When I was a new mom, I made every mistake in the book when it came to food. I catered to my child’s every want. I got emotional when he refused dinner, and I used every crutch in the book to get him to just.take.one.bite. But these well-intentioned acts to get my child to eat backfired, big time. Within a year he stopped eating altogether and his weight fell below the first percentile.
Five years later, having worked with pediatric nutritionists, child psychologists, feeding therapists, and dietitians, my biggest take away is this: It is much easier to prevent picky eating than it is to address it once it’s taken root.
Here are 10 things you can do right now to prevent picky eating. Here’s to believing in the possibility that meals can, in fact, be happy.
- Foster independent eating. Babies instinctively know how to eat. If you are exclusively spoon-feeding textureless food, aim to introduce finger foods by 9 months of age. (For how, see our free First Foods® database.) Have a baby older than that? Check out our Spoons to Fingers webinar recording to jumpstart self-feeding.
- Get messy. Resist the urge to wipe your child’s face and hands during meals and let your baby get messy while self-feeding. Children who are excessively cleaned or not allowed to touch food may grow up thinking food is “dirty” and even have visceral reactions to food touching their skin or clothes, even if they have no other sensory processing issues away from the table.
- Set an eating schedule and stick to it. Make sure main meals are not soon after snacks or breast/bottle feeds. (It turns out your mom was right: that cookie will ruin dinner.) See our suggested Feeding Schedules by age.
- Empower with choice: Offer small portions of different foods (e.g., 2 proteins, 2 veg, etc.) at each main meal, served at the same time. If your child only wants to eat one of those (which is often fruit), consider serving that food at snack time so it’s not stealing the show at main meals.
- Check your emotions at the table. If your child refuses to eat, don’t react or exert pressure in any way. (And in the same vein, don’t praise your child for eating.) If a meal is refused, offer a few more minutes or so for the meal and then move on with your day. Be okay if your child chooses not to eat.
- Introduce new foods each week. Make sure you don’t fall into a rotation rut of the same foods each week. Keep introducing new foods—with varying textures—at the same time as familiar foods. If your child doesn’t try the new food the first time, keep introducing it. Some babies and children need to see new foods many times before feeling brave enough to try it. You can track foods with our app.
- Eat with your child. Sit with your child and as much as possible, eat what they are eating (even if it’s just a little bit). If your child associated mealtime with being away from you, it will affect how much they eat and how long they are willing to stay in their high chair.
- Make meals fun, but keep it about the food. Babies do not need distraction to want to eat. (Those who do have usually just become accustomed to having it.) Sit with your child, talk about what you are eating (oh, these strawberries are so sweet!) and refrain from using books, music, devices or television to get your child to eat.
- Quit crutches cold turkey. If you are employing videos or your phone or iPad to keep your child calm at the table, stop. See our guide on How to Get Rid of Screens at Mealtime.
- Feign indifference. Above all, if you feel upset because your child is refusing to eat, don’t let it show. Feign indifference. Refrain from showing you are upset, sighing, or showing any displeasure. Food is the only thing your child can control and they are still learning.
Have a toddler? See our guides and online course for Toddlers at the Table.