Every parent has surely dealt with the challenge of a picky eater at some point or another. I have a friend with a seven-year-old son and four-yearold twins who, desperate to get some protein into her boys, resorted to telling them eating beans would make them toot. After that, they gobbled them up. While I laughed out loud at this, I also felt her frustration. If the picky eaters in your house are leaving you feeling torn between wanting to rip your hair out, and worried they’re going hungry, rest assured, there’s hope yet.
Scott Iwashyna, MD, a pediatrician and father, reassures parents that it’s completely normal for young children to resist some foods put in front of them. “And I’ve never known a child to allow himself to starve,” he adds.
Even if you don’t see your child withering away, how do you know he’s getting what he needs? Pediatric dietician, and mother of two, Patty LaFratta recommends eatright.org. Another good source is gerber.com. Quick references for busy parents, both sites offer nutritional needs and guidelines broken down by age group.
While knowing what your kids need is the first step, figuring out how to get it into them is the more challenging part. Dr. Iwashyna and LaFratta agree one of the best things parents can do to influence children’s healthy eating habits is to model healthy eating. That means letting your kids see you eat balanced meals consisting of a variety of different healthy foods, trying new things, making healthy snack choices, and having a positive attitude about healthy eating. Telling your kids to eat a banana while you plop in front of the TV with a bag of chips doesn’t qualify as good modeling. Instead, have fresh fruit and veggies such as apples, bananas, oranges, carrot sticks, and snap peas on hand. Your child can grab these items himself and it’s easy and healthy.
Use family dinner as a time to model healthy eating habits too, and as LaFratta suggests, “Start family dinner when your children are young so it becomes a habit.” Modeling a positive attitude isn’t just what you do, but also what you say, at the table especially. For a great resource, check out Phrases that HELP and HINDER, a script of sorts, at mypyramid.gov.
Presentation is another consideration when dealing with choosy eaters. You’ve got to make it fun. But how? LaFratta suggests using cookie cutters to make fun shapes, serving foods that are your child’s favorite color, and allowing your child to dip food in different sauces such as fruit with yogurt, or carrot sticks with peanut butter or salad dressing. And remember, the correct serving size for children is not the same as an adult serving size. By the time kids are two or three years old, the rate of their growth slows down and they don’t need to consume tons of calories. Dr. Iwashyna says, “While it may be tempting to chase your kids with junk just to get them to eat, fight the urge. When they get hungry, they’ll eat.”
Kids still complaining? Tired of being a short order cook but wondering how to avoid it while still getting your kids to eat? First, steer clear of snacks before mealtime so your child is hungry when dinner is served and more likely to eat. Pair new food with something healthy your child does like, so you know he’s getting nourishment as well as nutrients. Be flexible with younger children who don’t have very developed palates yet. LaFratta suggests serving young children the same components that comprise the family meal, just maybe not in the same form. For example, if you make tacos for dinner, your toddler may eat separate portions of the meat, cheese, and tomatoes better than if they’re served together in a taco shell. That way, they’re still getting the same essential nutrients; the packaging is just different.
While that all sounds great, what do you do when bedtime rolls around and your child says he hungry? LaFratta and Dr. Iwashyna offer advice I can follow. LaFratta tells her kids, You may choose something from the fridge – from my list of options – but I’m not cooking another meal. Dr. Iwashyna points out that a lot of food struggles are behavioral and states, “Although it takes an immense amount of patience and consistency not to give in, your kids will be better off for it.”
Giving kids choices is another way to combat picky eating. For example, let your child choose the pasta shape or vegetable. LaFratta suggests asking your child, Would you like broccoli, carrots, or both? Remember that it’s normal for your child not to take to new food immediately. The American Academy of Pediatrics says you may have to introduce a food a dozen times before your child accepts it. While this is frustrating, don’t give up! Another way to encourage kids to be better eaters is to get them involved. Include them in the entire process from start to finish. At the grocery store, kids can select and bag fruit and veggies. At home, kids can measure, pour, mix, and serve. When kids are involved in the process, see what’s going into their meal, and help make it, they’re more likely to eat it. Your kitchen may be a little messier, but you’re teaching your child important lessons about healthy eating and spending quality time together. Have fun with it.
Following these suggestions should help your child develop a healthy relationship with food that will hopefully carry from childhood into adulthood. However, LaFratta notes that it’s important for parents to know that there’s a difference between picky eaters and kids who have real sensory feeding issues. If your child is gagging and vomiting while eating, it’s difficult to go away on vacation or to a restaurant because your child won’t eat anything there, and his habits are interrupting your family’s routine you should consult your child’s pediatrician.