When it comes to what kids want to eat, their preferences are as different as the kids themselves, which can make for mealtime struggles.
Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. However, the experience unfolding at many family dinner tables may not reflect that particular joy. In fact, meal times are often stressful for parents and children, whether you’re avoiding allergens that endanger children, or getting kids to eat more than mac and cheese and chicken nuggets for every single meal. But with planning, effort, and a side helping of patience, mealtimes can be enjoyable, tasty, and healthy for all.
Meet the Picky Eater
Amanda Burton has two sons, Jack, age 5, and Alec, who is 2. Brothers raised together in the same house by the same parents, and yet Amanda says, “They’re like night and day when it comes to eating.”
Jack, Amanda’s picky eater, started his selective ways as soon as he began eating solids. Jack would spit out rice cereal and anything green that his mom sent with him for lunch at daycare, while his brother is happy to snack on any vegetable that comes his way. And for both boys, these tendencies continued as they aged.
Lauren Niemes, registered dietician and Director of the Nutritional Council for Greater Cincinnati, tells us that like reading, eating is a teachable skill. But like reading, some kids are more naturally inclined towards it. One thing parents and caretakers can do to keep sane while broadening their charge’s food horizons is to define clear goals.
The reality is that your child may never like tapenade and sushi, and instead of training future foodies, the goal could be to have your child eat a wider variety of foods that provide a solid nutritional foundation and that allows the family to enjoy eating together.
Ages 2 and 3 are ideal times to focus on widening your child’s diet. And while it is definitely easier during this age to instill future eating habits, Niemes’ advice is helpful to children of all ages: know that while you cannot force your child to chew and swallow food, you can control what is offered.
Niemes recommends offering a new food served aside an old favorite. Understand that it could take 15 exposures or more to a new food before kids will try it. Niemes says that while your child may choose to not eat some of the healthy foods you provide, that should not be an excuse to go back to serving only chicken nuggets and fries.
Meet the Vegetarian/Vegan
Becky Buford, mother to Cooper and Harley in grades 9 and 7, raised her children vegetarian from the very beginning. Luckily, navigating a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is much easier with increased public awareness and more products catering to such a diet.
Be that as it may, it is still important to pay attention to protein and, for vegan diets in particular, calcium intake, as these are vital to a child’s developmental needs.
“All sorts of diets can support healthy growth in children,” Niemes says. “When going vegetarian, and more specifically vegan, the more restrictive [the diets] are the more challenging it is to meet [the children’s] nutritional needs, especially in younger children. Beans are a critical part of a meatless eating style. They’re a good source of protein and calories as well as trace minerals that are typically provided by animal products.”
She explains that calcium is often, but not always, added as a supplement to items like soy and almond milk. When navigating dietary restrictions, label reading is very important. Make sure to look for products fortified with calcium. While leafy greens are also calcium rich, it would take an exhaustive amount of kale chips to provide the necessary quantities.
Meet the Gluten Intolerant
Megan Rader, local mom and registered dietician, did not expect her professional training to come in so handy in her personal life. But all of that changed after her nearly 2-year-old was diagnosed with Celiac disease.
Celiac disease is a genetic disorder where gluten — found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats — damages the lining of the small intestine and keeps the body from absorbing nutrients. Megan’s little girl expressed many of the classic digestive problems associated with the disorder, like diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss. It affected her disposition as well. Rader reports, “Her preschool teacher said if 2-year-olds can be depressed, then she’s depressed. She doesn’t even want to play.”
Through Rader’s professional training, she knew that the only treatment for Celiac disease is elimination of gluten from the diet. What she didn’t know was what to make for dinner that night.
“I have instructed thousands of patients on restricted diets, even Celiac disease and gluten-free, but I don’t think I had a true appreciation for how deeply it affects people’s lives until I had to live it everyday. Now, after I end a session with a patient I ask them, ‘Now, what are you eating for your next meal.’ I always make sure they have a plan.”
As a dietician who has learned plenty about Celiac disease through personal experience, Rader is well equipped to offer practical advice to her patients with this disease, for example:
- Use a separate toaster and separate colander to avoid cross-contamination.
- If you make two kinds of noodles for dinner, don’t use the same spoon to stir the different pots.
- Use separate condiments for gluten-free members of the household or get squeezable condiment bottles so cross contamination doesn’t occur.
- Use a marker to label gluten-free foods.
If you suspect your child may be gluten intolerant or have Celiac disease, it is important to get them tested by your pediatrician, but keep in mind, to get accurate results it is necessary to continue feeding them gluten during the testing process even if you think it is making your child sick.
Meet the Allergic
Laura Plummer of Delhi made her son a peanut butter sandwich when 9-month-old Gabrielle started to cry. Laura picked up her daughter and with just the slightest bit of leftover peanut butter still on her hands, Gabrielle developed a rash where her mother touched her bare skin. Laura’s suspicions were confirmed when the pediatrician tested Gabrielle for a peanut allergy and it came back positive.
Gabrielle not only must avoid peanuts and peanut products but she can’t eat foods processed on the same equipment as peanuts and must have an epi-pen (epinephrin, a lifesaving injectable treatment for life-threatening allergies) with her at all times.
The seriousness of Gabrielle’s allergy was tested when she was 2-and-a-half and got into some peanut butter cookies at a party the family was attending. “Her lips began to swell and turn blue. We spent the night at the emergency room.”
One of the scariest parts about a severe food allergy is the speed and severity with which the reaction can strike. This is something Plummer knows very well. “We have a practice epi-pen that she has practiced with in case she has to give herself [the injection].”
Now 8 years old, Gabrielle is increasingly responsible for monitoring her own diet. She knows to ask if a food has peanuts in it or even if it has been processed alongside peanuts. She reads ingredient lists and even carries a purse with her epi-pen in it should she need to give herself an injection.
Much of the advice concerning gluten restrictions also applies to allergies. Cross-contamination of foods needs to be diligently avoided. Becoming an “allergen-free home” is also a possibility. However, the stakes are so high with a severe allergy that it is imperative for parents, child, and pediatrician to come up with a plan that can best protect the child both at home and away. If you suspect your child has a food allergy, contact your doctor immediately and do not give your child the offending food until she has been cleared by the pediatrician.
A Note on Special Needs
Niemes points out that the recommendations for children with special needs are unique, just like the child in question, and often need to be tailored in a personalized way. Some autistic children may strongly oppose putting a new food in their mouths. Your doctor or dietician may recommend you start with a smear of food on a spoon to make the new flavor less intimidating.
Perhaps your child has a sensory processing disorder and is put off by certain textures. In fact, many children have issues with texture when trying new foods, which is why it is recommended to experiment with different preparations for all kinds of eaters. Maybe a puree will be preferable to steamed or perhaps baked over sautéed. Trying different preparations may eventually prove successful, resulting in happier meal times.