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6 Quick Tips to Deal with Your Child's Fussy Mealtime Behavior

Updated: Mar 3

A child looking away while someone holds a spoon of vegetables to him

Kids are prone to picky eating habits, and mealtime behavior can be one of the trickiest challenges that parents face.

According to a recent survey by the Boston University Food Behavior Lab, most parents struggle with mealtime behavior on a daily basis, often due to picky eating habits or general defiance when it comes to food.

Feeding behaviors can be exhausting for any parent who’s trying their best to accommodate their child’s needs! The good news is that you don’t have to continue feeling exhausted and frustrated.

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Here are some of my behavioral feeding tips to help you get through this trying time without losing your cool.

1. Plan ahead

As parents we often find ourselves in the middle of a mealtime fiasco feeling unprepared to deal with it. If we do a bit of planning and preparation, making sure to structure mealtime settings for success, we can better avoid power struggles with our picky eater and minimize the food time fallout.

To help kids be ready to come to the table to eat, try to keep regularly scheduled mealtimes and snacks. Be aware of kids filling up on drinks too close to mealtimes, as they will be less likely to be hungry, and even less likely to try something new.

It's really helpful to develop a mindset to manage eating as a behavior, having a plan ahead of time to deal with refusal and meltdowns, while avoiding power struggles with your picky eater.

We want to be careful not to force kids when it comes to eating and trying new foods because this only increases their resistance and promotes a negative relationship with mealtime and food in general.

2. Start Where You Are (And Where Your Child Is)

Give your picky eater only a very small portion of a new food to start, serving at least one of the same foods that the rest of the family is having.

Let him know that he can try the new food if he wants to, but at this point, the only expectation is to leave the new food on his plate or in his space.

This plan reduces anxiety and tantrums, and allows kids to get used to the new feeding changes. You can increase the expectations for tasting new foods (and eating amounts) after your picky eater has gotten comfortable with this step.

A cute little girl with pigtails eating healthy foods

3. Don’t take it personally when kids are fussy at mealtime

Kids don't usually become picky eaters overnight, and there are a number of reasons why they can be so selective with food. Remember, there are two things for sure that kids can and do attempt to control and those are toileting and eating!

No matter how big their reactions, it's not about us as parents. You as the parent are in charge of what you're serving, and your picky eater is in charge of what he chooses to eat from his place...IF he chooses, I may add.

It takes about 21 days to form a habit. That's three weeks of doing the same thing the same way. Stay the course with the feeding changes you are making for your family, while keeping your eye on the prize as you work to build a better eater.

4. Establish the habit of eating together as a family

Even though you can’t force your child to eat, you can establish the habit of eating together as a family.

Research shows that kids who eat meals with their parents and other family members are more likely to try new foods, and they tend to have a more positive relationship with food overall.

Eating together can also help you to better understand your child’s eating habits and eating pace.

We can set a good example by allowing our kids to see us enjoying a variety of healthy foods at mealtime. So try to eat meals together whenever you can, even if your child isn’t eating well, and strive to keep mealtime calm and pleasant while navigating picky eating.

A family eating dinner together

5. Use an incentive program

If your child is fussy at mealtime and just isn’t interested in eating, consider an incentive program. A reward system, like one you might have used when potty training, can work wonders when it comes to encouraging kids to try new foods.

Using a sticker chart with your child's favorite characters (you can even let him help pick out the stickers) is helpful for many kids. Adding fruit and veggie stickers to support the idea of healthy eating is even better!

Remember to start where your child. This means that if sitting at the table is a problem, you start there and reward him for good sitting, even if for only a short time. When that is no longer an issue, you can give a sticker for 'brave tasting' each new food.

Depending upon your child's age and level of understanding, you can attach each sticker reward to a 'bigger' reward.

For example, for each sticker earned, your child might get an extra story at bedtime or 10 more minutes on the iPad. To keep the momentum going, you can then go for a few days or a week of getting a sticker to then translate into a bigger prize like watching a special movie, choosing from the dollar store prize box, or whatever reasonable reward appeals to your child.

6. Keep Trying

Mealtime behavior can be a common part of childhood for many kids, but it can be really frustrating for parents.

These tips can help with gaining perspective and making some modifications to get through this trying time without losing your cool.

Problems at mealtime is often a phase that many young children go through. However, when kids continue to be picky and it feels like the strategies you're using just aren't enough, it's okay to reach out for some behavioral support.

Managing eating as a behavior in a loving yet matter-of-fact way, while maintaining patience, structuring and consistency, can go a long way to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.

Want more feeding coach tips to help your picky eater? Get the Build a Better Eater short eBook or paperback now on Amazon.

Build a Better Eater book for parents of picky eaters

All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.

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