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7 Eating Behavior Basics for Parents of Picky Eaters

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

A little girl sitting at the table staring at her bowl of food

Parents of picky eaters unite! When our kids have selective palates, the first place to start is with our mindsets.

To be clear, if we want to improve eating behavior for our picky eater kids, we have to look at eating itself AS a behavior.

What this means, is that even if the picky eating started out as part of our kid's strong-willed temperament, or maybe as a result of sensory sensitivities, our kids will develop a behavioral approach to how (and what) they eat.

When it comes to eating behavior, we need to see and manage it as an important part of the daily routine.

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Here are some important tips that can help to encourage healthy eating behavior in a positive way to help you build a better eater.

1. Be prepared and have a plan to deal with eating behavior.

If you have a picky eater at home, being prepared is half the battle. A little bit of planning when it comes to meals and snacks goes a long way. When we get into the regular routine of doing some simple meal planning and prep, we save time and energy, and can serve quick and healthy meals at regular times.

Along with meal planning, have a plan to tackle mid-day munchies. When it comes to snacks, stock your pantry and fridge with foods that you want your kids to choose from. This way, they won't fill up on junk food before meals and will learn about healthy eating for a healthy body.

2. Structure settings for success with consistent eating routines.

Try to set regular meal and snack times. Kids do best with structure and having structure when it comes to feeding will only help with transforming your picky eater.

Family schedules sure can be hectic, but try to eat together as much as possible. Studies show that family mealtime is the most pivotal time for kids to accept new foods. Serving new foods when the family is sitting together can only help with your long-term feeding goals for your child.

A mother and her daughter preparing food together in the kitchen

3. Encourage healthy eating while avoiding power struggles.

Plan to be matter-of-fact when it comes to preparing and dishing out foods, and try to limit the discussion that can quickly turn into a "What's for dinner?" debate.

Give kids positive reinforcement for going along with the program, while avoiding punishing for not eating. Verbal praise, hugs, sticker charts, a homemade prize box, or other favorite incentives can help kids when it comes to a new feeding plan. Try using fun feeding plates to make mealtime more enjoyable for your child. Do try to manage any difficult behaviors that come up with the eating plan the same as you would in other situations.

Be careful to not force feed kids as this will take you further away from your goal. While it's okay to prepare foods with healthy add-ins or 'sneaky recipes', overall be honest when kids ask about the food. We want our kids to trust us when it comes to eating to help them develop a healthy relationship with food.

4. Define mealtime table rules.

Basically, you choose what to serve, and the kids choose how much and what to eat from the available choices on their plates. When it comes to behavior, you might explain that if they leave the table, there will be no food until later in the evening. Then, when they do want a night snack, they can either choose from two healthy snacks that you offer them, or they can eat some of their leftover dinner before having their favorite snacks.

As frustrating as it may be, try not to get angry, while standing your ground. Also, it's important to refrain from directly rewarding kids with treats if they eat the healthy food. We want to be sure we don't teach that the food value of a treat is higher than that of a healthy food.

5. Use your creativity.

Try some creative feeding techniques. This doesn't have to be too time-consuming, but kids respond well to presentation and let's try to teach them that food can be fun!

Think about dressing up a burger or pancake with a veggie or fruit face, using a silly straw in a 'Power Shake' (smoothie), making fun place settings, or using favorite character names when it comes to prepared food dishes.

6. Teach kids about healthy eating.

Along with our kids seeing healthy foods on their plates, use healthy eating books, Apps, and websites to help kids realize these healthy foods are all around them. When things become more familiar to us in our daily routines, we are generally at a better place to accept them.

Try to teach kids about the difference between having healthy snacks and 'sometimes treats' when it comes to eating. Plant some veggies together in planter boxes or a garden. Get kids involved in the kitchen. Even young children can help you with steps to prepare snacks and meals.

7. Stay the course...consistency is key

When it comes to raising brave tasters and building better eaters, remain confident and consistent. Be patient, positive and persistent. Try not to worry. If you're concerned about weight or other nutrition-related concerns, talk with your qualified healthcare professional.

Picky eaters didn't get this way overnight, so it can take some time to adapt to new feeding routines and expectations. The healthy habits you create will likely stay with them, so trust yourself and keep trying!

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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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