If you haven't had any luck convincing your child to try new foods, you may be doing it wrong. Here's what you should be saying to your picky eater to get them to eat.

Little red-headed girl at restaurant table smiling
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

If you have a picky eater on your hands, your best bet is usually to say nothing at all.

“Imagine eating at your favorite restaurant and having the waiter come over every time you took a bite to ask if you liked it and then tell you to have another bite or try something else,” says occupational therapist Jennifer Berry. Instead of doing that, just start a meal by briefly identifying everything on the table: “We’ve got chicken, salad, rolls, and strawberries.” Then let your kids serve themselves and move on to talking about more fun things.

Having a hard time breaking your bad food commentary habit? Try these lower-key responses to get your kid to eat.

Instead of: "But they’re just carrots... try one!”

Try: “They’re a little crunchy, like pretzels.”

In addition to offering a comparison to a favorite food, model how much you enjoy them. (“Ooh, these are fresh!”)

Instead of: “It’s chicken noodle soup, and you like noodles!”

Try: “If you aren’t ready to take a bite of the soup, you can just pull out the noodles.”

Continue to model the behavior you want to see by tasting a spoonful of the soup. ("Yumm!")

Instead of: “You can’t leave the table until you take a bite.”

Try: Never. Saying. That. Again.

Power struggles make kids dislike the food even more. Saying,“Would you like some?” is far less pressure.

Instead of: “Have three more bites.”

Try: “Would you like more, or no thank you?”

As long as we don’t interfere, most kids naturally eat to the point of fullness and then stop. Encouraging them to check in with their body is much more useful than counting an arbitrary number of bites (and the nutritional value of five bites of spinach versus two surely isn’t worth the fuss).

Instead of: “You’ve already had three cookies.”

Try: “We can have these again soon.”

This reassures kids prone to a “scarcity mindset” around comfort foods, who feel compelled to eat as much as possible in case they never have them again. For anxious kids, specify when you’ll next have the treat—and follow through.

Instead of: “Great job cleaning your plate!”

Try: “It looks like you thought that was tasty!”

Praise can be its own form of pressure (will you be disappointed in them if they aren’t in the mood for broccoli next time?), whereas a neutral observation empowers them to decide for themselves how much to eat.

Parents January 2019