Pleasing Picky Eaters

Does your daughter turn her nose up when you put vegetables on her plate? Do you have a child with an unusually strong preference for beige foods? Or one who flat-out refuses to eat anything but macaroni and cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner? If so, welcome to the club of parents with picky eaters. Most every child goes through a picky phase. So what can you do to make sure your super-selective children are getting the nutrition they need?

The good news: Young children who shun certain foods are often just following natural hunger patterns. The key, according to Charles Shubin, Md., director of pediatrics at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore, is to provide a range of foods and encourage-but never force-your children to eat them. “Parents are responsible for providing a choice of healthy foods and deciding when they are served, and children are responsible for what they eat and how much they eat,” adds Debby Demory-Luce, Ph.D., R.D., an instructor at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Okay, but what if your toddler hasn’t touched a piece of fruit in a week or hasn’t had a square meal all month? Here are some strategies.

Try, try again

“We give up entirely too quickly,” says Tanya Horacek, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor of nutrition at Syracuse University. According to the experts, it takes 10 to 12 tastes for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to decide if they like something. Try introducing the same food in a variety of ways and employ the one-bite rule: They only have to take one taste at each sitting. Whether or not they seem to enjoy it, serve the same food to them again a week later. Over time, they’ll acquire a taste for it. Instead of introducing many new foods at once, serve the new food with old favorites.

Shop and cook together

The more involved children are in the buying and preparing of food, the more interested they’ll be in eating different things. “Take your kids shopping and let them help in the decision-making process,” Horacek advises. “Let Johnny pick out a new fruit or cereal.”

Bust food ruts

“There are situations where parents say, ‘He’ll only eat French fries.’ Well, who is giving him French fries?” Dr. Shubin asks. Make sure you’re not aiding and abetting picky behavior. Whether you’re dealing with a toddler or a teen, food is often a control issue. The more you push that broccoli, the more your kids will reject it. Let it go and they might just decide they like it after all. Most of all, be patient. “You can’t force it,” Horacek says, “If he eats mostly beige food, but he’s tried something new, his tastes will develop over time. You can’t rush that.” 

Set a good example

“Parents need to be role models,” adds Demory-Luce. “If they’re picky eaters themselves, they need to not make faces and to learn to serve a variety of foods. I don’t eat cheese, but I learned I couldn’t do that to my children. I look at them and smile and act like it doesn’t bother me.”

Make the most of mealtimes

“Kids who have meals with their families have better nutrition,” Demory-Luce says. “They get more calcium, iron and vitamins A and C than children who don’t eat with their families very often.” The reasons for this are fairly obvious: If parents offer family meals eaten at the table, rather than foods to be eaten on the fly, children are going to be exposed to a wider variety of healthy foods and to a setting that’s more conducive to trying new things.

Don’t deny dessert

What parent hasn’t said, “If you don’t finish your dinner, you’re not getting any dessert”? At one time or another we’ve all done it-but it’s a bad move, according to Horacek. “All foods should be valued the same,” she explains. “You don’t want to make a big deal about one food over another.” For instance, if dessert becomes a reward, you’re showing your kids that you think dessert is “better” than that salad they’re not eating.

Avoid being sneaky

Hiding veggies in casseroles is another trick that often backfires. “Sneaking doesn’t work because kids tend to like their foods separated,” Horacek says. Instead of hiding vegetables, cut them into fun shapes. Try homemade pizzas or a baked potato night, in which you put out a whole variety of different toppings. And don’t forget the dips-kids love them. “To get kids to try new foods such as vegetables,” Demory-Luce suggests, “provide a sauce to dip the foods into, such as ketchup, ranch dressing or yogurt.