Picky eaters are a common phenomenon in American households. The degree of picky eating varies from child to child and what one parent considers severe another might not. However, it is certainly something that can be worked on and changed with a little time and patience.
It is important to understand that picky eating is different from an appetite that fluctuates. Children regulate their food intake and appetite based on their needs for growth and development. Their hunger can change from day to day or even hour to hour. If a child isn’t up for dinner one night, don’t be too alarmed. Simply put it away and let them ask for it later.
Make sure you regulate their snacks so that overeating at snack time is not the culprit behind poor intake at meals. Also, serving only water in between meals can help ensure that beverages like milk and juice aren’t filling them up throughout the day.
Sometimes, children will be reluctant to try new foods or food groups, or they might declare limits on the foods they like to eat. For toddlers, going through food phases is normal. Foods with a bitter taste are naturally less appealing to them. But this should improve as they get older.
Here are some tips to help your child overcome picky eating:
• Parents should be a good role model. If you aren’t willing to try new foods or eat fruits and veggies, how can you expect children to? They mimic what they see.
• Offer children choices. Let them choose between broccoli and carrots, or between apples and grapes. Or suggest they have both; you might be surprised by their answer.
• Limit after-dinner options. If a child refuses the healthful foods prepared at meal time, don’t let him or her fill up on desserts or snacks later. For late-night snacking, offer leftovers from dinner or the choice to go to bed hungry. The occasional night of skipping dinner will not hurt the child, and will be a valuable lesson.
• Get them involved with their food. Let children help with dinner preparation, choosing foods at the grocery store, or growing a garden. The more involved they are in the meal, the more receptive they’ll be to trying it.
• Cook foods in different ways. A child might not like canned spinach, but might like spinach raw in a salad. Or, he or she could prefer steamed carrots over fresh carrots. Offer a variety of foods prepared in many different ways before writing off a particular item.
• Lastly, offer foods more than once. It might take many tries before a food is accepted. Introduce foods in small amounts alongside a favorite food to make the new one less overwhelming.
With a little persistence, your child can improve his or her eating habits and learn to like all types of foods. Remember, even small changes can be considered a big accomplishment. This will help meal time become a stress free time to enjoy your family.
Brandy Baxter is a registered dietitian at Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown. Her column, which focuses on children’s nutrition, runs the first Sunday of every month.