The Talbot Centre

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How parents can help set family meal habits to reduce picky eating

I am often asked by parents with children who are picky or fussy eaters, how they can get their child to eat more.

My answer… there is no magic bullet or easy solution. Any change in your child’s eating habits comes from hard work. Your child’s fussy eating behaviour has developed over a long period of time, since their first experiences with eating. So when parents of a child who is a fussy eater want change in their child’s behaviour I ask them whether they are ready to make some changes as well.

The development of eating habits

Eating behaviour is a habit and, like most habits, can be hard to break. We actually need most of the habits we have. We go through most of our days engaging in good habits, routines and activities. If we didn’t, everything we did every day would be something we’d have to think about. Instead, we’re wired to learn and put in place activities that sustain us without giving them a moment’s thought.

Eating is a habit too. Some of our habits developed because we had good experiences with eating and some developed due to negative experiences with food.

The function of eating habits

All habits have a function. If a child had reflux, they learned that eating made them feel worse, so they limited what they ate to food that caused the least amount of reflux. A habit was formed and might have stuck around even after the reflux was gone. The function of not eating was reducing pain.

Learning new eating habits

We now have to learn new habits and help teach our children new habits as well.
Sitting together and talking about the foods are two habits that can help reduce the stress of mealtimes. Once there is less stress at mealtimes then we can look at how to change the variety of foods eaten.

Eat as a family

A useful habit (but a difficult one on a practical level) is eating together as a family. We are all crunched for time, we run our kids from activity to activity. But eating together builds connection and lets our children see how we eat and how we approach new foods as well as foods we don’t like. Start small, maybe one or two nights a week you could sit together as a family to eat.

Focus on the food

When you are eating together turn off your phone or turn it to silent. Allow the meal time to be about family and food. Turn off the distractions in the background: the TV, the radio. Turn your focus to the food.
Create a habit of talking about all the food on the table. Even if it is food your child doesn’t want to eat. We have to get your child to engage with the food before they will ever eat it. Talking about the colour, shape, size, feel of the food helps to reduce the stress in having foods in front of them that they don’t want to eat.