By Emily Schiller, R.D.N.
Do you have a picky eater on your hands? I feel your pain. Until very recently, I had two, very stubborn and particular eaters. Mealtime became a dreaded occasion. While I know it’s a common phase pre-schoolers tend to outgrow, the pain of the food fights clouded any end in sight. Even with my nutrition background and experience, I struggled through this phase with my littles, but I want to share five mindful eating approaches that worked for me to help my family win back mealtime pleasure.
When my oldest was still a baby, I often heard about picky eating stories from friends. In all honesty, I figured this phase would be one I could easily outsmart with my nutrition background. After all, when my oldest son was a toddler, he literally cried to eat avocado instead of a sweet doughnut treat and he put my vegetable eating to shame. So you can imagine my ego burst when he refused to eat most of these favorite foods when we was about three. Every meal consisted of butter, bread and not much else.
I felt like a registered dietitian misfit. Not only did I worry about the lack of variety and color my kid consumed, but all mealtimes warped into unpleasant food fights. I tried so hard to create a mindful eating utopia and do all the “right” things, but I often found myself tired, frustrated and ready to toss in the family mealtime towel.
What is Mindful Eating?
The intention of mindful eating is to “help create a positive, healthy relationship with food and eating,” according to mindful eating expert and registered dietitian nutritionist Megrette Fletcher, M.ed., R.D., C.D.E. She notes that mindful eating encompasses these behaviors:
- Awareness of the positive and nurturing opportunities that come from food selection and preparation.
- Use of senses to select food that is satisfying and nourishing.
- Acknowledge your response to food without judgement.
- Awareness of your physical hunger and fullness cues to help guide your eating and ending decisions. (Source: Discover Mindful Eating for Kids)
Preparing meals for my little ones at the height of their food fights felt like the polar opposite of a positive and nurturing atmosphere I aimed to create! Yet, once I was able to step away from our mealtime meltdowns and think about the micro-goals I wished for our family around the table, I started to approach things differently.
Five Mindful Eating Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters
Over the years and to this day, I continue to use new and different approaches every day to help my kids get involved with all aspects of preparing, cooking and enjoying our food. Here are five of these simple approaches that have helped me win back mealtime joy with my kids:
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (and again…and again…) Did you know it may take up to 50 exposures for a child to like a new food!? According to childhood nutrition expert and registered dietitian nutritionist Jill Castle, M.S., R.D.N. it can “take 8 to 15 to perhaps even 50 repeated exposures (without pressure to eat)” before your little one may accept a new food. This takes perseverance, my friend. The encouraging news is that an “exposure” isn’t limited to actually tasting a new food, but simply seeing it and being around it. Exposures include:
- Pointing out the new food at the grocery store
- You washing and slicing the new food
- A bowl of the new food out on the counter or table (if possible)
- Reading about the new food in a magazine, book or online together
- Coloring a picture of the new food
Here’s my most recent real-life success story with my daughter, Sloane. After years of broccoli exposure, she happily (and without encouragement) ate and loved a broccoli soup and roasted broccoli in the same week. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
Tip: If you want help to actually keep track of the new foods you offer your kiddo, Diana K. Rice, R.D., The Baby Steps Dietitian, created this handy Food Exposure Chart.
Become a food explorer. At mealtimes, I ask my kids to act like “food explorers” which means they can smell, lick or touch their new food if they don’t want to actually taste and chew it. It’s an opportunity to see how the food makes them feel and talk about the different senses they experience. How did it feel on their tongue? What did it smell like? Touch the food, is it smooth or bumpy? Is the new food crunchy? Try a “crunch contest” and take turns to see who can make the loudest crunch sound. Mindful eating expert Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., R.D., C.D.E. recommends this game as a fun group effort that encourages creativity and positivity – all “contestants” are praised for their crunch efforts. This approach naturally helps us take our time eating, chewing, savoring and thinking about the food on our plates as well as helps to drum up fun (and maybe silly) dinnertime chatter.
Serve it up family-style. When I give my kids the power to choose their sides at the table I’ve found they always choose a variety and eat more nutritious options. My favorite way to do this is with an oatmeal bar or for our Taco Tuesday fare. For these meals, I serve a selection of colorful toppings in a large tray served family-style on the table. Without fail, they pile their oatmeal bowls or taco shells with a variety of fruit or veggies. And the science backs me up here. A study from my alma mater, Penn State University, found that serving a variety of fruits and veggies as a snack to pre-schoolers caused them to eat more. More than 90 percent (94%) of 3- to 5-year-olds took pieces of fruit or veggies when offered a selection of three to choose from in a family-style setting compared to 70 percent when given only one kind of produce.
Create a “Taste Plate.” Registered dietitian nutritionist, Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., R.D., is also a mom, family nutrition expert and pro blogger for Real Mom Nutrition, and she created the “Taste Plate” as a simple approach to help encourage kids to try new foods without the stress. What is it? Sally recommends a small dish that sits next to your main dinner plate with very small portions of the new food you’d like your kids to try. The key is to let your kids decide if and how much they want to try and for the freedom to spit out food they don’t like.
Team work makes the dream work. I get my kids involved in all aspects of mealtime preparation and I believe it’s been the key to winning back our mealtime delight. These are all the simple ways I get my kids involved:
- At the grocery store: We’ll play a food version of eye spy while we scoop up the items on our list. I’ll have my kids help me select the produce and we talk about how it feels and smells. They get to choose a new fruit or vegetable to buy that we’ll look up and talk about at home.
- In the kitchen: As my kids get older, they get more hands-on with cooking and baking. When they were about three, they would help by retrieving small items from the refrigerator (from low and open drawers) and using their hands and a spoon to add and stir ingredients (with assistance). Now that they are older, they often choose a new recipe they’d like to try and are involved in more steps of the recipe process such as washing the produce, tearing leafs, combining ingredients and helping to plate the finished recipe. (Tip: A new kid-friendly cookbook we use almost daily is America’s Test Kitchen’s My First Cookbook)
- At the table: The kids will help set the table (even if I have to re-do some of it!). Sometimes they’ll make a “restaurant” sign or menu featuring the recipes or new food we plan to eat. This is also a great way to keep them busy and occupied while I finish up with dinner prep.
I believe all of these approaches help my kids try more new foods with enjoyment and helped us survive their pre-school picky eating phase. But, every day and each meal occassion is different, and I’m ok with knowing that sometimes mealtime calls for some delicious buttered bread and not much else. 🙂
Do you have a picky eater in your home? How do you find mealtime peace of mind?
Credible and science-based resources for more tips and advice:
“Tips for Picky Eaters” by USDA ChooseMyPlate.gov
“The Nourished Child” blog by Jill Castle, M.S., R.D, childhood nutrition expert
“The 6 Types of Picky Eater – And How to Get Them to Eat” – by Stephanie Wood for Parents.com
“8 Ways to Get Picky Eaters to Become More Adventurous” by Holly Larson, M.S., R.D.
“Explore Produce with Kids” by Beth Fontenot, M.S., R.D., L.D.N
Disclaimer: I am a registered dietitian nutritionist, but the content in this post and on this blog is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute as medical advice. Please contact your physician, dietitian or other health professional for specific concerns and individual counsel.