I’m grateful I can say that my three-year old son is not a picky eater. Guacamole is his favorite food. He also requests a lettuce salad for lunch more often than I find normal to want lettuce salad. Linguini and clams is a family favorite dish and our son scarfs down multiple helpings whenever I make it. California rolls, calamari, broccoli, samosas, quinoa, hummus, goat cheese, empanadas, beans, mushrooms, blackberries: he eats them all!
People often are surprised to learn the types of food our child will eat, asking, “Your kid eats what?” And, to be honest, I think we mostly got lucky; our son doesn’t have food allergies or any medical eating flaws requiring therapy. But there are a few intentional decisions my husband and I made early on which I think made a difference in our child’s eating habits.
Provide Consistent Expectations
The expectations at my house are pretty simple. The first rule is everyone needs to take one bite of everything in front of them before they may be excused. If our child wants to engage in a battle of wills and refuses to try a bite of something, the alternative is going to his bedroom until the meal is over. So far in his toddler years, this has not been an alternative he chooses.
But since we prefer positive reinforcement, the second rule is after dinner dessert is not automatic. We offer a snack-sized treat after dinner if he eats most of, or everything, on his plate. There are times after the first bite when our child decides he doesn’t want to keep eating something. We remind him that he won’t earn a treat, but that it is his choice. Sometimes he will then decide the treat is worth it; other times he decides to pass on the treat for the night. For breakfast and lunch, we offer the incentive of a fun activity or privilege after the meal that can be earned with good mealtime choices.
Allow Personal Preferences
Even though he must try one bite of everything at each meal, he does not need to finish everything. We felt this was a good balance between setting rules, but understanding that not everyone likes the same foods. Even though our kid is not a picky eater, he still has preferences.
For example, for some reason beyond my understanding, my son is a picky eater when it comes to potatoes. He eats them mashed or as fries, but other than that he simply dislikes them. I still make potatoes as a side dish regularly, but not as often as my husband or I would like. But, when they are on the menu our kiddo needs to take one bite of the potatoes, just like everything else, and then he may choose not to finish them.
No Separate Meals
We make one meal at our house at each mealtime and that’s it. When we go out to eat, our child may select something of his own, like anyone else. But our home is not a restaurant and we offer only one selection.
When I try a new recipe and I am unsure if our kiddo will like it, I am sure to offer one or two side dishes I know he will eat so he doesn’t leave the meal hungry. This is a great time to feature their favorite fruit or vegetable, or the kid favorite: noodles!
Get Your Picky Eater Involved
Our son’s favorite outing of the week is to the grocery store. We talk about all the different food up and down the aisles each week and have fun picking out something new to try at home. We also have a small, urban garden we use as a learning opportunity to get him excited about healthy food.
Our son also helps us with meal prep. It takes a bit more time (and a good deal of patience!), but it is great way to create some excitement about a new recipe or food.
Exposure and Variety
I meal plan with budget, diet, and variety in mind. We always choose seasonal fruits and veggies during the week, with canned and frozen as backup options for in between trips to the store. Choosing what’s in season is a great way to ensure you expose your child to a variety of foods.
Another way I incorporate variety is in the protein. Each week I try to have one vegetarian meal, one seafood meal, one beef meal, one poultry meal, and one pork meal. I also try to have at least one meal inspired by an ethnic cuisine.
We also enjoy taking our kiddo out to eat at different types of restaurants. More recently, we have ordered takeout and stopped at food trucks to add some variety into our week.
Model the Behavior You Want to See
Honestly, I think the biggest factor in our son’s openness to food is that my husband and I are both not a picky eater. In addition, for the first two years of our child’s life, his uncle, who is a chef, lived with us. With a live-in chef, he was treated to all sorts of experimental meals at an early age. And he first started requesting lettuce salad for lunch after watching his summer nanny eat lettuce salad several times a week.
The influential adults around our son eat a variety of foods. So for him, it is normal to eat a variety of foods.
We absolutely order pizza and have mac and cheese from a box at least once a week, and sometimes we make frozen fish fillets or chicken nuggets.
My husband and I got lucky that we don’t have a super picky eater. But what luck didn’t cover, I think our choices as parents really sealed the deal. We did some research, learned from friends and family, and found what worked for us. With a little luck, maybe some of these tips will work for you, too!