Are you stressed out by your little picky eaters? Or just frustrated at your kids refusing seemingly everything you feed them? There’s hope!

Trust me, my kids don’t always like what I fix either. Often, I’ll set a plate down in front of oldest, and she’ll whine, “I don’t like this!” Of course, this sentiment then gets parroted by my middle child. “I don’t like dis!”

We all know that the most healthful food in the world isn’t going to help your kid if he or she won’t eat it.  So what do we do when our child is really used to a narrow diet and is unwilling to try new foods?

If you take the anti-food attitude personally, it can get really frustrating! But I have tips to help your kids learn to eat better (or at least to save your sanity if they don’t).

By the way, I’m just talking about general pickiness, like refusing to eat vegetables. I don’t have the experience or expertise to help with true food sensitivities or sensory sensitivity. If that’s the problem, you’ll need to go to a pediatrician or specialist who knows how to handle these issues.

1.  Don’t get locked into battles over food

Our kids’ diet is something we can get very stressed out about very quickly. And once we get all bent out of shape and food becomes “a thing,” you’re just setting you and your kid up up to be mad at each other and to ruin one of the most important opportunities for connection you have.

Remember, connection at dinner time is more important than making sure your kid eats his spinach. Plus, the positive associations with family dinner time and the spinach (even if it’s ignored for now) may eventually lead to your child enjoying it as an adult!

When you feel yourself getting upset over your child’s diet, ask yourself, “Is it really that important that my child eat this food right now?” I think you know the answer. So take a few deep breaths, and start again.

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Besides, think back to yourself when you were a kid. Did you refuse a lot of foods then that you like, or even love, now? I know I did! As long as your child is exposed to a wide variety of foods, she can learn to enjoy them as she grows.

Whatever you do, don’t bribe (or threaten) your child to eat X number of bites of food. Children have much smaller tummies than we do, and it’s important for them to learn how to regulate their own eating.

If it bothers you that your child eats one or two bites of food and that’s it, one solution is to simply require that she stay at the table while everyone else finishes eating. This tactic allows you to continue to connect through conversation, plus she may try a little more food just because it’s in front of her. And simple exposure to food, multiple times over the course of months and years, leads to acceptance of it.

2. Acknowledge any progress with your child’s eating habits

How many times has a kid claimed they didn’t like a food, finally tried said food, and then realized they liked it after all?  This happens with my oldest all the time.  She’ll complain, take a bite with a grimace, and then look surprised before saying, “Hey… I do like this!”

The knee-jerk reaction, at least for me, is to be like, “I told you that you’d like it!” Vindication!

But don’t say that.  I just say, “Really? I’m so glad!” enthusiastically, like I’m as surprised and delighted as she is.  Once again, it’s about keeping the relationship and connection open.

If you make it a point that you were right and they were wrong, then it sets up this environment where they almost “have” to dislike a food in the future so that they don’t give you the satisfaction of winning.

Other times, my child don’t like the spinach or casserole or whatever.  In that case, I simply say, “Thank you for trying it,” and move on.

There’s several evenings where I dish up food for everyone, all the kids eat is a few bites of whatever it is, and that’s it. I don’t make it a fight, and they continue to survive.

That’s the real trick. Don’t allow yourself to get emotionally attached to the outcome of dinner. If you don’t get upset about whether or not they eat, they aren’t locked into fighting you, and they’re ultimately more likely to expand their food choices.

3. Don’t label your child as “picky”

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but talking about it only reinforces the situation.  So don’t tell yourself or talk to others about him being picky, because that just convinces you that he is.

Certainly don’t tell him that he’s picky or make any generalizations about eating habits, because if he believes that about himself, he’s more likely to act on it.  Just throw the word picky out of your vocabulary.

Comparison among siblings isn’t productive either.  Whether or not your son’s sister tried a food (or has done anything, really) has no bearing whatsoever on his actions.  You’re more likely to make your children resentful of each other than to change behavior when you use comparison as a tool.

