Family Meals & The Picky Eater
The Picky Period
Kids tend to reach a pinnacle of pickiness around age 2 and this period can last till the age of 5 or 6. A previously adventurous-with-food toddler can go from eating a bowl of broccoli to not wanting to touch anything green! Couple this normal food neophobia with the erratic appetite of little kids and this developmental phase can really throw parents for a loop. The natural response of most parents tends to go in one of two extremes:
— Giving up: catering to the whims of their child(ren) and short-order cooking. All in the name of getting their child to eat something.
— Over Controlling: Coercion, bribes, games, and threats in the name of good nutrition.
Using Family Meals with Picky Eaters
Without being controlling or making separate meals for the picky one, parents can use family meals as a long term strategy to help children grow in their food acceptance. It’s not an overnight miracle, but a healthy, pressure-free way to expand a little one’s tastes.
Family Style Service
To the right is a photo of a family meal served ‘family style.’ Notice how all the food is set on the table where everyone can see it. There is an entree and a few sides, including an easy to eat starch, a food group which is generally acceptable to most children.
Meal planning so that at least one or two of the foods on the table is acceptable to children is essential. Cooking a separate meal for the ‘picky’ child sends the wrong message: you are picky and you can’t be expected to learn to like our family food. Conversely, nothing can make a child feel more anxious and spoil an appetite faster than seeing a table full of ‘weird’ foods (weird is in the eye of the beholder). An acceptable food doesn’t compete with the other foods, but is served with the meal as a choice for everybody. In the photo above the easy starch option is dinner rolls.
Family Style Service Gives Appropriate Autonomy
Good feeding involves striking the right balance of taking leadership and giving autonomy. Selecting food, preparing food and setting mealtimes is a parent’s job. That is the best way for parents to take leadership with feeding. But once the food is on the table, how much and whether to eat should be in the child’s control. This is why I practice ‘family style service’ in my household and why I teach it to my patients’ parents.
Family Style Service means starting with empty plates for everyone at the table and letting each person serve themselves from the selections on the table. Very young children will need assistance, but even 2 year olds can begin helping themselves with some foods. Kids can watch and imitate the adults around them to begin learning table manners.
Below is a recent ‘salad bar buffet’ I served for lunch (along with cheese quesadillas). Instead of putting the salad together myself and dressing it, I experimented with separating all the parts so my children could create their own salad. My kids (2.5 and 4) loved that they could choose their own salad components.
I passed each dish to my 2.5 year old and let him take what he wanted or turn down the offering. Below, you can see my 2 year old grabbing his own lettuce. He actually didn’t eat any of it, but enjoyed the other vegetables. And putting the lettuce on his own plate is a step toward his future enjoyment of it!
*Normally I would have serving utensils out, but everything was in the dishwasher and since it was just me and the kids for lunch and they had just washed their hands…I let them use their fingers 😉
Family Meals Work!
While family meals aren’t ‘magic’ in the sense of turning picky eaters into adventurous ones overnight, they support a child’s normal drive to grow and to learn to eat what the family eats. When parents are worried over their child’s eating today, it’s hard to think about the future. But I encourage all parents to think about their child’s eating in the long term; learning to be competent with their choices and follow internal cues on hunger and satiety.
I want my kids to feel positive about food and eating, to value the habit of meals (rather than eating on the fly), to eat the foods our family eats, to be able to stop eating when they are full, and to trust themselves with eating. For such a long term goal, pressure and coercion won’t work. Serving special meals to the picky child won’t work. But family meals do work!