As the owner of Austin Kids Retreat, Austin’s top childcare center, I get to hear and see it all! Many of our preschoolers and drop-in childcare visitors come into our facility with not only excitement to play – but a list of behaviors that are unique to each child. No problem, being in the child development field for 20+ years I’ve learned to take it all in stride and more than likely – have been there and done that before! 

One of the more common specific instructions our drop-in childcare parents leave for us is how their child eats. Whether it’s a particular snack at a certain time, or an item they will ONLY eat with ONLY a certain condiment, these are the most often left and specific instructions! Now, as we serve meals and are allergy-friendly/aware as a nut-free facility, we take all food instructions very seriously and are HAPPY to make accommodations for our sweet kids! 

But while we are happy to hear your list of instructions, what I also often hear is a list of complaints from parents who begrudgingly complain about how “it’s so hard to get my child to actually eat at mealtime so don’t be surprised if he skips lunch”, “she’s so picky about her lunch it’s hard to pack”, or “I would love to just be able to buy lunch but she only eats this brand of that product”. 

So in an effort to not just be a facility that takes on your children and respects your rules, I would love to take some time to offer some friendly words of wisdom I’ve seen work time and time again in my years as a child caretaker on how to eliminate these common “picky eater” problems. We are here to help in any way we can – including offering tips that might help you even a little bit, therefore making life easier! 

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Now some preface, a lot of these first tips actually stem from one book. 

French Kids Eat Everything is a great parenting book that really highlights some of the common behavioral differences between the children of each culture – just because the norm there is different than the norm here. And therefore, we don’t even think how we are treating food is different or even possibly…wrong. 

I recommend reading the whole book for really in-depth points and anecdotes on how these methods will work and revolutionize your child’s diet. But if you’re like me and find it hard to have the time to read a whole parenting book on top of your already busy parenting schedule, read this blog post! 

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FIRST. Let’s address how we as parents think about food.

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The French Approach to Eating that Will Change How You Think About Food

  1. Food Education is a Parent’s Responsibility
  2. Food isn’t a Crutch for Emotional Eating 
  3. Snacking – Don’t Do It (Except for One Set Time Each Day)

There are more tips in the book but we’re just going to highlight these 3 easy tricks that will quickly help you see changes as you change your way of thinking.

I have definitely been guilty at the table of swinging between days where I’m insistent about my child eating something they’ve happily eaten before, or just making whatever is easiest because I know that’s something they will in fact eat. But the author of the book, Le Billon, reminds parents that feeding a child is as much about teaching your child to enjoy the experience of the table — to offer the wide variety of foods that I believe my child should be eating, versus the foods I know will most easily go down, and to take rejection in stride.

The American thinking is that if a child won’t eat something, they don’t like it. The French thinking is that they haven’t yet learned to like it — so one should keep cheerfully serving it! 

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The second, “Rule #2: Avoid emotional eating. Food is not a pacifier, a distraction, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.”

This rule can even help reduce obesity, create healthier relationships with food and emphasizes the importance of food as something to be enjoyed mindfully, at a table. Le Billon writes, “Think of other ways to soothe or reward your children, and they will, in turn, learn how to regulate their own emotions without the use of food.”

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French children don’t snack. Seriously, snacking constantly is considered a highly American habit – one that the french find “bizarre and vaguely repellent […] particularly the constant sucking and slurping of drinks,” says Le Billon. 

While one in five American children eats up to six snacks a day, in France mealtimes are on a set schedule, as is the 4:30 goûter, or single, official snack partaken by all. “The French reportedly find the American habit of munching while walking around, or even sipping a coffee on the street, to be representative of an utter lack of self-control.” 

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Fun Food Education

Now to further elaborate on these habits…why do they work? Why are they important? 

Because truly I don’t believe most of us are born finding broccoli preferable to crispy salty french fries. So how are we supposed to expect a 2-year-old who is cognitively not as advanced and prone to impulsive behavior to make that choice, on their own, without some strong parental guidance? 

If our child bites, we don’t resign ourselves to the fact that they just “like to bite” and that is “just the way they are”. No, we generally try to redirect this behavior to one more socially acceptable and kinder. Or we work on correcting the behavior with the understanding that this is just a temporary phase. But shouldn’t we put just as strong of an emphasis on being healthy to our bodies? That disliking a certain food may just be part of a phase that they have to grow and learn to change? 

( Special Note: biting, especially at a young age is highly developmentally normal as children don’t have strong impulse control and biting is a form of communication, particularly when kids don’t have the words). 

So with that thought process in mind, consider that food isn’t a “one and done” experience. It may take a continuous, consistent introduction. Modeling good behavior. And using language to continue and teach our children about the healthy food choices we make and why they are so important! 

For young littles who have a hard time understanding what “healthy” and “strong” translate to. Here’s a fun little food education game you can teach! 

Choose a parent to play devil’s advocate. 

“No! Don’t eat anything healthy on your plate. Healthy food makes you strong and fast. I want to race after dinner and win! If you eat healthily you will win.”

Challenge them to an after-dinner race and if they ate healthy, oh no they’ve won because they ate so much healthy food, “please promise tomorrow you will NOT eat healthy foods” 

Or if introducing for the first time, you can challenge your child to run as fast as they can door to door. Then try a bite of healthy food and watch them swell with pride as they run a second time and you are absolutely amazed by their super fast speed! 

Not into running – maybe it’s an arm wrestling challenge or a dance-off. Whatever gets your child excited by the results of eating healthy meals!

