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 prop 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, we are still climbing out of that picky eating hole. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. My biggest take away? 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. Stay strong. Here’s to believing in the possibility that meals can, in fact, be happy. –Jenny, founder
- Foster independent eating. Babies instinctively know how to eat. If you are spoon-feeding, aim to transition your baby to self-feeding 100% by 9 months old with a wide variety of finger foods. (For ideas, see our free First Foods® database.)
- 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.
- 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!)
- Empower with choice: Offer small portions of 3-5 different foods (e.g., protein, veg, grain, fruit) at each main meal at the same time. If baby only wants to eat one of those (which is often fruit), just don’t serve that food at each meal to give the other foods a fighting chance.
- 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.) (Doing so will likely result in your child eventually using food as a way to control things.) If a meal is refused, offer one more minute or so and then cheerfully take it away from the table and say “okay, all done.” Remember to offer food choices all at once, however.
- Introduce new foods each week. Alongside foods that are familiar, make sure you don’t fall into a rotation rut of bananas, sweet potatoes and cereal. Keep introducing new foods—with varying textures—at the same time as familiar foods. If your baby doesn’t try the new food the first time, keep introducing it. Some babies need to see new foods many times before trying it.
- 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).
- 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. If you are employing any of these crutches, stop cold turkey.
- Quit crutches cold turkey. If you are using any crutches (e.g., TV, phones, books music, bribes, etc.) at the table to get your child to eat, stop now. Focus on the long game, not the short game.
- Above all, feign indifference. Even if you feel like upset because your child is refusing a meal, don’t let it show. Food is the only thing your child can control. Don’t let it turn into the thing that your child uses to control you.