I use the term “picky eater” on my blog as shorthand for behavior most of us are pretty familiar with: refusing new foods, preferring familiar foods, and generally being a pain in the neck at the dinner table. But though my kids have certainly displayed all of those behaviors, I’ve never actually called them picky. It’s a label that’s not very helpful–and not very hopeful. And sometimes, what we dismiss as garden variety “picky eater” stubbornness is actually something else entirely. Could any of these common problems be making your kids seem “pickier” than they actually are?
Culprit #1: Snacking too much
You can’t come to the dinner table hungry and receptive to new foods when the last ten hours have been a free-for-all buffet of snacks. I know this well from having a snack-crazy son (and from being a lifelong snacker myself). That’s especially true when kids are nibbling on the go all day–then are expected to sit nicely at the table and eat food that doesn’t seem very fun in comparison.
Try This: Ideally, you’d establish set snack times (for example, 10am and 3pm). For some kids, that really helps reign in nibbling and build hunger for dinner. But honestly, it never really worked with my snacker son. What DID work: Establishing a veggie-only policy before dinner. Read: My Pre-Dinner Snack Strategy
Culprit #2: Drinking too much
I was a horribly picky eater as a child (read: My Picky Eater Recovery), and this was actually one of MY problems at dinner: I’d come to the table, chug down my milk, and not have room left for anything else. This drove my mom crazy. To this day, she still sometimes fills my glass only a quarter-full when I’m there for dinner. Old habits die hard.
Try This: Beverages are filling, and while milk is loaded with nutrients kids need, too much of it can dull the appetite. According to MyPlate, children ages 2-3 need two cups of dairy per day, kids 4-8 need 2 1/2 cups, and older kids need 3. If your child drinks juice, guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics say that kids age 6 and younger should have no more than 4-6 ounces of it a day, and older kids no more than 8-12 ounces (even if it’s 100 percent juice). Consider serving these drinks between meals and water with meals if it’s a problem.
Culprit #3: Knowing there’s a guaranteed alternative
If there’s a plate of chicken nuggets waiting in the wings, there’s less incentive to actually eat what’s on the table. It’s tempting to make a special meal for your child, but it’s a slippery slope toward becoming a full-time short-order cook. And who has time for that?
Try This: Start making one meal for everyone, but be sure there’s something on the table that everyone likes, even if it’s just fruit or bread. Read: The Dinnertime Rule That Will Change Your Life
Culprit #4: Not liking how it looks/smells/feels
If you’ve just spent 45 minutes making a beautiful and delicious meal, it’s natural to be irritated if your child refuses to eat it. But instead of throwing up your hands in frustration, ask some questions. When I started asking my kids specifically what they didn’t like about a dish, I started getting valuable information. Older kids can tell you if chili is too spicy, if veggies need more salt, or if a soup would be better with more noodles. Even younger kids can verbalize that something looks yucky or smells funny–and that’s information you can use.
Try This: I love this phrase “How can we make this food yummier for you?” from the article 15 Transformative Phrases To Use With Your Fussy Eaters (there are so many winners in that list, so be sure to check it out!).
Get More Help For Picky Eating:
- Get clever mealtime tips and tricks: 10 Tips for Pleasing Picky Eaters
- Find out what’s going on in that little head: What Your Child Wants To Tell You About Picky Eating
- Learn what you can do if you’ve got a really, REALLY picky eater: 5 Common Causes At The Root Of Extreme Picky Eating
- Get advice if you and your partner don’t see eye to eye on your child’s eating: When Parents Don’t Agree On How To Handle Picky Eating