This creates a fun connection to food and the power that healthy food has. It doesn’t create a negative connection with foods either, this isn’t about food shaming. It’s about making food smart and exciting! 

Speaking of food shaming – avoid pushing your picky eater to finish their plate or to eat all their food. Keep the experience positive and encourage trying one bite of everything. When you experience resistance, don’t barter and take away foods. Instead, offer to add to the meal: “Would you like to try it with or without some dipping sauce?”

NOTICE: We offer 2 acceptable options that yield the same result – trying the food. The child is given control but being given 2 options they DO have control over! In this case it’s “sauce or no sauce”

DON’T FORGET. This is all about TRYING new foods! NOT finishing them!

“Finish everything!” vs “is your tummy full?” = Battle vs Learn to Listen

At the end of the meal, there should be no threats because nothing about the relationship your child has with food, particularly at a young age, should be associated with negativity. Food and mealtimes can be a great experience if you are committed to that. 

Be sure to lead by example trying new foods and modeling your child’s plate after your own. By making one meal for the family and not asking your child what they want to eat, there is more accountability for the whole family to make healthy choices and your child no longer has control over what you feed them. Let’s face it – fries taste better than broccoli. How can we expect a 5 year old to have the cognitive capacity to know that “even if something tastes better, one is better for us so that’s what we should choose?” The answer is it is unfair to expect them to make that decision if we haven’t taught them the right food education!

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Emotional Eating

In talking about food being an emotional crutch, I too am guilty of this. I treat food as an indulgent treat and give it emotional ties from rewarding good behavior, “yes you finished dinner!” to “what a great sports game, you deserve a treat”. For me, this section is still a work in progress as I still do occasionally tie food to events and treat the “treats” as a special thing that needs to be earned. BUT I am in fact working on it because let’s face it – creating emotional – reward-based relationships with food can be absolutely toxic. 

When we put foods like treats on a pedestal, we are subconsciously giving this food celebrity power. Take back the power and make “treats” minimal but commonplace. And try to discover fun ways to reward your child that doesn’t create a potentially unhealthy relationship with food. For example, hey you won that game – “let’s have a board game night tomorrow to celebrate, your choice!” Or “let’s head to the park tomorrow to celebrate and play whatever you’d like while there.”

Neither ‘reward’ is tied to food, consumerism or giving extra love. It’s merely allowing your child to have the choice while you do something fun that can be the reward! 

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Snack Attack

Lastly, snacking. Oh boy, this is a tough one. But it’s so important! We do snack often in the U.S. 

Crying child? Try giving a snack.

Angry child? Try giving a snack.

Irritable/grumpy child? Try giving a snack. 

And while hunger does actually cause shifts in attitude (we discuss more on the causes of tantrums and “bad behavior” in this article) – more often than not I would speculate our kids aren’t hungry. They’re likely actually thirsty (often mistaken for hunger) or BORED. Think about the days where your family is “go-go-go” versus days when your kids stay home and eat oh…134,235,232 snacks in a single day!? Are they truly that hungry, or just eating to fill in the time? 

 

So while it’s hard to wean off of a snacking schedule, here are some tips to break the snack cycle.

1. Don’t buy them. Seriously, it’s easier to commit to a no snack home if you don’t actually have snacks to give. Instead, if you do think a snack is appropriate to offer fruit or vegetables. If they don’t want to eat it…well were they truly that hungry anyway? 

2. Consistent meal times. What a great idea but SO hard to plan out. I find setting timers and prepping ahead of time (either planning the meal or actually preparing ahead of time) is absolutely key in keeping our schedule consistent! Did you know when traveling internationally they say the best way to get over jet lag is to eat with the timezone you’re in? So even if it’s the middle of the night where you’re from, if it’s breakfast time when you land the recommendation is to eat breakfast! That’s because our body has an internal clock that is trained and gages time by the schedule of what we eat! 

3. In your schedule – have set snack time! 

4. When your child asks for a snack, offer water AND set them up with an engaging activity. More than likely the ask for food was really them feeling hungry or bored.

 

5. Take a second and acknowledge something – it’s okay for them to feel a little hunger. Not only is it okay, but it might also lead to some unexpected benefits. You can only imagine how much better foods like broccoli might taste when you’re hungry versus “well I could eat or not”. I often find that my fickle kids will be “starving and need a snack or I’ll die” before dinner, but when they hear the menu is something that’s not a favorite, suddenly they’re not hungry! 

It’s important to note our little people pick up on the cues and the things that yield them the results they want. That doesn’t mean they are intentionally conning us. But they’re smartly saying/doing the things to get their desired end result. 

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The above is just some of the steps you can take to start making mealtime healthier and more impactful for your child, mostly by changing how you the parent think about and approach food! 

Less snacking means more eating nutrient-dense meals like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

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More Food Tips to Introduce Picky Foods

But what about introducing new foods? How does one go about getting a ‘picky eater’ to eat something new? 

To help me out in this section I’m going to reference one of my favorite informative Instagram accounts. 

@Kids. Eat. In. Color. 

This account is something I think every parent might want to follow because the tips are maybe a little less “extreme” than the French way of parenting and incorporate easy daily ideas on how to create better healthy eaters. Although I will say, her thoughts on food are very much in line with the French so the two seem to complement each other! 

On her account, are simple tips to help introduce new foods to the picky eater, from plating the food in an interesting and visually stimulating way! From gamifying, to cutesy cut-outs, to handling portion size and when kids won’t eat. These posts are extremely insightful!

Now I could list out all her great ideas but I think just handing over the visuals will be far easier to go through and gather some great insights!