Dinner hardliners never come to terms with picky eaters. The notion that a child can be forced to eat is as misguided as the idea that they should be. The fact is that kids won’t starve themselves to death and that they will infuriate parents who want the effort made to put a solid meal on the table rewarded with appreciation and digestion. Kids are gonna kid. The sooner parents accept this, the sooner they can focus on the most important aspect of a shared family meal: bonding. As it turns out, handling picky eaters is all about expectation management and acceptance.
The answer to picky eating may be for parents to stop caring about picky eating. That doesn’t mean parents should stop caring about putting healthy food on the table. They should. But the harshest truths about picky eating come after a parent puts that healthy food on the table.
Picky Eating is Learned Early
Research suggests that picky eating may be learned much earlier than many parents expect. How early? Try before birth.
One French study found that pregnant women who ate certain foods were more likely to have babies that would later show a preference for those same foods. So if a pregnant mother indulged in a kale habit during gestation, her child was likely to show enjoyment for kale after birth.
But all is not lost for parents who binged on chicken nuggets for 9 months. It turns out children’s pallets can be influenced as soon as they are able to begin eating solids. Many nutritionists agree that’s why parents should allow children to taste a huge range of foods before they have an ability to shout “no” and cry. More variety early on is likely to translate to better eating habits later in childhood. The trick is that the taste being offered is prepared in an age-appropriate way.
Picky Eating Won’t Lead to Malnutrition
Many parents justify their hardline approach to dinner with an assumption that they are all that stands between their child and malnutrition. The problem is that it’s highly unlikely a child will stop growing, gaining weight, or developing appropriately if they are pushing away plates full of healthy meals.
The truth is that over the course of a child’s day they will likely be exposed to a food that they will eat and enjoy. And even if a kid is a defacto fruitarian, they will most likely get the essential nutrients they need in order to grow. But even if the worry is related to calories, it’s unlikely that a child in a typical American family will put themselves at risk for starvation. After all, the diet of children in most American families is often packed with more calories than is necessary.
Basically, even if the kid refuses to eat that nice dinner, they’ll probably continue to grow without a parent intervening.
Parents Shouldn’t Force or Bribe a Child to Eat
There’s a huge problem with forcing a child to eat: it’s not fun for anyone. Some parents may think, “So what? Life’s not always fun.” And that might be the case if eating were simply about fueling the body. It’s not. It’s also about sharing and pleasure.
A kid who is stressed about coming to the dinner table for fear of being yelled at is a kid who likely won’t develop any good habits around food. In fact, they may become even more food averse. That’s why childhood nutritionists have one very simple rule for parents: make a good, healthy meal, bring it to the table, and consider your job done.
Kids Don’t Need to Try Everything on Their Plate
Many parents take a less aggressive approach to dinner. Instead of cajoling their child into being a member of the clean plate club, they simply ask that their kid try a bit of everything on their plate. But this request may actually be as detrimental to dinner as yelling at them to finish all their peas.
For a kid, the pressure to eat just a little of something is no more stressful than a demand to eat everything. In truth, it will likely cause the same kind of panic and sadness. Besides research says that a child may need to be exposed to a food up to 20 times before they will even taste it. The operative word there, of course, is “exposed”. That means seeing the item on their plate. Smelling it. Pushing it around with their fork. That kind of thing.
Depending on how often the kid is given the food item, it could be literally months before they actually put it in their mouths. Is that frustrating? Sure. But it’s also totally okay.
Parents Need to Manage Their Expectations
Most of the harsh truths about picky eaters point to one overwhelming conclusion: Parents need to manage their own expectations around what their kid will eat more than managing their kid’s eating habits. That’s admittedly a tough task, but beneficial for everyone in the end.
So how does a parent manage the stress of a picky eating kid? The answer is in making good healthy food, serving good healthy food and eating good food in front of picky eaters. When parents take the pressure off the child, the kid is more likely to feel in control. Parents can then rest easy that they have at least offered something nutritious to their kid.
But if watching a child not eat is too much to bear, nutritionists also recommend parents plate at least one item their child will eat. At least then, the kid feels like they’re participating in dinner.
Sitting Down Together is More Important Than the Food
More than eating, sitting down for a family meal is about interacting as a family. Yes, it’s important to eat, but it’s just as important to use family meal time to learn about one another, ask questions and have fun. After all, being at the table is one of the few times that a family is actually expected to sit face to face, captive for a half hour or so.
Using dinner time to yell at kids is essentially squandering a precious resource. The time is better spent uncovering facts about a child’s day, exploring their imagination and creativity through games, and generally enjoying a child’s presence. When dinners have this kind of interaction, they are correlated with some extraordinary outcomes for a kid, including a decrease in the likelihood of drug use and better grades.
A stressful dinner, on the other hand, may cause a child to want to avoid family dinner. That’s not great as they age. Because the older they get, the more parents will want to know.