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How To Handle Picky Eaters & Mealtime Behaviors

Picky Eaters

Chloe Schweinshaut is a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Riverside Nutrition, a private practice based in Cambridge, MA that specializes in personalized nutrition. Chloe is a mom to four hungry kids and she loves helping families figure out how to eat in a way that is healthy and enjoyable for all the unique needs that can fit under one roof!


The “That’s OK” Rule

One of the questions that I get asked over and over again, both as a dietitian and a mom is “how do you deal with dinner at your house?” Meaning, what’s my timing like, how many meals do I cook, what do I do with picky eaters, how does dessert work? I have four kids ages nine, eight, five and three and as much as I would like to brag that my nutrition background has yielded the best kid-eaters ever, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I do have a little bit of everything though.

One kid won’t sit in her chair for more than 30 seconds at a time, another will refuse to eat something one night even though he ate several helpings of it before, and sometimes they will claim to not be hungry but can magically put away several helpings of dessert.

It sounds like chaos, but it’s not, because my biggest and only dinner rule that I have ever enforced is, “that’s OK.” We have one dinner time, usually around 6pm when everyone is home from school and work.  You don’t want to sit in your chair and eat with us? That’s OK, I’ll take your dinner away and you can wait until the next meal.  You don’t want to eat this amazing meal that I slaved over because I knew it was your favorite? That’s OK, chances are your siblings will enjoy it and your dad and I will be grateful for the leftovers.  You only want dessert tonight? That’s OK.

Wait, what? Just Dessert?

Let me stop here and explain, so you don’t think that I’m someone who starves her children and let’s them eat as much dessert as they want.  The fact is, that I have worked hard since day one with all my kids to make the actual food part of a meal, the least important one.

When they would sit in their high chair, I was conscious not to give praise if they ate something, and conversely, I never got upset if they didn’t.  I never let those dining with us comment on what my kids were eating. There was no “you did such a good job eating your broccoli!” Or “I’m so proud of all you ate tonight.” And my husband and I have really tried hard not to give into the “there’s no dessert, if you don’t do or eat ‘X’.” That last one is hard, I know, especially when you are in the middle of an epic toddler meltdown and you will do and or say anything to get it to stop.

Picky Eaters

My Basic Dinner Rules

  1. Kids must sit at the table when eating.  No snacking on the couch or anywhere else in the house–all meals, snacks are at the table.
  2. No snacking after dinner.  Period.  The more your kids snack after dinner, the less dinner they will eat. Snacks are generally thought of as “safe” foods for kids so if they know a food they like is coming later, then they will be a whole lot less likely to try a new food during dinner. The only exception I give to this, is if we’ve had a funky night and had a late sports practice so we had to eat an early dinner and then they ran around and need a little something before bed.  For times like this, I keep it simple with a scoop of peanut butter, banana, or a yogurt and that’s it.
  3. The TV isn’t on.
  4. I don’t care how much you eat, or whether or not you chose to eat, but as soon as you get up (unless you need to go to the bathroom), you are done.
  5. Don’t “yuck” someone else’s “yum.”  My kids can’t say “eww” or “yuck” or anything else to insinuate disgust.  If they don’t like something, they say “no thank you” or keep that thought to themselves.
  6. My kids only ever have two options for drinks: water and milk.  And if they want milk, they have to have it with a meal.  I try not to serve milk before the meal because that tends to ruin their appetite and make them less likely to try new foods.
  7. They have to ask to be “excused.”  This is how my husband and I know our kids are done with their meal.  And the kids also know that by saying this, they are done.
  8. No talking about food.  Do. Not. Comment. On. Anything. Remember, mealtimes should be about everything but the meal.  There should be no praise if a child eats something you want them to (even though there are so many virtual high fives going on in my head), and nothing along the lines of “you just need to eat this before you can be excused from the table.”  That is: (a) attaching emotion to food for your kid (b) allowing you and not them to decide on what their internal cues (and preferences) should be.
  9. I know ahead of dinner if we are going to have dessert that night and I don’t make it conditional on whether or not they eat dinner.  And I tell them beforehand if it’s a dessert night and if they choose not to eat some/any/all of their dinner, that’s OK.

This last rule generally elicits a good amount of concern from parents who are mainly worried that their kids will hold out and save their appetite for dessert. In our house, we have dessert sometimes twice a week, sometimes once and sometimes none.  And there are definitely times where some of my kids refuse to eat dinner but are ravenous for dessert.  I don’t worry about this—I really feel that dessert should not play a regular role in the house so that way if your kid decides to skip dinner and just eat dessert, it doesn’t stress you out.

Picky Eaters

I know I just listed a lot of things they “can’t” do at meal time, so naturally, here is my list of what they “can” do:

  1. Decide for themselves what they are going to choose to eat.
  2. Play with their food (not in a gross way), but explore, especially if it is their first time seeing a particular food or meal.  They can dissect it, ask questions, lick it – I really let anything go with this one so long as they don’t spit things out, make a mess on the table, or get too silly with it.  Side note: I try to encourage this more when we don’t have company over. Remember it can take many (many!) times for a person to decide that they like the taste of a food, and I have found that if they know what’s in a dish I make, this process is expedited.
  3. Decide when they are done. If any of my kids are done and they ask to “be excused,” then they are done.
  4. Slow down and enjoy the conversation (or silence).  We really make an effort to eat dinner as a family every single night.  And even though our kids are young and the conversations are sometimes ridiculous, we cherish the 20 minutes where it is just the six of us, no distractions and it’s when we catch up on the day. Sometimes everyone is exhausted and there is not a whole lot of conversation–that’s OK, too–it’s just nice to be in each other’s company.
  5. If they don’t eat dinner, they still can eat dessert, (if they want).  Like I said, dessert is not served in our house every night and even if they didn’t eat a lot of their dinner, they are allowed to have dessert-it’s up to them.

Keep Mealtime Stressfree

I know this may seem harsh, and may not even line up with what you would consider “good parenting,” but I believe (and there is some pretty good experts out there to back me up), that my job is provide healthy food for my kids and they get to decide whether or not they want to eat it.  However you decide to structure the mealtimes in your house.  My number one piece of advice is to figure out a way to not let it stress you out.  Your kids will pick up on that stress, which in turn makes them stressed, which equals a disastrous meal time.

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