Virtual learning is having an impact on more than just childhood education. It is also changing how families deal with mealtimes. Many parents are working from home while their children attend school online. This change from the regular schedule can be challenging for families, and the extra stress can be a trigger for picky eaters.
In addition to the added stress, parents may start taking more notice of their child’s eating preferences. Instead of packing meals to go or waiting in line for a hot lunch, kids are eating at home, where parents can get a better idea of what their kids are really eating during the day.
Patty Sabey, MD, is a pediatrician at Altos Pediatric Associates, a Stanford Children’s Health practice. Dr. Sabey is also a mother of four, so she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition for kids and how hard it can be when your child has a selective palate.
“The earlier children have a variety of tastes introduced through different types of food, the more it can help them long-term,” Dr. Sabey said. “Having properly balanced nutrition early on can actually train the child’s taste buds to embrace all the different foods.”
Remote schooling has shaken up the traditional routine for a lot of kids. Without the need to walk, bus, or drive to school, some kids are sleeping in and skipping breakfast, according to Dr. Sabey. On the flip side, some children take advantage of easy access to foods and snack throughout the day.
To help combat this, Dr. Sabey recommends keeping the family on a schedule. “Sometimes, making a list or a simple overview of the schedule for the day with mealtimes, family time, and break time can help the child set some expectations” and keep his or her eating habits on track, Dr. Sabey said.
Eating as a family is another way to get children interested in different foods. They may miss the social aspect of lunch with friends, so eating together can make mealtimes more enjoyable. If they see you eating a healthy meal, they may be more likely to want to try it, too.
“When children eat with their peers, they match their behavior to what they observe,” Dr. Sabey explained. “If you are eating with them and making a lot of positive expressions about the food, they might still reject the food at first, but if they watch you eat and enjoy the food, they’re more likely to try it.”
Another benefit of eating together is that it’s a great time to connect as a family. To encourage conversation, turn off the TV and leave the phones and electronics in another room. “Mealtimes are good opportunities to talk about their worries, their stress, their anxiety, or even just what’s going on,” she said.
Getting kids involved with picking out foods at the grocery store and simple food prep tasks like pouring liquids or washing vegetables can get kids excited about trying new foods. “Preparing the food in different ways and asking your child to help look up recipes might help them figure out how they want the food presented,” she said.
Adding variety and choices is a good way to engage children at mealtimes. “Present them with some simple choices within what you would like them to eat,” Dr. Sabey said. “If you want them to eat some fruit, instead of presenting just apples, you can present apples and peaches and blueberries.”
If your child is really picky, ease the new food transition by including it in a meal you know they really like. “Add something familiar like a favorite sauce or a dip, or pair the meal with their favorite beverage,” Dr. Sabey said. “Take the pressure off by saying, ‘It’s OK if you don’t want to swallow all of it.’”
Dr. Sabey recommends finding ways to make food fun. Her family likes to play a game they call food analysis. She cooks a new ingredient and serves it in a variety of ways, and then the kids get to rate it. “You can have a piece of paper with stickers for young children or star ratings for older children and have them rate the food,” she described.
While some picky eating or varying appetite is normal, if a child is losing weight or seems tired all the time, a visit to the pediatrician is in order. If a child is acting out in addition to being a picky eater, this may be a sign of additional behavioral issues and warrants further medical evaluation.