Slideshow Pictures: Children's Health -- Quick Tips for Feeding a Picky Eater
Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on Tuesday, December 20, 2011
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Problem: One-Food Wonder
Feeding a picky eater can be one of the most frustrating challenges of parenthood. Your child will happily eat white bread, plain noodles, or chicken nuggets, but broccoli and strawberries get tossed to the floor. How long will it last? And what do you do with a child who's decided that white foods, and white foods alone, will cross her lips?
Solution: Don't Fight It
Don't turn mealtime into a battle of wills -- food jags don't last. Continue to offer a variety of healthy foods, and in the meantime, look for pale-colored fruits and veggies that might appeal to your child. Corn, hearts of palm, pineapple, bananas, and cauliflower are good options. If you're concerned about nutrients, talk to your pediatrician about adding a multivitamin.
Problem: Won't Eat His Veggies
Is your child insisting that he hates asparagus -- even though he's never tried it? It's common for toddlers and preschoolers to refuse to eat vegetables. Many vegetables have a strong smell and taste, especially when cooked. Introducing a new food to your child may take time and patience. He may want to see it and smell it before he'll taste it, and even then he may spit it right back out.
Solution: Give Him Choices
Many children warm up to veggies when they've helped pick them out, whether at the store or for mealtime. If green veggies turn him off, try orange or red ones instead. Another way to make veggies more appealing is to offer them raw with a dip like ranch dressing or hummus. Although hiding vegetable purées in foods like baked goods or pasta sauce is a good way to boost nutrition, it won't help your child develop healthy eating habits.
Problem: Drinks Her Calories
Is your child a milk-a-holic or a juice junkie, drinking up so many calories throughout the day that she's not hungry at mealtimes? The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2-2½ cups of milk daily. Although it's fine for your child to drink milk and juice, it can be a problem if it's excessive and causing her to skip meals.
Solution: Limit Liquid Calories
For children aged 1 to 6, keep juice to 4 to 6 ounces a day. That's half to three-quarters of a cup. A good way to cut back is to water down juice -- just a little at first, then gradually adding more and more water, until your child is eventually drinking plain water. Serving milk or juice at mealtimes and water the rest of the day is another good tactic. Remember that kids over 2 should be drinking 1% or skim milk.
Problem: Addicted to Sugar
You're not sure how it happened, but suddenly your child's sweet tooth is raging out of control. She insists on sugary cereal for breakfast. You open her lunchbox to find she's eaten the cookie and nothing else. At dinner, she's begging for dessert after eating one bite of chicken and half a green bean. Or worse, she's already negotiating for dessert before taking a bite of dinner.
Solution: Everything in Moderation
Some of these tips may help tame your child's sweet tooth:
- Offer snacks that are naturally sweet (low-fat yogurt, fruit, frozen bananas or grapes, apple slices with peanut butter).
- Don't keep many sweets in the house. If they're not around, she won't be tempted by them (and neither will you).
- Don't use sweets as a bribe or reward. Make them a small part of a balanced diet, rather than the big prize after your child has cleaned her plate.
Does your child snack so much throughout the day that he's not hungry at mealtimes? Lots of young children do it. In fact, kids need to eat up to six times a day, including three meals and two or three snacks. So how do you keep him full and happy all day while making sure he saves room for a healthy dinner?
Solution: Set a Schedule
A good way to get your child on track is to set a time frame each day for meals and snacks. Your child may still skip a meal occasionally, but if there's a schedule in place, he'll have the reassurance of knowing when to expect the next meal. If your child wants a snack at another time, offer healthy options like fruit, vegetables, yogurt, peanut butter, cereal, or half a sandwich.
Why Is He So Picky?
Most young children are picky eaters. Choosing when and what they'll eat is how children learn to be independent. And most go on to develop healthy eating habits as they get older. In rare cases, when a child has a developmental disorder, his food issues may be a sign that he's having trouble eating. Talk with your health care provider about whether sensory issues, chewing problems, or a GI disorder may be an issue.
Does He Eat Enough to Thrive?
If your child seems to live on nothing but three chicken nuggets a day, it’s hard not to worry. The truth is, if he has plenty of energy and is growing at a healthy rate, there's probably nothing to worry about. Still, it's a good idea to talk to your pediatrician. And if your child isn't growing at the normal rate for his age, it's important to get to the root of the problem.
Do: Make Mealtime Fun
Little tricks can sometimes encourage better eating, like adding a dash of fun to the meal. Try giving foods silly names or cutting them into fun shapes using cookie cutters. Turn mealtime into a game to see who can "eat all their colors." Or try an at-home picnic for a change of scenery. Keep the mealtime mood happy and upbeat by talking about fun topics.
Don't: Bribe With Dessert
"If you eat all your broccoli, you can have some ice cream." Does this sound familiar? Although it may work in the short term, bribing can backfire in the long run, teaching your child to value treats more than healthy foods. Forcing your child to clean her plate before she gets dessert can also lead to overeating, as she may start to ignore her internal cues that she's full in order to gobble up sweets at the end of the meal.
Do: Keep Offering
Just because he's turned up his nose at zucchini the last five times you've served it, don't give up. Most children will try a new food after it has been offered 10 to 15 times. When introducing new foods, keep portions small, and try offering something new alongside a food you know he loves.
Don't: Be a Short-Order Cook
Resist the temptation to prepare special meals just for your picky eater. Offer the same foods to the whole family, but try to make at least one item that you know he likes. If someone in your family is an adventurous eater, apply a little positive peer pressure by seating them next to the picky eater.
Do: Let Kids Help in the Kitchen
Kids who help prepare a meal are much more likely to eat it. Let your child lend a hand with shelling beans, rolling out dough, washing lettuce, or other age-appropriate meal prep, and she may be more likely to try the foods once they are on her plate.
Fight the impulse to bargain with your child over food. The "just two more bites" strategy can often lead to a battle of wills, which is the last thing you want at the dinner table. Put the food in front of your child, and leave it up to her whether she eats it or not. Let her follow her own hunger cues.
Do: Set a Good Example
Children get their eating quirks from us. If your child sees you regularly eating unhealthy foods or wrinkling up your nose at foods you don't like, he's likely to mimic that behavior. On the other hand, sitting down together as a family to share a nutritious meal gives your child a chance to see healthy eating habits in action.
Don't: Fall into a Junk Food Trap
If your child is a picky eater, it's tempting to give in when she asks for an unhealthy snack. Better that she eats a bag of potato chips than nothing at all, right? Think again. Eating junk food can lock in a child's preference for unhealthy foods. And food preferences, once established, are hard to change. Kids naturally love sweet and salty foods -- just like the rest of us -- and it's up to parents to offer healthy choices.
Do: Pay Attention to Her Cues
If your child is pushing food around on her plate, she may be full. Forcing her to keep eating can set her up for overeating and weight problems down the road. Offer child-sized portions of a variety of healthy foods, and let her decide when she's had enough.
Will She Ever Outgrow It?
Most children get over being picky eaters by the time they reach school age. In the meantime, try to take it in stride. Praise your child for what she's doing right at mealtimes, and don't make a big deal about any picky behavior. The more emphasis you put on the behavior, the more likely she is to keep doing it. If your child continues to be picky as she gets older, it may be time to see a nutritionist for help.
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