Having a picky eater in the household can be quite a challenge, especially if they happen to be your child. Strictly speaking, a picky eater is someone who is unwilling to try new foods or even to eat certain familiar foods. The problem is their strong preferences don’t always have a straightforward reason. In some cases, it’s certainly possible that a child may not like particular foods they’ve already tried because something about that food bothers them. In other cases, the child may not like trying new things or have problems with different food textures.
In more extreme cases, the child may have such strong feelings that their pickiness has created a source of tension around mealtimes. Creating a positive mealtime environment is hard in these circumstances. Still, it’s important since your child may come to associate bad feelings with mealtime and grow up having a difficult relationship with food otherwise. This article will explore tips and strategies for dealing with fussy eaters.
Read on to learn how you can create a positive relationship with food for your child, including tips on creative cooking and using helpful appliances.
Understanding picky eaters
The solution might be easier if there were a simple, straightforward reason for picky eating. The fact is picky eating can be caused by a number of different factors — not just a relatively simple unwillingness to try new things.
Causes and factors contributing to picky eating
There are usually a number of factors contributing to picky eating habits. Let’s have a quick look at some of them:
- Your child has neophobia. Neophobia is the “fear of the new.” When it concerns food, it refers to a fear of trying new foods. Neophobia can be completely unfounded – that is, it may have no concrete reason behind it – but a child may also develop neophobia as a result of watching another family member demonstrate it.
- Your child is genetically prone. Foods taste and smell different to different people. For example, some people love cilantro, while others think it tastes like soap. In the latter case, these people actually have a gene that makes them sensitive to certain compounds in food.
- Your child is less adventurous. Some people are willing to try almost any kind of food, while others could be more adventurous. Your child may be a fussy eater simply because they are not into trying new things. After all, familiar foods are comforting.
- Your child may have a sensory problem. This sensitivity may be as slight as an aversion to mushy food textures, or it may be more profound. Navigating sensory issues is tricky, especially when it relates to a medical condition like Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism.
- Your child wants autonomy. If your child isn’t feeding themselves or making their own food choices, they may not have the autonomy they crave – that is, they aren’t old enough to govern themselves, and that is frustrating to them.
Differentiating picky eating from eating disorders
Picky eating sometimes goes beyond a distaste for certain foods or an unwillingness to try new foods. Instead, it may relate to a treatable eating disorder rather than an aversion to healthy food. Kids can develop an eating disorder known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), lack interest in specific foods, or may avoid foods due to a past experience or how the food triggers their senses. ARFID typically develops in infancy and can even persist into adulthood.
Tips for parents to navigate picky eating
Establishing a positive mealtime environment is challenging under normal circumstances, but it can feel absolutely impossible when your child is a picky eater. The frustration you experience as a parent who worries about their child’s welfare can’t be denied, but it’s good to hold it in check. After all, your child will pick up on any negative feelings you are having.
Establishing a positive mealtime environment
The first and most important thing to do when correcting picky eating behavior is to establish a positive environment.
Here’s what you can do:
- Model the correct behavior. Your kids see how you behave and mimic it. If you want your child to try new foods or be a little more accepting of familiar foods, consider modeling the expected behavior.
- Have meals as a family. Having family meals takes the focus off the child, which can also take the pressure off them. Additionally, the social atmosphere of a family meal can foster a positive relationship with food.
- Avoid confrontation. Confrontation, whether with the picky eater or another family member, creates a negative atmosphere. If it seems like a confrontation is brewing, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down.
Encouraging exploration and exposure to new foods
Sometimes, you can correct picky eating through gentle exposure to new foods and by allowing your child to explore.
- Switch it up. Variety doesn’t always mean introducing new foods. Something as simple as rotating the menu may help. Many parents fall into the trap of only serving their children the foods they like, reinforcing the idea that mealtime monotony is acceptable and normal.
- Give them options. Offering a couple of choices at mealtime can help resolve your child’s picky eating habits by giving them some autonomy. If you don’t want them to always choose chicken nuggets, for example, don’t always offer them as an option. By mixing it up and giving them a say over what they have, you can teach them to make good food choices outside your home.
- Give them exposure. Exposing your child to new foods can be as simple as letting them see it on the serving plate, even if they aren’t eating it. Food exposure can happen over time — however long your child needs to be comfortable trying it.
- Ask your child to help. Letting your child help with meal preparation encourages a positive relationship with food. Essentially, you are conducting a form of exposure therapy in the context of creating bonding time for you and your child.
Making mealtimes enjoyable and interactive
Part of encouraging your child to try new foods is to make mealtime enjoyable and even interactive.
- Creative food presentation. Creatively presenting your meals can make eating them much more enjoyable. Try cutting vegetables into fun shapes or arranging your food in an interesting way.
- Make meals visually appealing and fun. Try creating dishes that incorporate a variety of colors and textures to add some extra interest to the meal.
- Provide a variety of food choices and textures. Creating meals that have a variety of textures and food choices may encourage your child to eat, even when they are normally picky.
Naturally, every child is different, so the reasons for their picky eating will be different. Some of those reasons require a little more work since they aren’t a simple matter of not liking certain foods. Still, some work can often overcome food-based fears and picky behavior.
