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Give up Mealtime Fights!

Often, when you place your child’s plate of food on the table, you can feel your stomach sink and your anxiety rise: ‘Will they eat this? Did I prepare it the way they like? Is this going to be another fight?’

Instead, you should be asking yourself: ‘Did I offer my child a portion size that won’t intimidate them? Is there a variety of foods on their plate for them to choose from? Will I be able to give up control and let them guide themselves through mealtime?’ Without realizing it, you can be the one making mealtime unnecessarily stressful for your child. Picky eating can become worse the more you demand, offer rewards, or impose restrictions at mealtime.

Here are five strategies that will ease mealtime stress and empower your child to make healthy choices:

1. Keep reintroducing rejected foods. Studies have shown that it can take anywhere from eight to 15 times of introducing a certain food for a child to even try it! If your child continues to reject a certain food on their plate, stay calm and nonchalantly add it to their plate at the next meal. You can also comment, “I didn’t like peas either when I was your age, but now I love them!” They will feel like you can relate to them and may be more inclined to try a new food next time. Do your best not to pressure them to try something or offer rewards if they comply. If you offer rewards for eating a specific food, your child will be less likely to eat that food again without incentive.

Model healthy habits. Your kids watch you! Show them that you care about your body and mind by choosing to fuel your body with nutritious foods - but allowing yourself and your kids to eat treats from time to time. Instead of labeling foods as ‘yummy’ or ‘yucky,’ try discussing what each food does for their body and brain. Make it silly and fun! They may be more willing to try things like sweet potatoes if they know it will make them have super-vision. As a child grows, they start to notice some of your mannerisms and habits in the things you do. So, just like hand gestures and specific phrases, make healthy choices one of those habitual things your child inherits from you.

3. Involve them in the process. Whether you go to the grocery store or harvest veggies from your garden, get your children involved. I know sometimes it can be frustrating and you can grow impatient but take a deep breath and let them help you! Talk about the ingredients you are selecting and what they can do for overall health. When it comes to preparing a meal, give them small tasks like washing vegetables, tearing lettuce, or plating food. Kids are more likely to explore food during meal preparation, especially if you tell them not to! The more your child has a hand in the process, the more likely they will be to enjoy their own efforts when the meal is served.

4. Make mealtime fun. Leave your anxiety in the kitchen as you walk to the dinner table. Make the conversation light and fun, and don’t put pressure on your picky eater to clean their plate. 

Fun strategies to try at your next meal:

  • Play ‘I Spy’ for the foods prepared in the meal. When they guess correctly, they get to choose who in the family eats that item.

  • Add a small treat to their plate and let them eat it first. This takes away the ‘reward and punishment’ mentality and will foster a healthy, balanced relationship with food.

  • Mystery food. Everyone at the table closes their eyes, one person chooses an item to try, they get to describe what they are eating (sweet, sour, mushy, chewy, etc.) and have family members guess what it is.

  • Give meals or food items silly names. 

There are many things you can do to make mealtime more relaxed and enjoyable for your picky eater. 

5. Give them a bit of control. All that their young developing mind wants is control! In this pre-operational stage of development (ages two to seven) they are trying so hard to assert their independence. When it comes to mealtime, try to give them a little more reign. You put the food on their plate and they get to decide when they are full. Make a meal and snack schedule and stick to it. You are responsible for deciding what is served and when. Never make special meals and let them know when the kitchen is closed. If you are consistent, eventually they will respect your schedule and learn to eat intuitively.

We all want our kids to be healthy and develop a positive relationship with food as they grow. Like most things in life, the path to less picky behavior can be long and unpredictable. Hopefully, these tips will make it shorter and more enjoyable for all!

Tanya is the creator and owner of Swage, located in Calgary; a company that provides unique strategies and tools for young eaters. For more information, visit or connect on Instagram @swagekids_ .

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