Finicky eaters are a huge frustration to parents in the early years. Your approach to eating and food choices will set the tone for years to come.
Mom Nicole Koenig knows all too well the pitfalls of picky eaters. Mealtime meltdowns are a regular occurrence with her son, Albert, now 5, and have been for years. Not only is he finicky about what he eats, but Koenig struggles with getting him to eat at all sometimes, even food he likes.
“Getting Albert to eat and especially to try new things has always been difficult,” Koenig says. “When he was younger and transitioning to solids, I learned quickly how picky he was. I couldn’t combine textures, there were only a small amount of things he would eat, and to this day, he has a meltdown anytime I introduce something new on his plate, which includes him gagging, screaming and crying.
It’s always been a concern for Koenig, especially during early occurrences when Albert was a toddler.
Likewise, mom Diana Post worries about her 2-year-old daughter, Cindy’s, lack of appetite and extreme disdain for trying new foods.
“I’m in the chicken nuggets rut,” Post laments. “It’s nearly impossible to convince Cindy to try new foods, and I’m tired of fixing chicken nuggets for her every day because it’s the only thing she’ll eat aside from pudding and brownies.
Pediatricians remind parents that a child’s level of appetite shifts with age and growth cycles.
“What parents often interpret as picky eating is actually the fact that they don’t anticipate that growth slows down at 1-year-old, meaning the child will not have the same level of appetite,” says Gregory Plemmons, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “It’s natural for parents to have a lot of anxiety about it, but they should remember that kids will eat when they are hungry. I never recommend forcing a child to eat if he doesn’t want to.
Felisa Gilbert, M.D., a pediatrician practicing with Tennessee Medicine and Pediatrics in Smyrna, adds that “growth is more linear between 15 and 36 months, and the body is good at extrapolating what it needs.
A child’s sense of taste changes drastically during those months, and it’s important to keep offering him new options on the dinner plate, even if he doesn’t seem to like it. Gilbert says to at least insist on the child taking one bite of something new, and if he doesn’t like it, don’t force it. “Make sure to always offer things on the plate that you know your child will eat, and be prepared to introduce something new several times before a child may decide he likes it,” Gilbert says.
The Pitfalls of Power Struggles
Many parents resort to bribery to get their picky eater eating. Enter the power struggle.
“We used to offer something else to Albert if he wouldn’t eat what we initially put on his plate, and once we stopped doing that, we’ve had constant negotiation issues,” says Koenig. “My biggest frustration is his unwillingness to try new things, and my biggest regret is that I allowed the bargaining to ever happen.
Other parents, like Maggie Jackson, enjoy life without the finicky eating struggle. She takes a direct approach with 3-and-a-half-year-old Lex and 19-month-old Oliver. “Fortunately, both of my boys are good eaters, especially my youngest. I’ve always taken the take-it-or-leave-it approach with them,” says Jackson. “They get one chance for a meal, and if they don’t want it, too bad. If they don’t eat, it goes into the trash,” she adds.
“That’s the right approach to take,” says Plemmons.
Another mom, Krista Barre, found success with her three boys – Nicholas, 12, Matthew, 9, and Andrew, 4 – by using creative names for the dinner item. “My husband says it’s all in the marketing,” Barre says. “The boys might show little interest if I’m fixing spaghetti for dinner, but when Nick says, ‘We’re having Daddy-O’s Secret Spaghetti Surprise,’ and then he splashes the pasta with Italian dressing before adding the meat sauce, they gobble it down. They also enjoy Star Wars Stew [stir fry],” she adds.
Barre says she thwarted the power struggle by letting her boys make some of the decisions about meals. “Telling them they can pick out the salad dressing or the steak sauce gives them a sense of choice and alleviates issues at our table.”
Success Equals Starting Early
“Bad habits start early, so good eating habits need to start early on,” says Plemmons. “Encourage fruits and vegetables early on, and tell children where food actually comes from. It doesn’t come from the store,” he adds.
