We know a lot about picky eating. What it is. When to get help. And, even, how to prevent it. We even know the genetic tendencies behind picky eating and the environmental adjustments you can make to change the outcome.
One thing that keeps coming up in my conversations with parents is regret. Not the “oh I screwed up” regret. Instead, the “I wish I would have known that” regret.
Maybe you feel that, too, on some level. If you had known xyz, things with your picky eater might be different today.
If you could dial back the clock and prevent picky eating, what would you do differently? Would you be more adventurous with your food offerings? Would you stay on an even keel when your baby rejected food? Or, would you have brought your baby to the meal table earlier?
I’ve compiled some of the evidence for preventing picky eating that will help you stay ahead of — and even prevent — picky eating in your baby or young toddler. These small actions set young children up for successful eating, while minimizing their pickiness.
12 WAYS TO PREVENT PICKY EATING IN YOUNG CHILDREN
START FINGER FOODS BY 8 MONTHS OF AGE
Most babies are ready for the transition to more complex textures and self-feeding by this time. Delaying this transition can lead to delays in fine motor skills, limit food variety, and may be associated with feeding problems later on.
HOLD OFF ON SWEETS UNTIL AGE 2 YEARS
Sweets early in life can crowd out important nutrients and food variety, making critical nutrition scarce. They can also shape a baby’s taste buds, solidifying the innate preference for sweets. If you do allow them, make sure it’s on an infrequent basis.
KEEP MILK DRINKING IN CHECK
Too much milk of any type can contribute to iron deficiency and imbalanced nutrition. Although milk is an important component to a healthy diet, as your baby transitions away from formula or breast milk, target twenty-four ounces, or 2 cups, per day as the recommended amount.
FOLLOW RESPONSIVE FEEDING PRACTICES
Responsive feeding is the ability to read your child’s feeding cues (hunger or fullness) and respond appropriately. Specifically, when your baby is hungry, feed him; and when he is full, stop feeding him. Responsive feeding sets the foundation for appetite regulation and healthy, mindful eating.
OFFER SPICY FOODS, EXOTIC CUISINES, AND COLORFUL PRESENTATIONS
As soon as your child starts eating food and transitioning through the first year of eating, be sure to be adventurous with flavors and how you serve food. Vary the shape, size, and method of preparation so your child becomes comfortable with eating a wide variety of foods.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
Even if your baby or young toddler rejects the food you offer, you still want to keep offering them over time. Research suggests repeated exposure (some note that 8 subsequent offerings of a rejected food is ideal) increases the likelihood a child will taste and eat previously rejected foods, as long as the meal environment is pleasant. In other words, don’t give up offering the foods your child has refused.
TARGET FOOD GROUP VARIETY
Aim for at least 10-15 different foods from each food group by age 12 months. Make a list of the foods from each food group you’d like to see your child eating, such as apple, banana, strawberry, peach, etc. from the fruit group. Variety within and between food groups is key to a wide palate and accumulating more food options down the road.
ADOPT A FAMILY FOOD AND FEEDING SCHEDULE
By the time your baby is one year old, he should be eating your family food with you at the table. If your baby is in a high chair, pull it up to the table. Chop up the foods you are serving the family so it is developmentally-appropriate for your baby. Transition your young toddler to three regular meals and three snacks daily.
AVOID MEALTIME DISTRACTIONS
No toys, no TV, no games to get your child to eat. Focus on having good old-fashioned person-to-person conversation and interaction. Your child will eat if he’s hungry, and if not, he will learn how to be social at the table.
TAKE NOTE OF FOOD PREFERENCES, BUT DON’T CATER
Catering – or short-order cooking — encourages more picky eating and a lower likelihood of trying new food. Instead of catering exclusively to what your child will eat, plan the meal with nutrition, variety, and balance in mind, while including one or two food items you know your child enjoys eating.
FOOD REJECTION? DON’T REACT
Rejection is part of the feeding game, especially as your baby grows into a toddler. If you react emotionally – with frustration, anger or sadness – your young child may get a charge from your response, and attempt to elicit the same response again. Young toddlers, especially, are experimenting with cause and effect at this age. Understand that exploration, acceptance and rejection go hand in hand when on the feeding journey. Enjoy the process of feeding and watching your child learn about food.
Jill Castle is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a childhood nutrition expert. She’s the author of The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. You can find more information about Jill on her website, listen to her podcast, The Nourished Child, and check out her many nutrition resources for parents.