The picky eater

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Your child refuses to eat the meal you have prepared. He always wants to eat the same thing. How can you encourage him to taste?

What to do with a child who often refuses to eat?

It’s normal for a toddler not to like all foods, let alone the first time. That said, it is important to have a variety of foods in front of them.

It’s also important to offer several opportunities to learn about them, because it can take more than 20 meals before a child agrees to try a food. And that doesn’t mean he’ll like it right away. He may need more time to appreciate its texture and flavor.

Shared responsibility

According to the principle of shared responsibility developed by nutritionist Ellyn Satter, a specialist in child nutrition,

The adult is responsible for :

the menu, i.e., the foods served at the meal (what);
the meal and snack schedule (when)
where the family eats (where).

The child is responsible for :

how much food he eats (how much). He or she may even choose not to eat any of the food served, and that’s okay.
Sharing responsibility helps your child develop a taste for more foods over time, because it provides a reassuring framework for mealtime and respects the pace of discovery. In addition, sharing responsibilities helps you have more enjoyable meals together as a family, as you let your child eat without commenting on what he or she is eating or not eating.

Most children go through a period of food neophobia. They refuse new foods, and even some foods they used to like. If this is the case with your child, continue to apply the principle of shared responsibility. It’s the best way to get through this time.

The meal at the center of the table

Family that puts the meal at the center of the table

To help you follow the principle of shared responsibility, you can place all the food for the meal in the center of the table instead of preparing the plates in the kitchen. When all the food for the meal is on the table, your child gets used to the sight of it, and that’s the first step. Seeing these foods regularly and seeing others eat them will increase the likelihood that they will get used to them, take them and eventually like them.

If your child is having a meltdown and says he is hungry, but refuses the meal served, stay calm. Then explain that there are several different foods on the table and that they can choose from them.

If a child is only thinking about dessert, it’s a good idea to put the dessert on the table with the rest of the food. This way, they can eat their portion of dessert right away and then focus on the other foods.

Some tips for centerpiece meals:

Place all of the foods in the meal in the center of the table so your child can see what is available.
Always include one or two foods that your child already knows and likes.
If your child is 2 years old or younger, prepare his plate or place food on his highchair shelf, including a small amount of each food for the meal. Let your child eat whatever he or she wants from these choices.

If your child is 3 years old, invite him to serve himself by providing easy-to-use utensils and help him if needed. They can also show you what they want you to put on their plate.
From about age 4, let your child serve himself.
Don’t comment on what they do or don’t put on their plate.
Eat with your child and show that you appreciate the meal.

Is serving another meal a good idea?

To make sure their child eats something at mealtime, some parents are tempted to offer another meal, a bowl of cereal or peanut butter toast. But this is not a good idea.

While these solutions may solve the immediate problem, they are not recommended because they send the message that the child is right to refuse to try new things. This decreases the likelihood that the child will try new foods in the future.

The child should be satisfied with the food on the table. For this reason, the meal should include one or two foods that he likes so that he can still eat (e.g. cheese, rice, vegetables).

A regular schedule… and flexible

Based on the principle of shared responsibility, you, the parents, decide on the meal and snack schedule. This schedule adapts to your reality and to the appetite of the family members. You can change the mealtime by plus or minus 30 minutes to suit your needs for the day. But don’t put off mealtime too long, because the more time that passes, the more tired your child becomes, and tiredness affects appetite. Here are two things to consider about timing:
The snack should be far enough away from the meal to give your child time to develop hunger;
If your child is not hungry at the scheduled meal time, ask him/her to sit with you at the table and have a good time whether he/she eats or not.

Why do some children always want to eat the same thing?

It is normal for a child to be reluctant to eat, or even taste, certain foods.

It is normal for a child to prefer certain foods to others. Their favourite foods are usually the ones they know best, because they are reassuring to them. They don’t take any risks when they eat them: they know they will like them.

In order to like more and more foods as they get older, children need to have the opportunity to learn about many foods. It is the role of parents to vary their toddler’s menu to introduce him to new foods.

By regularly having new or less popular foods in front of them, children learn about them little by little. It is important to let your child learn about these new foods at his own pace without forcing him to eat.

If your child always wants to eat the same food (e.g. bread or pasta), remember that, according to the principle of shared responsibility, you are the one who decides on the menu. Bread or pasta may be a regular part of the meal, but don’t make the menu based on this preference. At mealtime, allow him to eat his favourite food, while teaching him to share. Explain that one member of the family can’t eat all the bread because others want it too.

How can you encourage your selective child to try new foods?

Invite your child to try each food, but don’t insist on it, as this may make them less willing to try it.

Offer only one new food at a time and always put at least one food on the table that your child likes.

Your child will be more likely to try a food if he sees that you like it too.

If they say they’ve tried it before, tell them they may not taste it the same way they did last time, because tastes change.

Set an example by eating the new food yourself with pleasure. Since you are his role model, he will want to follow your lead.

Don’t force him to taste it, as he will associate the food with a negative emotion. Feeling anxious or insecure at the table is counterproductive.

Cooking helps children learn about food

Don’t get angry, reproachful or negotiate for your child to eat a food. The most important thing is that your child develops a taste for a variety of foods. However, the chances of your child trying and enjoying new foods are very low if he or she associates mealtime with bickering and crying.

Involve your child in meal planning by letting him choose a meal. To guide him, you can have him choose between two options. However, the menu should not be based solely on his preferences. Whenever possible, take them to the grocery store and encourage them to prepare meals with you. Since he’ll be proud to have helped, he’ll be more likely to eat the food he’s helped prepare. Even toddlers as young as 2 or 3 can help out.

Here are some sample phrases to get your child to taste:

“Here are the foods we made for tonight. Put whatever you want on your plate to taste.”
“I really like this food. It’s crunchy and a little bit sweet.
“Grandma used to make it this way too when I was a kid, so it brings back good memories of making it myself.”

Examples of sentences to avoid include:

“I’m not happy because you didn’t eat your meat.”
“You won’t be able to leave the table until you’ve had the cauliflower.”

Why does a child refuse to eat?

There are many reasons why a child may refuse to eat. Sometimes it’s because they don’t like what’s on the menu, but other times it’s more about the context of the meal. It is therefore important to observe what is happening around the plate, and not only what is inside, to understand why a child refuses to eat.

Here are some possible explanations for your child’s refusal to eat:

His growth is slowing down.
He or she is not hungry.
He or she feels discomfort or pain.
He is upset.
He is not sitting comfortably.
He needs to move.
He is tired.
He is distracted or stimulated by something else
Feels pressure to eat
Wants to eat alone (seeking independence)
He is experiencing a period of food neophobia.
He or she has strong preferences for certain foods.

Your child may not be old enough to tell you how he or she feels, and probably doesn’t understand what’s going on. One thing is for sure, he is learning and needs your patience, consistency, trust and caring to develop his tastes. It’s normal to find this difficult, but make allowances for yourself. Your value as a parent is not about what your child eats or doesn’t eat.

Things to remember

Even if your child doesn’t like a food, offer it regularly so that they get used to it.

Don’t serve your child another meal if he or she doesn’t like the one you’ve planned.

Don’t force or insist that your child taste the food.

Show your child that you like what you are eating.

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