Many people will advise you to feed your picky eater buffet style, in other words, to have several dishes on the table and let everyone take what they like. This is in contrast to the more old fashioned approach where the adult presents the child with their meal on a plate, including a bit of everything. This post is all about weighing up the pros and cons of buffet style meals to see which approach best serves (sorry!) the picky eaters in our lives.
When children are able to serve themselves, it reduces pressure on them to eat food that they dislike or feel threatened by. This is a good thing. Pressure has never helped anyone learn to like new foods. It also gives them a sense of control and autonomy, something that is at the heart of many cases of fussy eating. If a child can take what they like, there's no scope for using food as power-play.
On the other hand, a child who is able to serve themselves may decide to only take a couple of things and fill up on those. So bang goes the motivation to eat something new and different because they are not feeling hungry anymore.
The EAF way
When I teach parents how to use EAF to tackle picky eating, I explain that one of the core concepts is about using (and trusting) a child's natural appetite to induce them to eat. They need to come to meals hungry and eat because it's what their physiological signals dictate. I also explain the roles of 'exposure' and 'variety' in supporting a child with a limited diet.
Exposure is all about making sure that your child is regularly faced with unfamiliar and disliked foods to gently challenge the sense of threat that most picky children experience when confronted with something that they don't like or haven't seen before.
Variety is concerned with making certain that you offer a wide and varied diet - again, serving the same old tried and tested menu will actually make picky eating worse and will reinforce the notion that anything new or different is to be avoided.
From a health perspective, most picky eaters have certain food groups that they consistently shy away from (yup, you've guessed it, usually it's the veggies...) so you can easily get into a routine where they just don't take the green stuff. If it's not on their plate, they're never going to eat it.
My advice to parents is to serve everyone everything, but in a way that takes pressure off and reduces the potential for power-play so that you get all the advantages of buffet-style meals plus the exposure and variety that are so critical to solving picky eating.
If your child is used to getting a bit of everything on their plate with absolutely no pressure to eat what they don't want to eat, this will gently nudge them towards eating better. If they can leave what they like, they are in control. The pressure is off.
A question that I hear a lot is about second helpings and this is really relevant here. By following my simple 'second helping time' rule, you can make sure that your child isn't filling up on a certain food stuff whilst avoiding others.
When your child is eating a wide range of foods and mealtimes are positive and relaxed, serve-yourself meals are great. But until then, serve everyone everything - teach them to leave what they don't want in a polite way and over time exposure to a a wide variety of foods will pay off and you will be amazed at what your child will eat.
The wonderful thing about parenting is that just when you think you know your child, they will turn around and surprise you.