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Food Wars: 11 Tips to Help Families Deal with a Picky Eater

little girl not eating vegetables on her plate

We’ve all been there. After a long day at work, you come home and cook dinner only to have your child refuse to eat anything on their plate and demand mac and cheese or chicken nuggets. You want your child to eat a well-balanced meal, but they simply refuse, and you feel frustrated and concerned that your child isn’t getting enough to eat.

If this sounds familiar, and your child’s nutrition and diet are a touchy subject, you are not alone. Many parents struggle to get their child to eat what they cook and worry about what their children eat or don’t eat. Picky eating, or as we call it at New Horizon Academy ‘selective eating,’ is most common between the ages of 2 and 5 years. During this age span, children’s taste becomes more sensitive, and they are becoming more autonomous with control over what they want to eat.

Here are a few tips from the director of food and nutrition at New Horizon Academy.

1. Look at what your child is eating over the course of a week.

Most children will eat more variety over several days than in one day. Try to keep attention to your child’s selective eating behavior low key, avoid power struggles, and focus on the positive. Selective eating is temporary for most children and ends before they enter elementary school. If you are concerned about your child’s development or eating behavior, discuss with your child’s doctor.

2. Try new foods.

Introduce new and healthy foods with your child’s favorite meal. If a new food is paired with a familiar and favorite meal, your child is more likely to try it. Research tells us that children need to be offered a new food at least fifteen times before they may even try it.

3. Use books to reinforce healthy eating.

Introduce your child to books about healthy food. Then head to the kitchen and cook together. Here are a few of our favorite books:

"Little Sweet Potato" by Amy Beth Bloom   "Eat Your Colors" by Amanda Miller     "Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook" by Heather Wish Staller   "Eating the Alphabet" by Lois Ehlert

4. Be a role model.

Sit together as a family and eat the same foods. Talk with your child about the food as you eat. At New Horizon Academy, we are fans of talking about the concept of ‘from seed to table’.

5. Cook together.

While cooking together requires a little more time, a lot more patience, and involves extra clean up, it is totally worth it! Not only do you spend quality time with your child, but your children also build language skills, math skills, fine motor skills, and life skills. And most importantly, your picky eater is more likely to eat what they helped make—a huge bonus for families concerned about the eating habits of their picky eater.

6. Dig in the dirt and start a garden.

Start a garden and work with your picky eater to grow healthy fruits and vegetables. Research indicates that children involved in growing their own food are more likely to try eating it.

7. Don’t force your child to eat.

Forcing your child to eat leads to power struggles and avoidance of eating the food on their plate. Your responsibility as a parent is to provide healthy food choices.

8. Avoid bribing, nagging, or making deals.

I don’t know about you, but I have resorted to bribing and making deals. Such as, “Just two more bites, then you get dessert.” Or “Just try one bite, and you can go outside with your friends.” Bribing, nagging, and making deals almost always turn into a power struggle and won’t work in the long run, as it teaches your child to use the “Let’s make a deal” tactic in all scenarios. “I’ll brush my teeth, if you let me stay up past bedtime.” Our goal is to teach children to eat a well-balanced meal for their entire lives, so we need to focus on the long game, not the short-term gain.

9. Skip making a special meal.

Making a special meal sets the precedent that may be difficult to implement long term. Instead of creating a special meal, include a food item you know your child enjoys into each meal and then encourage your little one to try something new.

10. Listen to the Parenting Pickup Podcast for more information on navigating picky eating.

The hosts of the Parenting Pickup Podcast interviewed Jill Weldon, Director of Food and Nutrition, for New Horizon Academy. Jill shared a wide variety of helpful hints and tips to help you support healthy eating for your picky eater.

11. Check out these resources to support your quest to assist your child in eating healthy.

Rest assured that your child’s picky eating is temporary, and these hints and tips will help you support your child as they expand their food preferences. Do your best to patiently guide your little one on their path toward healthy eating.

If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, speak with your pediatrician, who can offer guidance and support to ensure your child is getting all the necessary nutrients to grow and develop.

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