“I don’t like it.” This whiny refrain can be heard at dinner tables across the country, sending parents up the wall trying to figure out how to deal with their picky eater. And, just as soon as you think that the battle is won and that broccoli or carrots are your daughter’s new favorite food, they put it back on the enemy lines.
Instead of waging war, it’s important to remember that children have undeveloped taste buds. Some of this behavior is a normal part of learning to eat. The real trouble starts when parents get anxious over their child’s intake. Believe me, I know from having raised my son, that nothing pushes buttons like a child who does not eat.
A parent’s responsibility is to provide a variety of nutritious food at regular intervals. They also need to control the environment in a way that promotes healthy choices and adequate intake. A child’s job is to figure out what they will eat and how much at meals and designated snack times. If a child does not eat as much or what we want them to eat, anxiety over their poor eating kicks in and we start to make demands and bribes, basically giving them what they want.
Unfortunately, this plants the seed to develop a “picky eater.” In reality, most children will get what they need over a week’s time if healthy and varied foods are served to them at meals and for snacks. If they are getting enough calories, parents know because they are growing at a normal rate and not falling off the growth curve.
Of course, there are children who really do have a sensory processing disorder. This is an oral defensiveness to texture and taste that needs more intense therapy. If you think your child has this disorder, seek the professional help your child needs to be able to eat normally in the years to come.
For the rest of us who have healthy kids who are usually fussy (especially if they’ve figured out how to get exactly what they want), the following tips can help you put the development of healthy eating habits back on track. Plan healthy meals that include a protein, whole grain, vegetables, and fruit. After all, if you only serve healthy foods, your child can only eat healthy foods. If he chooses to eat just the strawberries and milk, at least you know that he ate something healthy. After that, you don’t have to worry about it. Everyone in the family gets the same meal; do not make different foods and meals for your picky eater.
1. Do not let your child eat in between meals other than designated snack time. Kids need two snacks per day: one mid-morning, and one in the mid-afternoon. When food is offered five times per day, even if they eat poorly at one meal or snack, it’s not too long before another meal or snack is coming. If your child is truly hungry, he or she will eat. Young kids generally eat less at one mealtime, so if your little one is a great breakfast eater but does not eat much at dinner, make sure that morning meal is more substantial. Limit after-dinner snacks to milk only. Obviously, you should not allow other snacks, especially in lieu of dinner.
2. Encourage your child to take at least one bite of each item. If you have a child who likes to show their distaste through theatrics such as gagging or spitting it out, just ignore it. However, do not over praise for eating, either. A short “good job” is enough. If you pay too much attention to a child’s compliance on that one bite, it makes them feel like you are winning, and they are giving in to you.
3. Do not label a child “picky.” Even though you know it’s a negative related to food, they might feel it makes them special and different. They just might be resistant to giving up that special identity within a family. If you need to discuss with your spouse, do so when the child is not present. No special attention should be given because of being picky and think about being more “neutral” about eating in general.
4. Give your children the choice of two different options, not more. Too many choices overwhelm kids. Make sure you are continuing to offer a variety of food, not just the ones you know they will eat. It often takes weeks of seeing and trying that one bite to get kids comfortable with eating something new. Request that they choose a new food to try once per week, then praise them for sampling it. This piques their curiosity about new things, creating a willingness to be open to these tastes.
5. Get your child involved in food preparation, shopping or gardening. It’s amazing how much more interested children are in food if they can touch and “play” with it first. It’s a good idea to give your older children a choice of what the family is going to eat one night a week with reasonable requirements such as a protein, grain, fruit, and vegetable.
6. Be a role model yourself. If you do not eat your veggies, neither will your kids. It’s okay for everyone not to like one or two foods, but not entire food groups. Let your child know she should keep trying the one bite of foods she doesn’t like because her taste buds will change as she gets older.
By offering plenty of healthy food choices at set meals and snacks combined with a great deal of patience, meal time can become more pleasant and fun for everyone. Developing healthy eating habits takes work on parents’ part, but teaching our children healthy attitudes and habits gives them the tools for health for a lifetime.