Whether you’re new to dealing with a picky eater, or an experienced pro, building a firm foundation for your family’s habits is critical. Without a strong foundation, the rest of your picky-eating transformation tactics will crumble. Navigating this journey can often feel like solving a complex puzzle, one where each piece represents a different aspect of your child’s relationship with food. But fear not—today, I’ll guide you through three of the six basic structures for dealing with a picky eater. 

These foundational strategies are designed to create a supportive and positive environment, encouraging your child to explore and enjoy a variety of foods. By focusing on these key areas, you can start building a resilient framework that will not only help in overcoming picky eating habits but also foster a lifelong healthy relationship with food for your child.

1. Avoid Emotional Reactions

Even the calmest, most resilient of parents can struggle to maintain their composure with a picky eater. So whether you’re new to picky eating or not, it’s essential that you avoid emotional reactions regardless of your child’s behavior. 

Your emotion may manifest as a guilt-driven negotiation. For example, you might say, “I’ve worked so hard to make this food, you don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?” Alternatively, we might resort to punishment, declaring, “If you don’t eat this, you’re going straight to bed” or “You can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten your food.” However, these tactics are extremely unlikely to effectively address picky eating.

Conversely, it’s also easy to respond overly positively when your picky eater finally tries something new. For instance, you might be tempted to express excessive excitement when they try the carrots you’ve been serving for months. While positive reinforcement is important, overdoing it can create a complex scenario for children to navigate. 

Children have a natural desire to please their parents, and often, they will engage in behaviors outside their comfort zone to receive approval and praise. The way we communicate with our children about food in their formative years sets the tone for their relationship with food throughout their lives. Attaching strong emotions, whether negative or positive, to their eating habits can adversely affect their long-term food preferences and eating behaviors. 

Sharing this is not about adding guilt or pressure. Quite the opposite. By steering clear of emotional reactions, you not only prevent negative behaviors in the future but also alleviate your own stress in the present. Rather than focusing solely on what they did or didn’t eat, you can shift the conversation to other enriching topics altogether.

2. Create an Eating Rhythm

Some families refer to their mealtime plans as an eating routine or schedule. I prefer to think of it as a rhythm. A schedule, for example, might rigidly specify lunch at 2 pm every day. In contrast, a rhythm allows for more flexibility, such as having lunch after a midday nap.

Choosing the best approach for your family, whether a rhythm or a routine, plays a crucial role for picky eaters. A rhythm helps them understand the who, where, and when of eating. It sets clear expectations for meal and snack times.

Established meal and snack times within this rhythm are key to preventing all-day grazing. Continuous snacking can lead to a lack of hunger, which is counterproductive for picky eaters. Feeling hungry at meal times can be a natural motivator for children to try new foods.

Conversely, a lack of a predictable eating rhythm can lead to stress for children. They might not understand the timing of their next meal amidst busy family schedules. This uncertainty can cause two types of reactions: 

  1. They overindulge in carbohydrates. Our bodies are genetically driven to prefer carbohydrates if we think a famine is coming. So when your kids aren’t sure of when their next meal will be, their bodies may encourage them to desire potatoes and avoid the broccoli when the food eventually arrives.
  2. They shut down. On the flip side, because their bodies are experiencing this fight-or-flight stress response, they may shut down and not feel hunger at all. The best example of this is with public speaking. You could skip 2 meals before a speech, but you’ll likely forget your hungry until after your speech because you’re so anxious about your environment. 

Establishing a consistent eating rhythm is one of the most impactful foundations you can set for your picky eater. 

3. Serve Safe Foods

Serve safe foods at every meal. These are any food that your little one has reliably eaten in the past. 

When I share this basic structure with parents, they often ask if they can wait until they’ve presented the new food or if they can skip it altogether. I get it, the fear is that kids will only eat the safe food. And while this will happen at some point, safe foods can actually encourage kids to try new things too—trust me.

To put this into a relatable adult context, imagine you’re faced with cleaning your house, and the bathroom is your least favorite task. You might start with something less daunting, like laundry, before tackling the bathroom. This strategy makes the overall task feel less overwhelming. Similarly, safe foods act as a comfortable starting point for children, easing them into trying new foods.

Safe foods give kids a safe launching and landing pad for them to use when they experiment with new culinary experiences—safe foods effectively take the edge off new foods. 

Final Thoughts

There you have it! The first three areas to start building a foundation as you tackle picky eating

Let’s recap. The three key strategies for transforming your picky eater’s habits are:

  1. Avoiding Emotional Reactions: Steer clear of guilt-driven negotiations and punitive responses, as well as overenthusiastic praise. By managing your emotional responses, you can set a healthier tone at meal times and influence your child’s long-term relationship with food in a positive way.
  2. Creating an Eating Rhythm: Establish a flexible yet consistent eating routine. This helps your child anticipate meal times and build hunger, making them more likely to try new foods. It also prevents the stress of unpredictability, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits.
  3. Serving Safe Foods: Introduce familiar foods alongside new ones. This approach offers comfort and eases the transition to trying new flavors and textures. It’s about balancing the familiar with the new, providing a safety net that encourages exploration without overwhelming your child.

Implementing these strategies forms a solid foundation for addressing picky eating. They are not only about changing immediate behaviors but also about nurturing a healthier, more adventurous approach to eating in the long term. 

Remember, consistency and patience are key in your journey with picky eaters.