Expert advice on dealing with children who are picky eaters

Involving your child in meal planning is a way to deal with their picky eating. l SUPPLIED

Involving your child in meal planning is a way to deal with their picky eating. l SUPPLIED

Published Feb 23, 2024


Many youngsters are picky eaters, leaving parents, guardians and caregivers frustrated when it comes to meal times.

But healthcare provider Affinity Health said that if you’re struggling to get your child to eat a balanced diet, you’re not alone.

“Many kids go through phases of selective eating, which can be frustrating for parents concerned about their child’s health,” CEO Murray Hewlett said.

He explained that picky eating can begin as early as around two or three years of age.

“This stage is often referred to as the neo-phobic phase, during which children may become wary of new foods and exhibit a strong preference for familiar food choices.”

Hewlett added that it could persist into the school-going years and even beyond for some children.

Giving your child a variety of food to choose from is a way to deal with their picky eating. l SUPPLIED

“The good news is that you can help your picky eater develop healthy eating habits with a few simple nutrition tips and tricks,” he said.

Here are Hewlett’s tips for how adults can manage picky eating among children:

Offer a variety of foods

One of the best ways to persuade your fussy eater to try new meals is to provide them with various choices.

“Exposing your child to different flavours and textures increases their chances of finding foods they enjoy and expanding their palate,” he said.

Hewlett also provided the following tips for offering a variety of foods:

Create colourful and visually appealing meals

Incorporate a rainbow of fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet.

“The vibrant colours can be enticing and make mealtime more exciting,” he believes.

Rotate food choices

Hewlett suggested alternating the foods you offer regularly to prevent boredom and encourage curiosity. This could include switching between pasta, grains, or protein sources.

Involve your child in meal planning

Give children a choice on what goes on their plate.

“Ask them to choose a vegetable or fruit to include in the meal,” he said.

Be a role model

Hewlett said that children often replicated their parents’ eating habits and preferences.

“If kids witness you eating a range of healthful meals, they are more likely to be willing to try something new.”

He suggested being a good role model by displaying healthy eating habits at home.

Here’s how to lead by example:

Eat meals together

Hewlett stressed that whenever possible, have family meals where everyone eats the same food.

“This fosters a sense of togetherness and encourages your child to try what you’re eating.”

Show enthusiasm for healthy foods

Express your enjoyment of fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious options in front of your child.

Make meals fun and interactive

Allowing your child to help with meal preparation can make mealtimes more enjoyable and encourage them to try new foods, Hewlett believes.

Here are some of his ideas to make meals fun and interactive:

Cooking together

Involve your child in age-appropriate cooking tasks, such as washing vegetables, stirring ingredients, or assembling sandwiches.

“When kids participate in preparing a meal, they may be more willing to taste the final product,” Hewlett said.

Create themed meals

The Affinity Health CEO suggested designing meals around a fun theme, like “build your own taco” night or a “rainbow plate” with colourful foods.

“Let your child choose their toppings or ingredients.”

Use creative presentation

Arrange food in appealing ways, such as creating smiley faces with vegetables or using cookie cutters to make fun shapes out of sandwiches and fruit.

Don’t force or pressure

Hewlett stressed that it was essential to avoid pressuring your picky eater child to try new foods or finish everything on their plate.

He warned that forcing or coercing a child to eat can negatively affect food and mealtime stress.

Giving your child a variety of food to choose from is a way to deal with their picky eating. l SUPPLIED

Instead, he suggested using a more patient and relaxed approach:

Practise the “one-bite rule”

“Encourage your child to take one small bite of a new food, but don’t push them to eat more if they don’t like it,” he said.

“Over time, they may become more receptive to trying additional bites.”

Be patient

Understand that it may take multiple exposures to a new food before your child develops a taste for it.

“Keep offering the food without pressure,” he said.

Offer alternatives

If your child refuses a particular food, Hewlett suggested providing them with an alternative that still meets their nutritional needs.

“For example, if they don’t like broccoli, offer carrots or peas instead.”

Stay consistent and set mealtime rules

Consistency is essential when dealing with fussy eaters, but establishing clear mealtime rules and routines may make your kid feel more structured and predictable, making it easier for them to try new foods.

Hewlett suggested the following tips for consistency:

Set regular meal and snack times

Stick to a consistent schedule for meals and snacks.

“Avoid allowing your child to graze throughout the day, as this can diminish their appetite during mealtimes,” he said.

Limit distractions

Create a calm and distraction-free environment during meals.

This can be done by turning off the TV, putting away electronic devices, and focusing on the meal and each other.

Encourage portion control

Serve small portions to prevent overwhelming your child.

Hewlett said that they can always ask for more if they are still hungry.