Focus on the big picture for picky eaters – not the meal of the moment


Do you have a picky eater in the house? Though more common with the younger set, it isn’t always just children. Some adults avoid certain foods for a variety of reasons including texture, temperature and mouth feel. Like kids, adults can miss out on the nutrients those foods provide. Emily Mardell, a local registered dietitian and creator of Food First nutrition counselling, says her own young daughter is a picky eater and that has fuelled her commitment to offering help to those who struggle with the issue.

“It fits right in with this year’s theme for Nutrition Month too: taking the fight out of food. With my five-year-old, I don’t follow the ‘clean your plate’ rule. I’ve adopted the rule of ‘sit to visit’. Whether she eats or not, we have a pleasant visit at the table – no struggle, arguing, negotiating or punishment,” says Mardell. “I want parents to keep in mind that meal time is a lot more than whether or not the child is hungry. It’s a long term thing, not just about any one meal.”

Mardell explains that parents can take control of the what, where and when of eating, while the child decides if and how much they eat.

“Parent provides, kid decides,” she says.

By looking at whether the child gets enough nutrition over the course of a week, for example, Mardell says a parent can release some of the fear, pressure and agitation over every piece of food the child does or doesn’t put in their mouths. It also demonstrates respect that a child knows their own body – they’ll feed it when it’s hungry and stop when their body tells them to.

“Sometimes meal time is the only 20 minutes we sit down together with our kids the entire day. We want to keep that time pleasant, to talk about the day. So role model the behaviour you’d like to see in your child, and normalize the picky eating.”

It’s part of what fuels Mardell’s latest project ‘Get Joyful’, a tool, with a website and web series where the dietitian seeks to reconnect with local growers, producers and chefs in the Edmonton region for food and fellowship. For kids, that means hands-on preparation in hopes that they’ll want to try more of what they helped to make.

“Food is supposed to be fun. One of my favourite quotes says ‘when you take the joy out of eating, nutrition suffers’,” she says.

At, Mardell invites the inter-generational exploration of family recipes, connecting with community and posting recipes and family stories to a community cookbook page.

“St. Albert residents have that opportunity at the local farmers’ market, where people can talk to the farmers and growers of the foods they buy. You can even ask for recipes. That connection of people and the food, where it comes from, how to prepare it, contributes to health and nutrition for everyone in the family.”

Those facing nutritional issues can also look to the St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network (PCN). Registered dietitians, pharmacists, nurses and more are available for counselling and scheduled programs on health and wellness. Clinical manager Heather Neumann said the PCN’s focus in coming years will be on how to live well, eat well and prevent rather than simply to manage health concerns.

While the PCN offers counselling on health management for those over age 16 (but needing a doctor’s referral), there are regular classes available without referral on topics such as anxiety, managing mood, stress, sleep and more.

“We have materials on nutrition, with tips like filling half the plate with fruits/vegetables and making a colourful plate. We want to offer realistic goals and increase people’s confidence and motivation to go along with the knowledge,” says Neumann.

Registered dietitian Val Mah says the PCN’s program on The Mediterranean Diet can be a good choice for the family with picky eaters, as part of the focus is on the joy of sharing meals and eating together as a family activity. “It’s about lifestyle overall, not just promoting more fresh fish, fruit and vegetables,” she said.


The Registered Dietitians of Canada report that:
• Up to 35 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers are described by their parents as picky eaters
• Children take their nutrition cues from parents, so set a good example by preparing and eating nourishing choices
• Children’s appetites can be erratic and depend on activity level, fatigue and if they’re in a growth spurt.
• It can take eight to 15 tastes or more before a child will like a new food
• Offer three meals and two or three snacks at regular times each day, instead of allowing grazing throughout the day. Even a little milk, juice or a few crackers can spoil an appetite.


About Author

Lucy Haines

Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.