Have Picky Eaters? Here’s How to Help Them Enjoy Food

corn, corn on the cob, corn on the cob child eating

A version of this story originally appeared on the site of our partner in improving healthy eating and nutrition for children, Nurture Life. Related residents receive a special offer on Nurture Life meals; check the Related Connect app to learn more. 

As children, many of us grew up hearing some variety of this common refrain: “No dessert until you finish your peas!” Or maybe, “No TV unless you clean your plate!” Without even realizing it, we may now be passing down these same messages as we learn to parent our own kids.

The problem with food-related reinforcement—as true today as it was back then—is that it doesn’t work. In fact, rewarding our kids for eating often achieves the very opposite of what we intend. It tends to make picky eaters more resistant to new foods and muddles the message of positivity, encouragement and confidence that we hope to establish as they grow up and grow into their own eating habits.

Taking small steps to remove the reinforcement from meals will go a long way to helping your kids develop a more positive relationship with food. It’s never too late to build new habits for your family (and you’ll be modeling a great example for your kids in the process!).

Here are a few simple ways to approach meals without resorting to positive or negative reinforcement.

1. Talk About the Food.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be a shiny new toy; it can be as simple as verbal praise for “doing a good job” with food. It’s natural to want to highlight our kids’ positive behaviors, but too much praise may lead your child to listen more for your approval than their own hunger/fullness cues.

Rather than making a big commotion about food, it’s best to have a relaxed atmosphere. Instead of praising your child directly, try starting a laid-back conversation about the food. If your child tries a bite of broccoli, try a piece yourself and describe what it tastes like to you or what you think would be good alongside the broccoli the next time your child tastes it.

Instead of any kind of reinforcement (which can often feel like pressure), you’ll be encouraging a sense of wonder and discovery around food. If your child hates the food, ask why. Try to give your little one space to say what’s icky and, more importantly, why they believe that.

2. It’s Okay to Make Meals Fun!

Even without direct rewards or verbal praise, you can still have fun while eating. Some of our favorite picky eater tools involve cute plates, fun character food picks and adorable mealtime buddies that help kids explore the many colors, textures, tastes, smells and other sensations of food.

The key is to spur some interest without resorting to gadgets that will overly distract your child from the experience of eating. Something simple like a board-game-themed dinner tray can take the focus off how many bites your child is eating (for you as the parent) or how “ewwww!” the broccoli smells (for your kid). If you order Nurture Life’s healthy kids meals, you can easily reuse our meal packages to add some whimsy and creativity to meals, too.

If you do use any kind of themed plates, table toys or other game elements at meals, try to think of them first and foremost as a communication tool. Use them to ask questions, build an imaginative story, talk about different foods and have fun together.

3. Experiment With Picky Eater Strategies.

Many parents resort to mealtime bribes to get their kids past a picky eating phase. If your little one is suddenly refusing to eat anything green, leafy or non-chicken-nugget, then you may want to try out some picky eater strategies. There are tons of ways to introduce new foods (or to re-introduce old foods to newly picky eaters) that don’t involve any kind of reward system for kids.

Here are a few helpful resources to get started:

∙ Trying one new food at a time, every other day
∙ Making your kitchen more kid-friendly
∙ Involving your child at mealtime
∙ Serving picky eater-approved veggies

Different strategies work for different kids, so it may take some time to find what works best for you. And research shows that it can take 6–15 times before a child accepts a new food, so patience and persistence are key. Even when it doesn’t feel like it’s working, remind yourself that you’re on the right track.

Starting at a young age, children must learn to listen to their bodies—to eat when they are hungry, to stop when they are full and to view food as energy that fuels them throughout the day. By moving away from food-related reinforcement and toward a more open, curious and pressure-free approach to meals, you’ll be teaching your child how to nourish their body now and for a lifetime.

If you have any questions about building healthy, independent eating habits for your kids, please reach out to Nurture Life's child nutrition experts at support@nurturelife.com!

A version of this story originally appeared on the site of our nutrition partner in improving healthy eating and nutrition for children, Nurture Life.