiarity, comfort and trust.
"Make sure you are offering at least one safe food... The point of this food is to provide your child with a sense of familiarity, comfort and trust."
Hear me out: you decided to get creative in the kitchen and try a new recipe. It’s a little out of the box for your family, but you know it’s going to be delicious. Your child sees this unfamiliar dish and immediately feels anxious. Thoughts that might come up for them: What is that? It smells funny. Why is it that colour? How is it going to feel in my mouth? That’s scary. I am definitely not touching it.
Great. They’ve already made their mind up before even considering giving it a try.
Now picture this: you place this new meal on the table, but beside it, you also serve a small plate of raw carrots, cashews, sliced strawberries and other acceptable foods, available to anyone who would like some. The anxiety of a perceived expectation to eat a new, scary dish is immediately diffused. There are other foods available they know and enjoy, and this comfort may allow them the confidence to try something new as well.
Another way this could look is to make up a plate for your child that includes some of the carrots, cashews and sliced strawberries plus a very small portion of the new food. Offering just a small portion of a new food helps it appear less “scary” to your child. They aren’t staring at a huge portion that inadvertently tells them what they’re expected to eat. It’s less intimidating, plus it’s served with “safe foods” that they know they like. All in all, a much less intimidating meal but one that has the power to expand their pallet.
This is a plate I served my daughter last week. We were having shrimp tacos. Tacos? Yes. Tacos with shrimp? Scary. So, I made her a simple cheese quesadilla (safe food) and served a small portion of the other foods on the side, including the shrimp, chopped finely for easy exploration.
The next tip I want to share is to let your child play with their food! I know this goes against the messaging we grew up with, that food is to be eaten, not played with. But eating is a 5-senses experience. Beyond simply tasting, children need to look at, smell, touch and hear their food and they do this by exploring it fully. The first time you offer your child a new food, you might notice they push it around on the plate a bit, or even give it a little sniff. Even though they didn’t taste it, it’s all part of the experience of making the food familiar to them. You can even ask questions about the food that doesn’t leave your child feeling pressured to eat it, but encourages them to explore it. “What colour is that vegetable? Does it make a funny noise when you stir it around? What does it smell like?” Questions like these get your child thinking about other aspects of a food, rather than just… what is this going to taste like? Let them play! (Note: depending on your child, you may not want to talk about the food at all and allow your child to explore it in peace. In the meantime, you talk about your day, what your’re looking forward to, a funny joke you heard, etc. Anything but food. So, listen to your intuition and choose the strategy that’s right for your child)
"Eating is a 5-senses experience. Beyond simply tasting, children need to look at, smell, touch and hear their food and they do this by exploring it fully."
Picky eating can be a complex subject, but collecting tools for your toolbox and gaining a better understanding of what actually drives the behaviour is key to making it less stressful for everyone. Incorporate these tips into how you approach meal time and watch your picky eater blossom into a food explorer.
When my daughter turned one and started displaying signs of very selective eating, I was left scratching my head. Where did I do wrong? I’m a nutrition expert, for goodness sake. I thought that meant I am omitted from this crap. So naive I was…
If you too find yourself with a picky eater, the first step is understanding that you didn’t do anything wrong! Although not everyone will face this challenge and there are many techniques we can use to minimize pickiness in our kids, release the idea that any of it is your fault. It’s a very common and normal developmental phase for a toddler to experience.
When faced with the challenge, like many parents, I began the work of turning my picky eater into a food explorer. This work is not for the faint of heart and it definitely resembles more of a marathon than a sprint. I have been working diligently on this for two years and am now starting to see the fruits of my labour (and it’s glorious!). If I wrote one post on picky eating, we’d be here for hours. There is so much to unpack, countless individual circumstances, and many shifts that may need to take place in the home around meal time. So, today I’m going to focus on one of my favourite strategies to encourage food exploration that anyone can try.
For many parents, during meal time, they will get the plates out for each family member and then serve each portion before bringing the plates to the table. They put their child’s dish down and say, “Dinner is ready!”. The child (maybe) comes up to the table, only to see exactly what has been provided to them and how much of it. With this method, we are telling our children, indirectly, exactly what we expect them to eat, taking a significant amount of power and choice away from them.
Now, if you’ve parented a young child, you know power struggles are REAL. How we’ve all made it through this stage of parenting is beyond me. Developmentally, a toddler is working to exercise their autonomy. They know they are an individual person with their own thoughts and opinions (oh, so many opinions) and they work very hard to exercise them. Feeling “in control” is extremely important to them, and that’s where a very delicate dance between parent and child begins.
One way to minimize meal time stress while giving some of that power and control back to your child is to offer your meals family style. Rather than plating their dinner for them, place each menu item on the table in a dish and let them decide what they would like to eat from said menu. They can either serve themselves, or if they aren’t quite old enough for this yet, you can invite them to tell you what they would like on their plate today, and how much. Now, you have to be prepared that they may take lots of one item and none of another, but to this I say… who cares? You have vetted each menu item and can feel good about your child eating whatever they choose, and know that this may just be the gateway you have been looking for to encourage a broader palette (more on that to come). You can let go of the frustration of putting food on their plate, only to watch them, once again, push it around with a fork, whine about wanting something else, or ignore it completely.
And this brings me to my bonus point, and what may just be a parent’s most powerful mindset shift when it comes to picky eaters. Are you ready for it? It’s called The Division of Responsibility. If you haven’t heard of this before, lean it, because this simple phrase has the potential to significantly reduce and possibly even remove meal time stress.
When it comes to meals, it’s your job to decide what to serve your child; it is their job to decide if and how much of it they will eat. That’s it. Now, let those words sink in. Then, apply them to your next dinner time. Whatever you decide to offer your child, your job ends there. This understanding alone can create a monumental shift in your family meal experience. Suddenly, you aren’t watching your child’s every move or encouraging them to try something else, or saying, “Just one more bite.” You’ve released that and, instead, are focusing on connection. “What did Liam bring for Show and Share today?”, “It rained a lot this afternoon. Do you want to put on our rain boots after dinner and jump in the puddles?”, “You’ll never guess who I saw when I was out for a walk today!”
Doesn’t the energy of the scenario sound more enjoyable?
And here’s the thing about family style meals: because you are transferring so much of the power back into your child’s hands, many parents find that their kids will reach for foods they never would have considered before! It’s truly remarkable what this power transfer can inspire. Perhaps they see the roasted carrots on the table, and since they aren’t being told (directly or indirectly) that they should be eating them, they feel more empowered by the idea that it’s their choice to put them on their plate and not someone else’s. It encourages them to exercise curiosity, exploration and decision making.
If you struggle with picky eating in your family, try the technique of family style meals for a few weeks (yes, weeks--give it time), and watch the shift begin from stressful dinners to nourished connection.