I came through in the clutch when one of my sons needed a prescription refilled on the weekend and our family doctor was not available. As the managing director at TELUS Health MyCare™, I knew exactly how to get the job done: Launch the free app, book a video appointment with a family doctor, and hey presto! Dads for the win!

At the same time, I had no idea how to handle a longer-term problem: My other son’s fussiness at mealtimes. How picky is he? His favourite food, plain white bread, suddenly becomes “disgusting” if it touches his scrambled eggs, one of the few other items he will tolerate. And if black pepper somehow finds its way onto the eggs, well, it’s pretty much game over. 

Many parents, can relate to this, with research indicating that as many as half of preschool children, and a quarter of older kids, are picky eaters. As parents we all want our kids to eat healthy food. But when mealtimes turn into a battle of wits, offering them junk they will actually eat can seem like it’s better than nothing. 

Help is just a video call away

The good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. Since we were on the topic of my sons’ health, I mentioned to the doctor who refilled the prescription that my wife and I had a picky eater on our hands. So we booked a TELUS Health MyCare video consultation with Registered Dietitian Caitlin Boudreau. And boy, am I glad we did!  

Caitlin explained that picky eating is typical age-appropriate behaviour. Kids are naturally a bit finicky with their eating because ALL foods are new to them. It takes experience and time—sometimes a LOT of time — to learn to enjoy a variety of foods, and some kids may be more sensitive to tastes and textures than others. 

It was great being able to include my family in the video chats with Caitlin. We could go to our kitchen, smartphone in hand, to look through our cupboards and have real-time discussions about everything from meal planning to dietary restrictions to picky eating. On that note…

How to get picky kids to eat

Picky eater girl

Caitlin provided these awesome tips for getting a picky eater like ours to eat and to eat food that is good for him:

Divide and conquer

Another Registered Dietitian, Ellyn Satter, came up with a handy system called “the Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” In short, it states that parents are responsible for what, when and where to eat, and children are responsible for how much they eat

“Children have a natural ability with eating,” Satter writes. “They eat as much as they need, they grow in the way that is right for them, and they learn to eat the food their parents eat. Step-by-step, throughout their growing-up years, they build on their natural ability and become eating-competent.”

It turns out that getting my son to eat is NOT MY JOB. I provide food at the appropriate time and place, he chooses what he wants based on how hungry he is. Parents can actually be part of the problem when they cater to their child’s food requests too much

One and done

Prepare one meal for your family. Again, your job is to offer the food, and your child gets to decide whether they will eat it. Children tend to be more willing to try new foods when they know they won’t get their favourites simply by being picky.

Limit mealtime

Dragging out mealtime will not make your child more likely to eat and doesn’t create a healthy and happy eating environment. Allow your child a maximum of 30 minutes to eat their meal, then put the food away and let them leave the table. Offer food again at the next scheduled meal or snack time.

Mix favourites with new foods

Choosing what, when and how much to eat is easier for kids when foods they enjoy are on their plates. That’s why it’s a good idea to offer one or two go-to foods alongside one or two new ones. Positive association for the win! 

Another approach involves putting the various components of a meal on the table and allowing everyone, picky eater included, to assemble what they like. This works great for dishes like tacos, burgers, sandwiches and pancakes.

Try, try again

Continue offering new foods even if your child has rejected them before. Offer these foods on different days, at different meals and in different recipes. It can take many exposures for a child to try a food and like it. Don’t give up! Remember that all foods are new to a kid. It takes time (sometimes lots!) and exposure (sometimes lots!) to learn to enjoy a variety of foods.

Size and texture matter

For some kids, the size and texture of food are more of a problem than how it tastes. Mixed dishes like casseroles, pasta, and stir-fries can be tricky for picky eaters because they tend to have trouble identifying individual items in the meal. 

If the whole family is dining on stir fry, for example, serve the picky eater the rice separately. That way, the child can choose to eat what they want and doesn’t get frustrated by having to separate everything themselves. Positive meal experiences help kids get over their pickiness, and picking rice out of a stir fry is definitely not fun!

Have fun with it

Children tend to eat better when they enjoy mealtimes. Pressuring them to eat, and punishing them if they do not, is no fun for anyone. Allow your child to decide if or how much they will eat from the foods offered, and trust that they will eat if they are hungry. 

Don’t reward or bribe

I admit that I’ve used dessert as a reward. As in, “eat that broccoli, and you get ice cream.” Trouble is, this approach can lead to constant meal negotiations. As in, “I’m not eating this carrot unless I get a quadruple-decker hot fudge sundae with sprinkles.” As with anything, rewarding the wrong kind of behaviour tends to make it worse. Especially when it comes to picky eating.

Stick to a routine

Maintaining any kind of household routine can be a challenge in our busy lives, but eating meals at the table as a family as much as possible can be a key part of overcoming pickiness. The same goes for offering healthy snacks at regular times each day and only offering drinks with meals and snacks, not in-between. 

Stick to the RIGHT routine

Serving meals while your child is playing, watching TV or doing anything else unrelated to eating can undermine any positive routine you are trying to establish. Likewise, do not have toys or screens on or near the dining table.

Snacks, meanwhile, should be offered no less than 30 minutes before and after meals. Chowing down right before a meal can ruin a kid’s appetite, while snacking afterwards sends the message that meals can be skipped in favour of snacks.

Be a role model

Dad eating vegetables

Want your kid to eat broccoli? Then YOU gotta eat it! Kids will be more willing to try new foods if they see others at the table eating the same ones. Family members, including older brothers and sisters, are important role models for healthy eating. Plus, when everyone eats healthy foods, everyone benefits. 

Is there a healthy food you enjoy that you hid under the plate as a kid? Share your newfound fave in the comments below!

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