Gilbert says parents should give their children the same thing they eat, and to make sure it is chopped or mashed up for them to swallow. “A child is going to want what’s on Mom’s plate, and it’s important for parents to show children their own healthy eating habits,” Gilbert says.
Both pediatricians suggest letting kids be an active part of mealtime, whether it’s helping set the table or letting them assist you in the kitchen.
Also, keep in mind portion control and avoid a “clean your plate” message. “Remember that the size of the stomach is the size of a person’s fist, so don’t overload the plate,” Gilbert says, adding that parents should offer just enough to satisfy the food pyramid guidelines.
As with all other parenting scenarios, consistency is important. “Parents should always be consistent in what they say,” says Gilbert. “Don’t tell your child he can’t have dessert unless he eats his meal first and then cave in if he doesn’t uphold his end of the deal.
Chad Young is managing editor for this publication.
10 Tips for Picky Eaters
- Respect your child’s appetite, or lack of one – Young children tend to eat only when they’re hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to clean his plate. This may only ignite – or reinforce – a power struggle over food.
- Stick to the routine – Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. Nix juice, milk and snacks for at least one hour before meals. If your child comes to the table hungry, he may be more motivated to eat.
- Be patient with new foods – Young children often touch or smell new foods, and may even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Your child may need repeated exposure to a new food before he takes the first bite. Encourage your child by talking about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture – not whether it tastes good.
- Make it fun – Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner.
- Recruit your child’s help – At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
- Set a good example – If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more like to follow suit.
- Be sneaky – Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.
- Minimize distractions – Turn off the television during meals, and don’t allow books or toys at the table.
- Don’t offer dessert as a reward – Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase your child’s desire for sweets. You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights, and skip dessert the rest of the week – or redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.
- Don’t be a short order cook – Preparing a separate meal for your child after he rejects the original meal may encourage your child’s picky eating. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.
Help for Parents of Picky Eaters
Pick up one of these great reads to help you turn your pick eaters into enthusiastic ones.
My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything
By Nancy Tringali Piho
Bull Publishing Company; $16.95
As a 20-year veteran of the food marketing industry and as a mom of two little boys who love to eat, author Nancy Tringali Piho blends humor and real-life situations to help parents combat picky-eating syndrome and encourage their little ones to enjoy the exploration of new foods. Piho reminds parents that how they start feeding their babies at the beginning establishes the foundation for their dining habits as they grow. She also advises parents about expanding the toddler palate, shifting into the preschool years and handling problems when they rise. A great read with clever insight.
Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right: The Food Solution that Lets Kids Be Kids
By Joanna Dolgoff, M.D.
Pediatrician Joanna Dolgoff serves up a unique, healthy approach to childhood eating that uses traffic light colors to segregate foods into three categories: Green (Go!), Yellow (Slow!) and Red (Uh Oh!). Dolgoff’s plan establishes a solid cornerstone for a lifetime of sensible eating and is a great guide to help overweight children shed their extra pounds without having to count calories or suffer through traditional dieting. Several tasty recipes accompany Dolgoff’s tips and directions for portion control and overall smart eating.
The Toddler Bistro: Child Approved Recipes and Expert Nutrition Advice for the Toddler Years
By Christina Schmidt, M.S. Nutrition
Bull Publishing Company; $16.95
The Toddler Bistro is the perfect tool to help parents thwart the picky eating woes of their little ones. Author Schmidt presents logical ways to persuade kiddos to eat their veggies and try new foods while offering parents everything they need to ensure their children are getting necessary nutrition in all the food groups. She also offers a bevy of food safety info that every parent needs to know, along with a wide range of healthy recipes covering everything from snacks to entrees to desserts.
Whining & Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and the Families Who Love Them
By Emma Waverman and Eshun Mott
Random House; $28.88
More than 100 recipes abound in this title that is part cookbook, part parenting manual. The family friendly recipes are sure to be a hit with the pickiest little eaters, especially the pasta and vegetable ones. Lots of anecdotes and hints fill the pages, helping parents enjoy a more peaceful place in the kitchen and around the dinner table.