Meal ideas and home appliances to aid picky eaters
Sometimes, picky eating calls for creative intervention. You may even have to get sneaky. If your child avoids eating fruit and vegetables, there are ways to hide them in food and drinks they enjoy. Pastas and even rice are being made with vegetables these days, so there’s another way you can sneak a serving or two into their meal. For example, you can blend vegetables into soups or add whole fruit and vegetables to smoothies as a sneaky way to encourage your child to eat them.
Here’s a smoothie your child might just love:
1 cup of unsweetened OJ
1 cup of vanilla-flavored yogurt (berry-flavored yogurt will also work)
1 cup of pineapple juice
1 cup of kale leaves
2 cups of frozen berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
Honey, golden syrup, or pancake syrup to taste
Make sure your kale leaves are washed and stripped from the stem. Pour the orange juice and the pineapple juice into the blender and add the kale leaves. Set your blender to puree and run it until the mixture is as smooth as possible. Next, add the vanilla yogurt and the frozen berries. Run the blender until everything is smooth and well-mixed. The smoothie should come out green (like Shrek!), but the other flavors hide the kale taste.
That’s the trick, most of the time. You have to get sneaky by hiding or disguising food they don’t like as food they do like.
The Power of the Oven: creative recipes for picky eaters
The oven is your first and greatest ally in the war on picky eating. You can create a holiday dinner with roast chicken and stuffing, or stick some oven fries and chicken nuggets on a pan and make a meal out of that. The beautiful thing about making kids’ food in the oven is that much of what you normally make for anyone else can be adapted to suit your child’s tastes.
For example, consider making Oven-Baked Ravioli by layering pasta sauce (to which you can add pureed vegetables) with refrigerated ravioli, cottage cheese, and shredded mozzarella. You can even try different ravioli types: cheese, spinach, butternut squash, and more. Once you have a full baking pan of ravioli, topped with mozzarella, simply bake it at 350° for 30-40 minutes and then let it stand for 10 minutes.
You can also consider making your own oven-baked chicken nuggets by cutting some chicken breast into pieces, coating it with a seasoned breadcrumb mix, and baking it at 425° F until golden. A little pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese over the top when you are serving it turns your nuggets into a tasty chicken parmesan.
When you are about to cook a meal for your family, consider how you can adapt it to suit a picky child. Chances are, it’ll be easier than you thought.
Quick and convenient: making the most of the microwave
For quick meals and hot snacks, you can’t beat the microwave. You can use the microwave to steam veggies to make their texture more appealing for your kid while maintaining nutritional value. If you save leftovers for later enjoyment, a few minutes in the microwave will heat those leftovers for you. Most importantly, the microwave is a useful tool that allows busy parents to work around their picky child’s eating habits without taking up too much time.
If your kiddo likes eggs, make some eggs with cheese in the microwave. Simply take a microwave-safe bowl and spread the sides with butter or margarine. Crack one or two eggs into the bowl and break the yolk. Sprinkle the top with shredded cheese or place a cheese slice over the eggs. Cover the bowl and cook the eggs on high for 2-3 minutes.
Mastering the cooktop: exploring flavorful options
The cooktop can be the site of a variety of textures, tastes, and colorful foods. From creating visually interesting stir-fries to pan-frying crispy chicken and searing whole vegetables or meats, you can alter many of your everyday recipes by simply changing how you cook them. Steamed vegetables can become seared vegetables. Poached or boiled eggs can become fried eggs (great in a sandwich!). Boiled potatoes can become crispy hashbrowns. Another way you can change the taste of something to make it more appealing to your child is to add a sauce to it. Plenty of cooking sauces are available at the store, or you can get creative and mix up your own BBQ sauce for dipping or adding to your dishes.
Fun and healthy options: pizza ovens and air fryers
Pizza and fried foods are uniquely suited to kids, even picky eaters. Fortunately, you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars to buy pizza and French fries every week. Instead, you can invest in a pizza oven or an air fryer and make your own. While the investment may seem prohibitive, you may save money over time.
Having your own pizza oven will allow you to play around with the toppings, to customize the pizza to suit your child’s tastes. You can swap out less healthy ingredients, sneak some vegetable puree into the sauce and even use non-wheat dough.
Pizzas are even fun to make with your kiddo, which may boost their interest in eating them. With an air fryer, you can make “fried” food with a teensy fraction of the oil normally used. Instead of deep-frying, you can achieve the crispy texture your kiddo likes in French fries, chicken nuggets, homemade potato chips, ”baked” sweet potatoes, and much more. Not to mention, kids often like watching the air fryer do its magic.
The importance of having an extended warranty for small appliances
Small kitchen appliances, like blenders, pizza ovens, and air fryers, are a godsend to the frustrated parents of picky eaters. They make preparing healthier kids’ food much easier and faster. Naturally, since they are an important part of your meal-making toolkit, you’ll want to protect them with an extended warranty.
An extended warranty provides a safety net if the appliance needs to be repaired or replaced due to a manufacturer’s defect. With several small appliances in your kitchen, though, keeping track of all the warranties can make anyone nuts. To keep them straight, consider creating a file in MS Word or Excel and entering all the necessary information for each warranty into a single document. That way, all your warranty information – including the contact details for each manufacturer, the term of the warranty, and any exclusions – is in one place.
Part of any battle plan for working around picky eating habits is figuring out the best approach to creating a pleasant mealtime environment and making meals your kiddo is guaranteed to eat. Kitchen appliances that help you make healthier meals in less time can save you peace of mind in an already trying situation. Think of your picky eater as a good excuse to exercise.