Parents regularly report that their kids are picky eaters. However, the definition of what picky eating is varies from family to family. Some parents claim that their child is picky when they don’t eat very much and some say that they are picky if they don’t eat a large variety. The biggest complaint that I hear from parents is that their child won’t eat vegetables. Yet when asking about all of the other foods they eat they are actually getting a great variety! That means all hope is not lost!. Let’s break it down by age.
The best way to introduce babies to a variety of foods is to breastfeed. Breastfed babies taste a variety of flavors through the breastmilk vs always getting one flavor in formula. Once babies are ready for food it is important to introduce them to a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. Don’t give up if your baby doesn’t seem to like a food, keep trying. If you think your baby is refusing food because of an allergy (it induces vomiting or causes a rash) then you want to stop that food and go talk to your doctor. Babies will sometimes eat less or refuse food during an illness but will bounce back when they feel better!
This is the age when children really lose interest in eating. As their rate of growth slows down they start to eat less. They may go a whole day without eating and then make up for it the next day. Furthermore, they may eat well in the morning but by the end of the day they just aren’t interested. Also, their tastes are constantly changing so a food they love today they may refuse tomorrow. It’s important to repeatedly introduce them to a variety of foods without forcing it. Simply put something in front of them and see what they do. Eventually they may try a new food that they really like.
Once kids are preschoolers and school aged they start to form patterns and get set in their ways. This can be frustrating for parents . On the one hand you want your child to get good nutrition, but on the other hand you don’t want him/her to starve. It’s important not to compromise on nutrition just to get your child to eat something so you want to find a middle ground of acceptable foods that your child will eat. The good news is that most kids whose parents report having picky eaters are actually getting a good amount nutrition during the course of a week. Try not to focus or stress about every meal but look at the bigger picture.
What to do:
First and foremost make sure your child is gaining weight well and is healthy. A visit to your doctor can be reassuring and you may not have to make any change at all!
- Allow your child to shop with you and cook with you. Getting them involved will encourage them to try the foods they prepare.
- Have cut up fruits and vegetables readily available.
- Have meals together as a family and model healthy eating.
- For younger kids, use a sticker chart for trying new foods but don’t use junk as the reward!
- If your child needs to gain weight, talk to your doctor about healthy ways to add calories (avocado, olive oil)
What not to do:
- Don’t turn mealtime into a battle. Put food in front of them and enjoy your meal. If you argue then your child may use food as a control issue and may develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Don’t reward healthy meals or other accomplishments with junk food. This makes the junk food more desirable and doesn’t teach your child to enjoy healthy foods on their own.
- Don’t compare your children to each other or other kids.
- Don’t allow your child to eat junk food just because that is all they will eat. This is a slippery slope and teaches the child that if they are stubborn enough, they will get what they want.
What if they refuse to eat a meal:
Often times children will hate a meal or refuse to try a meal that mom or dad has made. Sometimes these families get stuck in a pattern in which the child routinely only eats a less than healthy food because that is all they will eat. There are several options when this happens:
- Let your child have a healthy alternative if they help prepare it and also if they try the primary meal. Having a little bit of each food in front of them will encourage them to eat the foods they prefer along with the foods they don’t.
- Refuse to make an alternate meal and, if given the green light from your doctor, let your child skip the meal. Most would argue “if they are hungry they will eat”. However, there is a small percentage of kids who will actually starve themselves so be sure to have careful follow-up with the doctor if your child is not growing well. In general, most kids will eat when hungry. If dinner is skipped and your child starts complaining at bedtime that they are hungry, give a small healthy snack and let them know that they need to make a better choice the next night. Don’t forget to have them brush their teeth! For repeat offenders, offer a small dinner 30 minutes prior to bedtime so that the hunger can’t be used to stall bedtime.
- Prepare an alternate meal in advance if you know your child will adamantly refuse what is made, while still encouraging him/her to try new foods. Again just put it in front of them and move on.
Keep in mind that this can be a very emotional issue for parents. Once you let your emotions in, kids can use that to their advantage. This is how they end up staying on 1 or 2 less than optimal foods every day. Try to keep the emotion out of the game (calm begets calm) and keep the variety flowing. When it comes to junk food, if you don’t have it in the house, they can’t eat it!