These 9 Psychologist-Approved Tips Completely Changed Mealtimes With My Picky-Eating Toddler

by Karen Belz
Karen Belz has written for sites such as Bustle, HelloGiggles, Romper, and So Yummy. She's the mom of a sassy toddler and drinks an alarming amount of Sugar-Free Red Bull in order to keep up with her.

Right now, there is a rotation of maybe five meals that I know won’t be an issue with my daughter. As a mom who tries hard to keep my kid healthy, I’m not proud of those foods (yes, pizza is one of them).

But what’s better — eating junk, or not eating at all?

I keep having to remind myself that restaurants have special menus for kids for a reason. Not many kids are interested in entrees that aren’t macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly. Kids have different tastes than we do. It’s why the response of “you’ll like it when your older” is generally true. Peas are a wonderful side dish now. Back when I was a kid? The smell and texture made me gag. I never really thought of myself as a picky eater.

I just figured aversion to the green stuff was normal.

That said, there are a lot of people out there who’ve tried to really get a hold of what’s going on with kids and picky eating. I tried out some of the lessons offered by Parent Lab. Parent Lab offers courses involving actual science that will help you feel more connected and a little less helpless. “We combine insights and research from neuroscience and child development experts with real-life stories from parents,” the site states. “We help parents build a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day by helping them learn and build skills anytime, anywhere.” Yes, please. This is the type of guidance I’ve been looking for.

What I learned was that I might be part of the problem. I may be projecting my own feelings on food onto my child without even realizing it. I want her to eat broccoli and other vegetables to be healthy and grow properly. But while she sees me eating these things at dinner? She doesn’t realize I’m also eating a bowlful of Doritos at night. So do I really practice what I preach? Or am I just trying to mimic the attitude I feel like parents should have?

If you’re trying to raise a less picky eater, here’s what I learned.

Forcing kids to clean their plates sends a bad message.

picky eater

This was something my parents tried with me, and quite honestly? It ruined my adult perception of portion size. I understood why they did it. My mom went through a situation where food was often scarce, so being able to feed us all full plates was something she felt proud of. She never wanted us to go without.

However, trying to tell your kid that there are plenty of children going hungry as a method for them to overeat is psychologically tough — and Parent Lab made me aware of that. No matter what, we need to trust children when they say they’re full. Any extras can be used for lunches tomorrow. It’s impossible to mail it to a child in need, so be smart about it. A monthly donation to a worthwhile cause will be much more effective if you’re really trying to get the point across of children going to bed hungry.

Picky eating is about control.

Picky eating is about control.

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t want to eat what’s in front of her — she just likes the power of “no.” Parent Lab made it clear that this sort of behavior starts around the age of 2, which rang true. The course also said it often ends around 8. Your child might not suddenly morph into a food champion, but they’ll feel a little more in control of their own lives and make mealtime a little more pleasant. Parent Lab noted that as far as picky eating goes, the brain has a lot to do with the choices that young children make.

Kids can also read social cues. So if you’re not happily munching on veggies, they may not feel very motivated to try it themselves.

I learned that the 'unhealthy' part of the ritual was something I didn't expect.

I learned that the 'unhealthy' part of the ritual was something I didn't expect.

As a parent, you feel that if your child is eating only one food, you’re failing. Especially if that food is something fried or otherwise unhealthy. But Parent Lab reminded me that there’s another stressful aspect to it that I never even thought of — the stress of having every meal be a challenge.

It’s really hard to anticipate sitting down for a meal. Dinners should be a wonderful time when the family gets together and spends time around a shared entree. But the second it becomes “mom and dad yell at the child over not eating,” it’s a time nobody enjoys. And children can read that energy. It may make things even harder. Would you feel the need to chow down on veggies when you’re feeling tense and forced?

A lot of my frustration fed on my own feelings toward food.

picky eating

Cooked vegetables were a big issue for me when I was growing up. But I had no problem eating them raw. Sometimes, it’s a texture issue for kids. Other times, they just want to know that their opinions matter.

When you’re forced to eat vegetables just one way, they immediately become negative. Maybe it’s just the way they’re prepared. For example, cooked broccoli became my favorite after trying Chinese food for the first time.

All you need to do is monitor what your kids are eating. According to the Parent Lab experts, kids should be eating at least 15 kinds of foods, and those foods should cover all the food groups. And it’s not as strict as you think. Even pancakes and waffles serve as two different types of food in a scenario like this.

I learned when to worry.

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So what happens if your kid isn’t hitting the 15-food mark? That’s called a food jag, and that’s a red flag. That means that you have something more than a picky eater and may want to get a second opinion — especially if this type of behavior has been going on for a long time. An occupational therapist will have a lot of answers.

As parents, it’s up to you to figure out if something is a phase or an issue. It makes sense for your child to pass up new foods or state a preference, but if they’re literally choosing to eat only plain spaghetti for every meal, then you have a reason to be more concerned.

Playing with food isn't a bad thing.

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You may feel annoyed when your child plays with their mashed potatoes instead of eating them — which is a scenario that literally happened in our household just days ago. But this is just a way of them processing what they’re about to eat. Unless it’s completely disruptive to mealtime, you should let them experiment.

Also, making food fun also helps. Turning hot dogs into octopus friends or using a potato to make a stamp are all fun ways for them to explore the world of food. In general, experimenting with food is fun. Kids just do it differently than adults do.

Don't be afraid to experiment.

Don't be afraid to experiment.

There’s no one way that works with all picky eaters. If so, parenting, in general, would be really easy. On the topic of playing with your food, you should also let your child try out new ways to experiment. Sure, maybe you wouldn’t dip your grapes in ketchup, but why not let your child give it a shot?

I grew up in a “you eat what your mom puts on the table” environment, and I understand the importance of that. I want my daughter to be able to try different foods and not complain if dinner happens to be something she doesn’t love. But I also want her to feel as if her opinion is heard. Suppose we’re having lasagna for dinner. She might not love lasagna, but maybe she likes lasagna noodles. Or she wants a bowl of just the filling. It may be weird or strange, but it’s a way that works that’s still in line with what everyone else is having. Especially when you remind yourself that this behavior isn’t forever.

As a sad side note, I also learned that any food brought into the house is fair game. So if I don’t want my daughter to binge on chips, maybe I shouldn’t be buying them at the store. That’s a sad reality, but parents really do lead with their actions.

Laughter helps.

Laughter helps.

Laughter helps stop all of the tension that may prevent a picky eater from trying something new. Plus, as a family, it’s important to laugh. At the age of 3, my daughter is slowly developing her own sense of humor and taking note of what’s “funny.” Making mealtime a fun experience for everyone has helped my husband and I relax after our workdays, and it helps our daughter learn to appreciate dinnertime even more.

Maybe your child just needs a little bit of time to warm up to the idea of a new food, but when they’re ready, you’re already at your breaking point. Try to put yourself in their shoes for a little bit. Think about a food you hated when you were just a toddler. What would inspire you to give it a shot?

Mostly, I've learned when to take a deep breath and relax.

picky eater

All in all, the lessons and activities have been extremely helpful. For one, they made me realize that something I thought was a massive problem actually isn’t. Is it stressful? Of course. But my daughter won’t perish just because she doesn’t like carrots right now.

The most important thing to do is take a step back and make mealtime enjoyable for everyone. Some days, you’ll create meals your child loves. Other days, the meal will be ignored. It may seem a little hurtful, but they’re not doing it just to be mean-spirited and difficult — it really is linked to something their brain is currently going through. Don’t take it as a diss to your cooking skills. Next week, they may change their mind.