HEALTHY HABITS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY: Breaking Away from Picky Eating

At some point, the majority of parents have heard the same sentence: “I don’t like that.” Your child sees a new food on their plate that they’ve never tried before, but they’ve already decided they don’t like it. This is a frustrating, common experience.

Feeding kids a healthy diet is an enormous responsibility for busy parents. On top of picky eaters, we must also contend with the financial burden of serving nutritious meals. Listed below are some tips for making the job a little easier:

COOK TOGETHER. This tidbit may seem overly-obvious, but the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that letting children participate in meal preparation will help them be more willing to try a variety of foods. Contributing to the process and appreciating the work involved can give them a sense of pride in the food by the time it hits the table, and new foods become less intimidating as they smell, touch, and learn about them before it’s time to eat. They might also enjoy…

MEAL PLANNING. Thinking ahead really benefits the whole family. You can purchase groceries mindfully, knowing how you’ll use them, and set a schedule of healthy meals and treats. If you plan to have pizza on Friday night, have a constructive conversation about what to eat for the rest of the week: “I’m looking forward to pizza too! But let’s plan a couple healthier dinners to have before then so our bodies get everything they need.”

TRY NEW FOODS TOGETHER. We get it. Even if you enjoy cooking, it can feel like a pain sometimes. All that work, from grocery shopping to washing up, means we often end up with a limited repertoire of tried-and-true dinners. Rising food prices can also make you (understandably) less inclined to purchase new ingredients, risking that they won’t get eaten. If you find yourself in a rut, ask for your children’s input. You can look through a cookbook or website for ideas together, or ask if there are any foods they’re curious about. This is a great opportunity to cook together as suggested above. Even if it’s not a new favorite, everyone is learning in the process.

DEMONSTRATE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE. All of us are constantly exposed to body image “ideals.” Historically impractical, these standards have become ridiculous as technology makes it easy for anyone to distort reality. Combined with the normal physical changes of puberty, kids don’t need more negative exposure.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen more patients struggling with eating disorders since the pandemic started,” says Dr. Patrick Hynes at Prospect Pediatrics. “Both restrictive and binge eating are dangerous for long-term health, but food can sometimes feel like the only thing a young person can control. We’re not suggesting that parents are solely to blame for these issues, but you can set a good example with positive self-talk and rational approaches to food.”

Strive to never comment on someone else’s body, good or bad, around your developing child. Just as importantly, don’t speak badly about yourself. It’s easy to say, “I need to lose some weight” in the comfort of your own home, but try to rephrase with a solution in mind: “That pasta was delicious, but I’m feeling sluggish today. I think a salad with dinner tonight will help me get back some energy.” Words like this make it clear that your body is not the problem.

AVOID A PUNISHMENT AND REWARD MENTALITY. It’s the oldest trick in the book. “Eat your dinner so you can have dessert.” It’s so tempting to use this approach if it gets the job done, but it can create a domino effect of kids expecting dessert any time they clear their plate. Worse, it establishes healthy foods and sugary foods as opposites—bad followed by good. But eating a balanced diet is not a punishment, it’s a privilege. Enjoy dessert as the occasional treat it is, not tied to any other task.

As you work toward good family habits, remember that no parent is perfect. Preparing one healthy meal a week is better than zero, and supporting healthy body image means being kind to yourself too. Feeding kids is one big job on the list of big jobs to manage, and your pediatrician understands as well as anyone. They’re ready to listen to your concerns with compassion, sensitivity, and experience.