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How to stop picky eating before it starts

Family of four eats together at dinner table.

/ by Dr. Rhya Strifling

Written by Dr. Rhya Strifling, a pediatrician at Kentucky Clinic South.

Now that the holidays are here, families are making plans to come together and celebrate the season. But for parents and caregivers, even the most joyous of family gatherings can be stressful when you're dealing with a picky eater.

But sometimes what parents think is picky eating isn't actually picky eating. Some parents might be under the impression that their kids are picky eaters if they don't eat much, but children ages 2 to 5 have a slower rate of growth and therefore have a smaller appetite.

It's normal for children to eat small amounts of food at one meal  sometimes just a few bites  and then a larger amount at a later meal or the next morning. They learn to regulate how much to eat and won't starve themselves. If they are growing well on their growth curves, don't worry about how much they are eating.

Keep mealtimes relaxed

The best way to prevent a child from becoming a picky eater is to make mealtimes enjoyable with a variety of small portions of healthy foods. Mealtimes should be relatively short, and children should not be made to "clean their plates." Some children will exert their independence by refusing to eat if you force them, punish them or bargain with them. The more you make them eat, the more they may begin to refuse.

Start by giving your child a variety of healthy food choices in small, tablespoon-sized portions, then relax and focus on your own meal. The less focus you put on what your kid eats, the better they will eat. If they say they don't like what you have prepared, tell them that's OK and give them the same food options as the rest of the family, then return to your own meal. They will either eat, or catch up on the next meal.

Encourage trying new foods

It can take a child 10 to 15 times of trying a new food before they realize they actually like it. Don't be afraid to try new foods, but don't get frustrated if they reject them. The best way to get children to try new foods is to eat them yourself. Be sure to give them lots of praise and encouragement for taking even the smallest bite of a new food.

To help children eat better at mealtimes, follow some of these tips:

  • Try to limit beverages prior to meals.
  • Schedule snack time instead of letting them "graze" throughout the day.
  • Serve as a role model because children learn to feed themselves by experimenting with new foods. 
  • Sit at the table as a family to demonstrate healthy eating choices and habits.

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