Picky eaters can be quite a challenge to moms and dads who want nothing more than to give their child the best possible start in life, including healthy eating habits. As the mom of five, I’ve dealt with:
- A child that would only eat white or beige or American cheese-orange colored foods.
- A child that will only eat single ingredient foods.
- Children that would happily chow down on seaweed but turn their noses up at a ham and cheese on wheat.
- Five children that gobbled up everything in sight as infants only to come to a screeching halt at around 2 years old.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that I hope will help.
1. It’s probably not your fault. While it’s awesome that many people who fed their children a variety of interesting, gourmet and ethnic foods wound up with adventurous eaters who turn their noses up at chicken nuggets, there are many people, like this writer, who did the same and still wound up with fussy eaters.
A period of picky eating is normal and many children will go through it. If you’ve always provided your child with a reasonably varied and nutritious diet, you have nothing to feel guilt about. And the next time somebody responds to your woes about your picky eater with “Little Smugly eats everything, even the chicken feet when we go for our weekly dim sum” just look them in the eye and say “How nice, so do a billion Chinese kids”.
2. Don’t give up. It will take gentle parental perseverance and some maturity to help ensure that your child’s normal pickiness doesn’t become completely ingrained. There is no reason for you to have to completely cater to your child’s pickiness, however at the same time be mindful that you’re not turning this into a battle of the wills. Nobody wins when parents and children lock horns.
3. Remember – if the worst thing about your child as an adult is that they have a picky palate and are not adventurous with food, count your blessings. Some people simply dislike strong flavors, particular textures and enjoy eating the same things over and over. There is nothing wrong with that. Just be sure to teach them to be gracious about it.
4. Just because your child is picky, doesn’t mean he won’t like “adult” or “unusual” foods. Like I said above, my kids that will munch on dried pieces of nori as a snack won’t touch mashed potatoes. My kid that begs for kimchi acts like you’re killing him if you put broccoli on his plate. My son that won’t eat sauce on his pasta loves pickled jalapeno slices. Don’t be afraid to offer your child new foods, you might be surprised what they do like.
5. Let them see you eating new things. They will learn if you enjoy it and eat it with gusto and they will also learn if you don’t care for it and model how to politely deal with foods you dislike.
6. Don’t be unduly alarmed if you toddler or preschooler goes through a jag when they eat only a few things. This is generally completely normal and will resolve itself. That said, in rare cases extreme pickiness with food can be a sign of a developmental disorder or a problem with the child’s digestive system or feeding problems related to sensory disorders or motor skills development, be sure to look at the whole picture when deciding if it’s a normal phase or something more serious.
It’s important to go straight to your pediatrician if you feel like your child is malnourished, has inordinate difficulties swallowing or chewing, gags or chokes on food frequently or has problems maintaining eye contact or responding to their name.
7. Offer healthy choices in small portions. Even if you child doesn’t eat the bounty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats you provide just yet, you’ll be modeling good eating habits. Plus, you, your spouse and other children need to eat healthfully, too, right?
8. Know that it’s okay to give in sometimes. I generally give my children what they want to eat (within reason!) for breakfasts and lunch and then dinner is Mom’s choice. If your child is happy eating pb&j, baby carrots, an apple and milk for lunch every day, why mess with it? This way, I know that they are getting a decent amount of calories and nutrients during the day, so if they decline to taste dinner, it won’t do any harm in the long run.
9. Find a happy balance with snacks. Of course, you don’t want them to spoil their meals by eating too many snacks, but it’s been my experience that over-hungry children rarely are cooperative eaters. The same goes for over-tired children.
10. Don’t let them drink all of their calories. Limit milk to a couple of child-sized servings a day and consider making juice a sometimes treat.
11. Again, keep portions small. It’s not so overwhelming for the child and it avoids waste. It can be helpful and reassuring to look up portion sizes for various foods, even if you feel like your toddler isn’t eating enough, finding out that serving sizes for most foods for this age group are 1/4 cup or so can be a relief.
12. Avoid temptation. Keep junk food out of the house so you won’t be tempted to give in just this once when your child begs for chips or cookies for a snack. Don’t go overboard and ban such foods altogether, but the idea is to have these be sometimes foods that aren’t stocked in the house all of the time.
13. Make eating fun. One thing that my children particularly enjoy is a muffin tin filled with small, healthy snacks for treats. For example, baby carrots in one cup, whole grain cereal in another, apple slices in the next and so on. Children love things that are novel and fun so use that to your advantage.
14. Related to the above, don’t be afraid to be silly. Some parents dig in their heels and demand that their child eat this or that because they are the boss and they said so. It will be less stressful for both you and your child if you focus on the goal of getting them to eat a reasonably healthy diet instead of obedience and enforcing your authority. If it takes being playful or singing songs or letting them play jokes on you such as eating your carrots, well why not?
15. Eat the healthiest versions of your child’s “safe” foods as possible. If they like pizza or chicken nuggets, try making your own at home to be able to control the ingredients and fat content.
16. Try different forms of the same foods. Cooked vs. raw vegetables, for example. Baked chicken vs. stewed chicken. Hard boiled eggs vs. scrambled. Texture plays more of a role in picky eating than taste, in my experience, and method of preparation can greatly affect the texture of most foods.
17. Enlist positive role models. Have a friend with a child who’s a great eater? Invite them over for a meal! Perhaps your child’s beloved uncle would be willing to come over and chow down on a salad in front of your kids. The key is not to make a huge deal out of it and compare your child but to let your child seeing people they admire eating various foods with pleasure.
18. Encourage you child to learn about nutrition. Sometimes it’s better if they read about a healthy diet from a book or at school rather than from mom and dad. Of course, you should be telling them these things, too, but I can’t tell you the number of times my kids have rushed home to tell me that “Radishes are good for you, mom” as if it were a completely novel fact that I couldn’t possibly know.
19. If you can, take your child shopping with you at a farmer’s market. If not, the regular grocery store works, too. Let them pick out something for the family to eat together and involve them in the preparation. Older children can also pick out recipes from a cookbook and help you find the ingredients and cook a meal.
20. Better yet, let them have their own little garden patch. Even if you don’t have room for a full vegetable plot, you could try growing tomatoes or herbs in a container. It’s fun and will help them see food in a whole different way.
The important thing to remember is that picky eating is not the end of the world, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a parent and there are ways that you can help your child learn to make better food choices, even if they turn out to be the kind of grownup who only likes plain baked chicken, unseasoned green beans and a naked baked potato for dinner. Show your child a happy, positive attitude towards food and eating and I guarantee you that will stick with him or her for life.