Do you dread dinner time? Do you spend an hour making a decent meal, one that you’re going to enjoy, and then your kids sit down and whine and play with their food and make everyone miserable? Today let’s talk about how to deal with picky eaters!
When my kids were little one of my daughters decided that anything that looked like an herb was obviously poison. So if anything had any parsley, or basil, or flecks of anything at all–meaning that if anything had any actual taste–she would refuse to eat it. It was quite the battle.
We finally won it by instituting the “Rice and Beans” rule (elaborated below), but I thought today I’d take off my Marriage Hat (since I usually talk about marriage on this blog), and I’d don my Parenting Hat and give us some tips on how to deal with picky eaters.
1. Distract Picky Eaters by Making Dinner Fun
You’re at a dinner party with food you’re not totally sure of. It looks like something foreign. You want to eat it and keep smiling, but all around you people are talking about something you have no interest or knowledge of. You feel left out. You’re wondering how much longer you have to sit there for, and how long before you can politely excuse yourself. You’re definitely not enjoying the meal.
What was the main problem? Was it the food, or the conversation? I know for me the problem would be the conversation. I can eat food I don’t particularly like if I’m having fun with those around me. But if I’m miserable to begin with, the food’s going to seem even worse.
I think we do the same thing to kids. We sit at the dinner table, but then the conversation is one of two things: it’s either us talking to our husbands, or it’s us yelling at the kids to eat or getting up from the table to fetch something they need. We’re not actually engaging them in conversation!
And I’m a big believer that the most effective discipline is to stop the bad behaviour before it has the chance to start–simply by engaging kids.
Dinner time is not couple time. Talk with your husband at another time. At dinner, involve the kids!
Once kids are 3 1/2 or so, they can participate in dinner time conversations. So here are some quick ideas:
2. Get a game of “conversation starters” and use a different one each meal.
3. Memorize some Bible verses (I’ve got a list of the 50 Best Bible Verses to memorize here, along with some cards you can download).
4. Talk about nutrition and money–what food groups are here? What’s in each food group? How much did this meal cost to make? These are all great things for kids to learn!
5. Go around the table and play the Hi-Lo game: name the highpoint of your day, and the low-point of your day. Especially good for involving all family members, even the little ones!
6. Or you can do a different kind of game–like choose a utensil. Everyone uses chopsticks for one meal, or everyone gets an odd thing to eat with, like a spatula, a whisk, or an ice cream scooper. Or once a week you can have “backwards day” where everybody wears their clothes backwards to dinner. I wouldn’t do this every night, but periodically do something special that makes everyone laugh.
When we talk at the dinner table, then dinner becomes more fun, and kids are more likely to want to be there! Make sure you eat dinner at a table, too, so that it’s an event. Make the table pretty. You may think it doesn’t matter with little kids, but kids see when something is special. Treat dinner like it’s something special, and even picky eaters will start to feel that way, too.
2. Involve Picky Eaters in the Set Up–and the Meal Planning
Have your kids set the table. Leave it to them to make it pretty. You can ask them to make a centerpiece earlier in the day. It can be their job to fold napkins–any way they want! This way your picky eaters can start anticipating dinner and taking pride in it.
And if you plan your meals the week before, you can ask for their input. Even name a day for each person, like “Mommy’s Day” and “Brian’s Day” and “Katelyn’s Day”. That way everybody has their day of the week where they’ve chosen the meal. On that person’s day, make them feel special. Pray for them especially at the meal. Talk about what you love about that person. And the deal is: if we honor Brian on Brian’s Day, then we have to honor Mommy on Mommy’s Day, too.
3. Give VERY small portions of everything to Picky Eaters.
Okay, we’ve set the stage for them to look forward to dinner. Now let’s talk about what to do about getting them to eat the actual food!
When you put the food on plates, give extremely small portions of everything–the minimum that you would accept them eating of everything. So if they love mashed potatoes, but hate carrots and meat, put the minimum amount of everything, including the mashed potatoes.
Then if he wants more of any one thing he can have it, but this is the minimum that he has to eat. That way it’s not overwhelming.
4. If a Picky Eater Whines, give a warning.
Tell the child firmly, but without yelling, “you cannot whine at the dinner table. You need to eat your food. If you choose to whine, you’ll have to get down from the dinner table and sit in time out until the rest of us are finished.”
5. If he whines again, have him sit in a time out, away from toys, until the rest of the family has finished.
Don’t let him just go to his room, or he’ll see it as an escape. I whine, I get to go play! Instead, have him sit in a time out where he can see you having fun, but he isn’t participating. If he wants to come back up and eat his food that’s fine, but no whining.
Most likely a child won’t sit nicely in a time out. You may have to physically get up and keep returning the child to the time out, or take away another privilege, like a toy or something. But speak firmly without yelling, and let the child know you mean business. This is far harder the first two or three times than subsequent times. So stick it out!
6. Keep his plate in the fridge. If he gets hungry later, reheat it.
Don’t give the child any other snacks. Some pediatricians even recommend saving the food for breakfast, though I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. But they have to learn to eat what you serve, especially since you’re only putting out a very small amount of everything–like three small bites of everything. No overwhelming the child!
7. Offer Picky Eaters a Once-A-Week “Out”
I’d suggest keeping hot dogs or something easy in the house so that once a week the child can choose to have an “out”–but only once a week. That way, if the child doesn’t like what tonight’s dinner is, he or she has to decide whether it’s likely that something else later this week will be served that he or she hates even more.
8. Africa Week Cures Many Picky Eaters
When we were in Africa on missions trips, the girls quickly learned that most people have beans and rice 3 meals a day. Actually, most people eat something closer to a maize meal, and beans and rice were actually a luxury. But the point is, in most areas of the world, people eat the same thing every meal of the day. There is very little variety.
So when our kids got really whiny, we threatened Africa Week, where all we would eat, three meals a day for a week, was beans and rice. We never had to follow through; they got the picture. But it’s always good to remind kids that we are fortunate to have variety!
The good news is that kids do eventually outgrow this. Very few kids end up leaving for college eating nothing but spaghetti noodles. Both my girls now eat lots of foods, including sushi, Indian food, and anything that’s normally thought of as “British”. They even eat parsley! So you just have to get through those whiny years, and you will one day enjoy a wonderful family meal around the table–with no one whining or falling out of chairs or spilling their milk.
What about you? How do you deal with picky eaters? Let me know!