The picky eater

Do you ever wonder as a parent how your little one will ever grow based on the minute amounts of foods they take in? Are you worried about their weight?

Many parents struggle with these feelings about their 1-5 year old children. Hopefully, you will feel some solace in the fact that most kids go through these stages and that your experience is similar to that of other parents. In this article, I will try to reassure you that these are not abnormal eating patterns. I will also provide some suggestions as to what you can do, should you feel the need to do something about your child’s eating habits.

Is it really not enough food?

Most adults have different thoughts as to what constitutes a normal portion of a dinner meal. Parents will sometimes think their child should eat a greater portion than is actually needed. A great resource for what constitutes a normal portion size for a child, specified by gender and age, can be found in the Health Canada Food Guide.

I encourage parents to download the Food Guide and (at the very least) follow it for your dinner meal. Most struggles with children that are “picky eaters” occur at dinner time meals. I also recommend using a small kitchen scale for measuring portions.

Playing a mind trick

Using the Health Canada Food Guide for portion sizes, prepare your child’s food on a large dinner plate. Since their portions are so small compared to adults, presenting it on an adult-sized dinner plate will make it appear to the child as if they are not getting that much food. It seems insignificant perhaps, but a little mind trick can sometimes do the job.

“My child is so picky, he will only eat 3 or 4 things.”

Some kids are very particular and will only eat certain things, over and over again, so introducing new foods seems like an impossibility. Variety of food in their diet is very important. When preparing a plate of food (eg., meat, broccoli, rice), try to put two items on the plate you know your child likes, and introduce one new item. They will only need to try a bite of the new item (but have to finish the rest).

“My kid won’t eat her dinner, so I’ll give her some banana/yoghurt/apple/milk, etc.”

When it comes to training the picky eater to eat, it is important to understand a few basic facts:

  1. Your child will not starve from not eating a few dinners.
  2. Banana/apple/milk will be “fillers” so your child will indeed not be hungry. Yes, they are healthy choices, but your end goal is to have your child eat his/her dinner.
  3. Hunger is the biggest motivator for starting to eat.

“I will sometimes try to bribe my child to finish all her dinner, or I will lose my temper with her at times.”

Both these feelings are very common (and have happened to myself as a parent too). Staying neutral in your attitude towards your child’s eating pattern is the hardest thing to do, but ultimately will pay off. If Johnny does not want to eat, that is ok. Try not to get mad, and try not to bribe. Johnny will have to sit at the table until the rest of the family has finished eating.

I would suggest to keep his plate for 30 minutes after dinner is over, then cover it and put it in the refrigerator. If Johnny says he is hungry before bed, he may eat only from his dinner plate, but nothing else.

Should he finish the food on his dinner plate, he still does not get dessert. You can and should praise him for finishing the food on his plate and tell him if he does so during dinner next time, he will get his dessert.

“My kid is only picky with eating vegetables/fruits.”

Vegetables and fruits are an important part of our meal. They provide important nutrients (vitamins, iron, fibre). First of all remember to only serve the portions as suggested by the Food Guide.

If your child enjoys either (unsweetened) apple sauce, ketchup or Ranch sauce, I feel it is perfectly fine to use these as dips for the vegetables (I do mean dips, and not have the vegetables “swim” in these sauces).

If this does not work, then some kids will enjoy a creamy vegetable soup. You can boil (or steam) broccoli and cauliflower, add some cream, use your Cuisinart to completely mix them to a smooth taste (without chunks). Then they can either drink this soup, or add some (Goldfish) crackers to have them eat it with a soup.

For picky fruit eaters, I recommend trying to make fresh fruit smoothies.

“I am very worried about my child’s eating pattern.”

There can be times where no matter what you try, your child will not eat at all. This could be either a behaviour pattern, or a sign of some underlying problem. I would suggest that you see your child’s physician in that case to try to figure out if there is a problem and to have them weigh your child regularly.

Other tips for helping your picky eater eat a bit better can be found in this book: “The Sneaky Chef: simple strategies for hiding healthy foods in kids’ favorite meals”, by Missy Chase Lapine. And check out the Mayo Clinic’s 10 tips for picky eaters for some good ideas.

Dr. Raffi’s dinner plan:
1. Use Health Canada Food Guide to determine portions.
2. Serve on a large adult dinner plate.
3. Try not to bribe or lose your temper.
4. If your child does not wish to eat, that is ok. He is expected to stay at table until the family is done eating.
5. Do not offer dessert (unless entire plate of food is finished), or a substitute for dinner.
6. Keep the unfinished dinner plate for 30 minutes after dinner at the table, then cover and put in fridge. If your child is hungry before bed, that is the only food they can have.
7. I only recommend water as fluids. Milk, juices, etc. will fill enough for them not to feel hungry.
8. Consistency is the key. If you stick to your guns, after 3 or 4 nights, your child will see you mean business, and will start eating better.

4 thoughts on “The picky eater

  1. Sarah McLean

    What a treat to find this blog on the web! I found it about a week ago and have already implemented some new practices at our dinner table according to the suggestions you made. Thanks very much Dr. Sharon.

  2. Emma

    I am so thrilled to have found this! I have 4 children, 3 of whom are very picky eaters. I am printing this off and will be using it tonight.

  3. Charlene Morrison

    This is fantastic advice Dr. Sharon, our family is already seeing a difference and our 4 year old is even more willing to try something new now on his BIG plate. It’s amazing! Thanks for sharing this online as it’s something, I just haven’t remebered to ask when we’re in for check ups.

  4. kismat o

    What a great post. After reading it I realized that I have been doing everything you say not to. Hopefully following your advice in this article will help me to change my son’s eating habits.


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