Picky Eaters: Will they always be the dinner buzz-kill or is there hope?

Good news—there’s hope! And that’s according to one of Canada’s leading and most acclaimed nutritionists, Leslie Beck, RD. Perhaps you’re familiar. She makes frequent appearances as the Nutrition Expert on CTV’s Canada AM, and writes the much-loved Food For Thought column in the Globe and Mail. It’s from her bustling office in TO where she deals with the nitty gritty we’re looking for here: coaching parents through trials related to picky eaters. After seeking Leslie out for weeks, she finally squeezed us in for a phone interview—between appointments—fresh with advice from the dinnertime trenches.

BT: So, what is a picky eater, anyways?

LB: Many parents think a picky eater is a child that decides not to eat broccoli after one or two tries. However, when it comes to picky eaters, it’s often the parents that have the work to do. For example, sometimes it’s the parents who give up too quickly in trying to introduce food. And then they don’t reintroduce it again, even years later. Research shows it can take 10 or more tries to get a child to accept and like a new food. If a child didn’t like something last year, they might like it this year. Parents need to keep trying and reintroduce foods.

BT: What do you recommend parents do when a child refuses to participate in the family meal?

LB: The first and hardest thing to do is not to become a short order cook. Don’t give in and prepare a separate meal! The more often parents do this and cater to a picky eater, the harder it becomes down the road for: 1. parents to introduce new foods and 2. kids to accept them. I know it’s hard, but I recommend a tough love approach. Make one meal for everyone. In my experience, kids who come to the table hungry will eventually try to eat what’s served.

BT: What can parents do to foster more easy-going eaters?

LB: Start by uncovering the reasons why your kids might not be eating at dinner. Are they even hungry? Are they snacking or drinking too much juice pre dinner? Snacks should be cut off at least an hour before dinnertime.

Another thing that often works to get kids more interested in food is involving them in planning a meal for the week. This could include meal prep, grocery shopping, setting the table, even helping to plant a little veggie garden or community garden in the summer. Studies show that kids who have a hand in meal decisions and preparation, are more likely to eat a variety of healthy foods consistently.

And of course, don’t forget presentation. Portions that are too big can sometimes turn kids off, while for some, offering small, finger sized food can make a big difference. 

BT: We know meals together with the family are important—is dinner more important than the others?

LB: I think dinner is the most important because it’s the one meal that you’re not rushing away from, and there is more time to come together as a family, have a conversation and unwind. The research shows kids do better all round when the stabilizing force of a family dinner is part of their routine (nutritionally, academically, recreationally). 

Of course, for many families, family meals can’t happen every night, so then it’s important to find time to have dinner together as often as possible during the week and on weekends. Try to be consistent.

BT: How can parents make meals more enjoyable for a picky eater?

LB: Whatever you do, don’t preach at the dinner table. Don’t hold a Nutrition Ed. class during your meal. When you’re enjoying a meal, take the focus off the negative, don’t try to bribe or reward your little picky eater with dessert. Instead, try to enjoy your time, and make the meal as fun and pleasurable as possible!

For more of Leslie's insights on picky eaters in the Globe & Mail click here. This topic is not an easy one for many of us and it’s encouraging to have an expert’s input. Not knowing how to deal with a child who won’t eat can be extremely disheartening. We’d love to hear about your challenges and triumphs; please comment here or on our Facebook page. This week we’ll be giving away Ellyn Satter's acclaimed new book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family in our weekly FB prize draw. Stay tuned!

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