Nothing seems to stir up stress for a parent like talking about picky eaters, food aversions, family mealtime, and other food issues. Raising a child who struggles with food, whether underweight, overweight or an extremely picky eater, can make you feel as if you constantly worry about their short- and long-term health. Food is a significant part of our everyday life and of forming a cultural identity.

Helping Your Child Overcome Picky Eating and Other Food Issues

It’s common to feel overwhelmed by your child’s food issues. Understandably, you are probably concerned that your child might develop a negative body image. You may also fear their current unhealthy relationship with food and eating will carry into adulthood. However, knowing you have options and tools to address your concerns is essential. You can implement several of these tips to support your child in healing their relationship with food and eating.

1. Consider Serving “Family- Style.”

In her recent interview on the podcast, Dr. Rowell suggested serving family-style meals. Family-style dining is when the serving bowls and platters are in the center of the table, with serving utensils. Each family member dishes themselves up from the large bowls or platters. Think “Grandma’s table at Thanksgiving,” where you are all passing plates around to each other.

Family-style meals can feel like a ripe opportunity for chaos when you have several ages around the table. It is also impractical for your family if your kids have a wide variety of abilities or diverse food struggles. Here are a few ideas for modifying family-style dinners for your family.

  • Portion the main dish and allow everyone to serve themselves any sides you offer.
  • Serve your littlest ones or your child who might struggle with motor skills and coordination. However, be sure to ask for their input on portion size, which foods they want, and even where they may want it on the plate.
  • Offer to serve your child who struggles with making choices themselves. Talk them through their options and help them plan their plate.
  • Honor your child’s autonomy by offering choices and sharing control. When you have one child who wants all the power and another who doesn’t want to make any choices, try to strike some balance and compassion.

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2. Serve Dessert with Dinner.

Sometimes, our kids get hyper-focused on dessert or other sweets when they struggle with food issues. We contribute to this frequently when we bribe or reward them with food. To reduce the chances of a power struggle over sweets or desserts, try serving at least a portion of dessert with the meal. It might feel like your kids will choose that and only that for a while. However, the long-term impact is that you neutralize sweets or desserts as “special” and take them off their traditional pedestals!

This suggestion shows how parents can increase flexibility around a child’s feeding issues and food choices. It might make your eyebrow twitch for a few meals. But by modeling that all food is fuel and there’s no inherent power in a cupcake, you are setting them up for healthier relationships with food.

3. Make Your Table a Safe Space.

Mealtimes should be points of connectedness for our families. We want dinners to be pleasant, nurturing, and emotionally safe – a place where our family wants to gather at the end of a long day. However, this can be challenging to maintain when a child with food issues feels triggered or stressed. So, try to keep your mealtimes and snack times free of conflict or excessive correction. Focus instead on increased felt safety and trust-building. Start conversations about their proudest moment of the day or something new they learned. Save more complex talks about school struggles or disappointments for one-on-one time, like bedtime.

4. Many Foods, Many Times, Many Ways.

Intrigue your child’s palate by offering many different foods in various preparations. Get creative by doing things like themed nights to expose them to new cultural dishes or “one veggie three ways.” However, make sure to offer some of their familiar favorites on the side too. Try to frequently prepare several variations of their favorite foods across your family’s meals. Then focus on how the new preparation is like what they typically prefer.

Be honest when you like or don’t like a new version of a dish. They will learn from your example that everyone has preferences and it’s okay to try new things. Remember that repeated exposure can break down their resistance to new things and increase their curiosity.

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5. Get Your Kids Involved!

Find ways to involve your child with food issues in feeding the family. This could be a meal-planning session where the child invites the family to share their meal ideas this month. It might be fun for your child to participate in online or in–store shopping. Get their input on the quantities they think your family needs or for calculating the price per unit. Menu planning can also be an opportunity to hear what versions of veggies or pasta they prefer. You can also compromise or negotiate to help your child learn to expand their choices.

Finally, invite your child to the preparation process of family meals. Teach them safe knife skills, how to flip an egg, or how to prepare rice. The more involved they are in feeding the family, the more likely they will feel buy-in for what ends up on the table.

6. Boost The Food.

When you are helping your child overcome food issues like picky eating, overeating, or food aversions, you can boost the nutritional impact of their preferred foods. To be clear, we don’t recommend sneaking extra veggies into their favorite spaghetti sauce! This can break trust when your secret is discovered.

Instead, consider swap outs like the whole grain version of their favorite cheese crackers or full-fat yogurt in place of low-fat versions. Many juices offer added vitamins or calcium. If your children like gummy bears, occasionally offer gummy vitamins with them. If they are older, you can ask for their input on any changes in flavor or texture they notice or for other options they’d like you to try.

Be Flexible & Responsive to Your Family’s Food Issues

Experiment with these ideas and determine what works best for your family. Pay attention to your child’s progress and tweak your efforts as your family grows and heals together. However, overcoming food issues isn’t always a direct line of healing. Be prepared to flex with the two-steps-forward and one-step-back nature of your child’s food issues.

Are you raising a child with significant food issues? What have you tried? Which of these tips looks like it might work for your family?

Image Credits: cottonbro studio; fauxels; August de Richelieu