4. Create an expectation of trying new foods

If possible, start this habit of a varied diet early. All three of my kids started solids using baby led weaning (which I loved!). While yes, I get frustrated sometimes by them not eating some foods, I know they actually have a more varied diet than a lot of kids their age, and I think much of that has to do with BLW.

RELATED: What is baby-led weaning?

Like I said, though, I still have a lot of times where my kids don’t want to try a food. But whenever I set a food down in front on a child and she immediately turns up her nose, I just say, “We always try new foods.”

I use this phrase with cheerfulness but also finality, so they know that’s just the expectation in our house (I also started with when my oldest was about two years old, so it probably makes it easier to swallow than if I threw it at them starting at seven).

If these words accompany a repeat food with me hoping my kid has forgotten her first exposure, I might get a “But this isn’t a new food!” In that case, cover blown, I just respond that we still always try foods anyways.

If  my daughter continues to grumble, I just say, “I know when you’re ready you’ll try the spinach,” or whatever it is. And this works!

The phrase “I know when you’re ready you’ll…” is basically magic, because it takes the pressure off of everyone. You don’t have to be the enforcer, and she doesn’t feel like she has to oppose you out of principle.

The trick to letting this phrase work is patience on your part. It’ll usually be a minute or two before they’ll comply, kind of a way for them to convince themselves, I’m doing this because I’m choosing it, not because mom’s making me. Let them have that win.  It doesn’t hurt you, and it lets them save face while also doing what you want.

5. Mix new and old foods

We all like to see familiar foods that we like. We feel comfortable with them. At the same time, we can serve up one or two new (or less favored) foods with old standards.

A great way to prep for meals is to let your kids be involved. When possible, they can go to the grocery store with you (I know, going to the store with multiple small people is a huge chore. See if you have time to take just one child occasionally).

RELATED: Saving money on healthy food at the grocery store

You can point out different types of food and let them help you pick. That way, they have a little more control over their meal and are more likely to try it.

With that said, don’t pull punches with foods either. I know, many kids (including mine) shy away from onions, for example, and it would be easy enough to leave them out of a lot of recipes.

Occasionally I will leave out offending foods, but generally, I want them to get used to the fact of life that cooking with onions adds nutrition and flavor, and they’re just going to have to deal. I tell them to pick out onions if they’re bothered by them, and I know one day they’ll accept them. So it’s better for us all in the long run just to include those foods.

6.  Let kids help with meal prep

I know, this is hard for me too.  Making dinner while the baby is screaming and everyone is hungry is hard enough without your little cherub underfoot helping. But they are more likely to at least try something they’ve had a part in making themselves.

RELATED: Stress-free meal prep with kids

RELATED: How your child can help with dinner prep (tasks by age)

Plus, handling and chopping vegetables are ways of exposing your child to them without the pressure of eating them, at least at that very moment.  And research has show that any type of exposure to a food, even if it doesn’t include eating, means a kid is more likely to accept it at a later date.

And even tiny ones, as young as a year and a half, can “help” a little. When my oldest was about a year and a half, I remember giving her dried beans to “sort” at her high chair while I cooked. She was happy to play with them, and I was able to get meal prep done. Granted, it was easier to do that because she was my only child at the time, but even my youngest of three “helped” make dinner by stirring up a casserole last week.

Of course this can’t happen every meal. Heck, you’d be lucky to have time and patience for your younger kids to do this with you every week. It takes a lot more physical effort and mental exhaustion to manage small children while to make sure they don’t set the house on fire or cut off their fingers. But if you ever have a calm afternoon when you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything that evening, then you can make this happen.

Eventually, your kids get bigger and are legitimate help in the kitchen, if you lay the foundation when they’re young. Even now, my six-year-old can be actual help to me (but mostly when it’s just the two of us at home. She has a harder time focusing if her sister is there). In a few years, I imagine my kids will be able to cook pretty independently!

Conclusions on your picky eater

Well, not your “picky eater,” because we’re not going to label! Instead, remember you have an awesome kid, who like lots of other kids, is averse to trying new foods.

With time and patience, you can teach your kids to accept new foods. The most important part along the way is to connect with your child. The broader diet will follow.